Memories of our Mothers

Think Donna Reed without such a tiny waste and perfect makeup. Think June Cleaver without quite so much patience and deference to the man of the house. Think of the very rare college degree and even rarer career. Think of Sunday dinners of roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy. Think of neighborhood coffee klatches. Think of PTO members and brownie troop leaders.

Our mothers were often the thread that held the fabric of post-World War II communities together. Most were full time "housewives". Their domestic duties took longer (fewer appliances) and expectations for what they could do outside the home were lower.

My mother worked as a school secretary, a job she favored because it gave her approximately the same hours as those my sister and I spent in school. Also, as she told me much later, because our great aunt, BaBa -- who had helped raise my mother -- lived with us, my mother felt two women around the house was one too many. Also, having BaBa there holding down the fort gave her some freedom.

Many of our mothers played a secondary role in disciplining children. These were the days of "Wait until your father gets home." Fathers, the “breadwinners,” often were not that connected to what went on during the day with the women and children, but this gave them a position of respect inside the home. Besides, dads had the deeper, sterner voices. In our house, I doubt if my father was really suited to that role. He was not, by nature, a spanker or a yeller. I think he actually walked around slightly dazed and bewildered by his household of four women and a menagerie of female pets.

My mother, who lived to be 94, had only distant memories of her own mother -- Helen -- because Helen died when my mother was just nine years old. Here's what she remembered: Her mother was a bookkeeper in the days when few women worked. She was one of the first to get "the bob" haircut and drive her own car. She was lively and fun and unconventional. In fact, she caught pneumonia one winter day, coming home from a party, when her car broke down and she had to wait a long time for help. So my mother, who grew up not having a mother, threw herself wholeheartedly into being a mother. And after that, into being a grandmother. ("On the rocks" in this photo, with my youngest, when he was much younger.)

I sometimes wonder what other dreams or aspirations our mothers might have had as they stood over their ironing boards, waited for the party line to be free so they could call a friend, or followed the recipe for chicken and rice casserole. Did they understand they were an important generational link between their mothers, who were even more sheltered than they were, and their daughters who would go to college – yes, partly to meet their future husband, but also to learn something useful. Our mothers raised daughters who moved "downtown" and lived on shoestring salaries and shared apartments with other young "working women."  

I remember my mother seeming pretty happy with her life, either because she was or because it would have seemed selfish to suggest she wasn't. Yet she was the biggest proponent of everything I wanted to do in life, the biggest cheerleader if I did it, the biggest consoler if I didn't.

Unlike women of today who get the message to go out and make a life, start a business, spread their wings, change the world, etc. my mother was the personification of a different message: “Bloom where planted.” That message can still be useful sometimes.