We’d always celebrated my Mother’s birthday on January 3, until she informed us one day that she learned upon getting a copy of her birth certificate, that her birthday was really January 2! We all shook our heads in disbelief, but there it was in black and white, Jan 2. These days, since she is no longer living, I tend to think of either or both days as her birthday. This time of year triggers memories of Bess.
I easily remember her coming into my bedroom before she went to sleep , to kiss me goodnight. I always pretended to be sleeping, but waited patiently most nights for her sweet kiss. What a nice game. I never did ask her if she realized, I’d been awake, all those times.
I loved to watch her get dressed to go out with my Dad. Her bedroom, next to the bathroom, a little misty from the shower she’d just taken. The door to her closet which held the only full length mirror in the house, would be ajar as she checked her progress. Those were the years when a woman’s undergarments set the foundation for a well dressed woman. For a young girl watching the armor applied to tame the mature feminine body, it was nothing less than fascinating.
My mother never ever got dressed without pulling on her girdle first. When I questioned her about the procedure, she told me in no uncertain terms that she felt undressed with out it. I took her word for it and stopped inquiring.
Following her lead, when I became an adolescent, I decided I needed a girdle as well before going out on a date. As a dancer, at this time of my life, I was very slender. My Mom tried to tell me I didn’t need it, but I would have none of her reassurances. The purchase of a girdle was a right of passage and I was hell bent on wearing one.
I got a stomachache midway through the date evening, excused myself, went to the bathroom and quickly pulled off the now loathsome girdle placing it in the trashcan, before returning to my date. Liberated!
Mom’s summer cologne in those years was usually Mary Chess, white lilac. My love of the scent of lilacs equaled or surpassed hers and I too wore Mary Chess until it stopped being produced in the early ’60’s.
The choice of shoes completed her outfit and preparation. She had about a dozen options, neatly displayed on her closet floor. Years later, her oldest toddling granddaughter was attracted to that closet as if by a magnet. She’d chose her (Mom’s)shoes to wear by some mysterious process and proceed to wear them around the second floor of my Mom’s house for several hours. Mom never objected.
Today, I wonder how my Mom’s life might have been different if she’d been born a decade or two later. She was one of the few working women I knew. All of my friend’s moms were stay at home.
Mom put a lot of energy into making her home attractive and vibrant. She boldly painted her kitchen ceiling red. She did not hesitate to go all white in her living room, reupholstering and recarpeting as needed. The only caveat was it was not a room for children, only for company. If kids tried to skirt the rule she’d quickly ask them to leave. She cleverly converted New England antiques into working partners in achieving the look she sought.
She always needed and wanted a broader life, but my Dad insisted that if she was to work, it could only be for him, as a cashier in his grocery store. I know she had bigger dreams, but never went after them. She adored my father and stayed by his side, seldom complaining except when he spent most of Sunday golfing. All through my childhood, she repeated to me, “Get out of Holyoke!”
I made it back from Japan with a day to spare, in time for my granddaughter’s high school graduation.
We were all smiling happily and saying halleluyah once she had her diploma in hand. She’s wildly creative, perceptive, entrepreneurial and charming. She’s also more than a bit of a rebel, authority adverse, and has never seen the point of many things that most of us never bother to question. Bless her heart. I love her dearly, and I love her questioning. I know she has most essential ingredients to “make it” and lead a very interesting life.
I couldn’t help comparing the differences between our two generations. Who’d ever heard of a gap year in 1958?
A gap year, also known as a sabbatical year, is typically a year-long break between high school and college/university. During the gap year a student normally travels or maintains some type of regular work.)
When I mentioned a similar idea to my Mom, suggesting that it might be a good idea for me to take a year off from college to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, she acted as if I told her I wanted to run away with the circus. End of discussion.
The year: 1978, The season: Late summer. The sound track: Grease.
Since I’ve been a child I’ve been fascinated with the idea of living in a trailer. When the opportunity presented itself in 1978 to travel cross-country from the East Coast to the West Coast, I immediately warmed to the idea. Especially once I saw our vehicle,a bright orange Volkswagen camper with a small fridge, plaid curtains, small counter and table, all built-in. Adorable! Yes!
That 1973 Volkswagen camper van seemed to fit the bill for a cross-country jaunt with our young family. Our kids were going into Kindergarten, 3rd and 6th grade. All reasonable ages for such an adventure, we figured.
The camper had a sling that went across the front seats when parked. It seemed a perfect sleeping place for my youngest daughter. Only later did we realize it was a few inches too short for her. The van had a pop up top and slept two in the back when the back seat opened up to a snug, uncomfortable double bed. We added a small tent to the mix for either ourselves or two of our daughters. Many nights we watched in dismay from our tent as the van lurched back and forth as the sisters fought it out. There were always three kids waiting to be fed in the morning.
Neither of us had ever camped, but we soon got set up with the help of a salesman in a well equipped camping store. My husband had been a boy scout so I figured he must know what he needs to know. We packed a few boxes of clothes and household goods to take with us, stocked the mini fridge, went to AAA to get our maps and set off.
When I announced our travel plans to my parents it was as if I’d told my mother we were driving off alone in a covered wagon through Indian country. She looked shocked and unsettled. She made me promise I would call her every night from the road to let her know we’d survived another day of potential Indian assaults. My husband quickly nixed that arrangement. Remember this was before cell phones, emails, etc. and finding a public phone each night was not guaranteed. I promised to send postcards. I think she doubted that she’d ever see us again when we waved goodbye.
As you’ve probably suspected, our trip had its ups and downs. We immediately got soaked to the skin our first night out in a campground in Thousand Islands, NY. We found ourselves surrounded by a half-inch of water in our tent, our bed rolls and sleeping bags just barely above the water line. That grim start was followed by a glorious ferry ride across Lake Ontario where we hung everything out to dry, and somehow it did. We now felt like veterans.
One of our daughters became immediately enamoured with the idea of sleeping in a Holiday Inn holidome. After the first rain-soaked night, she quickly determined that camping was not that much fun and that if she pushed, she could do better. She only wanted a pool and private bathroom.
Holiday Inns were heavily promoted in the AAA travel book that we foolishly provided to her for reading material to pass the hours. Every day she lobbied for a motel in which to spend the night. We quickly determined that a motel every few nights was probably an excellent idea, so every few days we let her find our evenings’ destination. After a day on the road, life was a lot simpler in a motel rather than a campground for a family of five. At least for our family!
We bribed the kids with lots of donuts as I remember. Every morning wherever we could find them, we bought a dozen donuts to keep the troops quiet. We did our best to stay off interstates and a newly published book by Jane and Michael Stern, called RoadFood, became our bible. A recommended restaurant would seem like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow after a long day of driving. I studied restaurants and my daughter studied motels. Snacks came out about 4pm. Roadfood worked out about 40% of the time. Often, we’d drive for miles only to find the recommended restaurant closed. But we lived in hope of a great evening meal. That became the focus of each day. Forever foodies.
One night the weather was so bad that we all somehow slept together in the van, finally falling asleep from pure exhaustion. I’d never experienced such a long and violent storm system. Lightning and thunder and hail crashed around us the entire night, but we were safe and dry.
Earning our stripes
Another night, leaving a campground in the early morning, a deer came out of the woods and crossed our path. Danny remembers looking the terror-stricken creature in the eye right in front of the VW windshield. I was looking in the glove compartment, so I was spared that memory. The crash happened so quickly that we just kept driving, relieved that we didn’t crash the van, but guilt ridden because we didn’t stop to see if we could have helped the deer, although, God knows how we might have done that. Blood and fur now marked the front of Volksie. We’d been to battle.
When we reached the badlands, we finally felt we were Out West! The state campground we stayed in supposedly had herds of wild buffalo. No Indians, but bona fide buffalo. We didn’t see any on our drive into the campsite, but we kept our kids looking out for them.
But that night, my husband and I were in the small tent as the kids slept in the van. We’d been asleep for only a short while, when we heard a strange snorting sound. We froze in fear, suddenly feeling very vulnerable and in unfamiliar territory.
“What is that?” The sounds came closer. “I smell wet fur.” Closer still. We crouched in our tent, remaining very still. “It’s a herd of buffalo, coming through the campground,” my scientific husband said knowingly. “Shhhh.” “What are we supposed to do?” Flee? Wake the children? Make a run for it to the nearby bathroom? We couldn’t see out, but it was clear that the buffalo were coming through. Do they attack people? Are they like bulls? We knew nothing of buffalo behavior other than what we’d seen in the movies and that in no way prepared us for this moment. After what seemed like an eternity, they were gone. No more snorting or furry smells or what to do when. We survived. All was quiet on the Western front.
That was the most excitement we had heading west. My jaw dropped in wonder as we finally drove towards the Rockies. Volksie didn’t have any power to spare, so we crossed those mountains slowly. It was a lot to take in for Eastern folks.
We soon discovered that our cute van had an intractable problem that we could not fix: vapor lock. At high altitudes or in high heat it would start missing and eventually stall out. Mechanics all shook their heads letting us know that 1973 was a bad year for VW vans.
Saying goodbye to Volksie
Generally the breakdown would be in the middle of nowhere. This did not help my husband’s spirits. He kept getting more and more frustrated by the unpredictable break downs. He eventually could get it started again but only after several hours of waiting it out. It plagued us going West, but especially returning to the East. At one point, my husband admitted to considering pouring gasoline on the whole van and setting it on fire. He sold it within two days of our return. I didn’t dare try and stop him. I still think fondly of Volksie and our Western Adventure .
Father’s Day becomes bittersweet once your father has passed away. Sweet memories are combined with the ache of deep loss.
This morning I watched a CBS Sunday Morning segment with the ever-smiling Jane Pauly about a young father who’s committed to splitting half the parenting time of his two-year old daughter with his wife. That arrangement has been going on for a while and is nothing new, but it got me to thinking about what a remarkable departure it is from the world in which I was raised. I didn’t really become “close” to my Dad until I was an adult and I was able to let him know I wanted a more affectionate father.
Dad worked 6 days a week, minimum of 12 hours a day. After work, he came home, poured himself a drink or two, ate dinner with us, then vanished to the den to read the paper, watch tv and doze off. Occasionally, he’d call me into watch something with him, usually a Western or some dancers on Ed Sullivan. I never refused his invitation, because it was one of the few interactions we had each day.
The most serious conversation I ever had with him regarding my behavior occurred when I began dating a non-Jewish boy. “There’s too many other problems you can have when you’re married, without adding religion to the mix,” he told me seriously. Since I was nowhere close to considering marriage, I was nowhere close to worrying about religious differences. I guess I was not too responsive because he added, “Besides, it would kill your mother.” That was more melodrama than I’d thought he was capable of, but because it was so rare, I respected and filed his opinion. I made a note to do a better job at covering my tracks.
Sunday was his golf day whenever the New England climate allowed for it. He was long gone by the time I woke up on my own on Sunday mornings. My mother liked to call herself a golf widow, but since they worked together, it was one of their few times apart. Dad always told me I had a natural swing in the hope that I would share his passion for the game. It never happened.
He attended all my dance recitals, more out of a sense of duty than a love of dance, I believe. He never spoke to me about a career. Nor did we discuss where I should go to college. I think he just assumed I’d get married and it didn’t much matter.
When I brought my future husband home to meet my family, Dad dutifully played his patriarchal role by calling Danny into the den to inquire how he planned to support me. Danny answered truthfully. She’s going to support me, because he was headed for graduate school. My Dad said a quick ok and then poured them each a drink to seal the deal.
In my early 20’s, I remember screwing up all my courage to ask my father if he loved me! He had never told me. He acted surprised by my question but gave me a resounding yes. He let me know that he never learned that from his father. After that exchange, he needed no more prompting. He frequently told me how much he loved me and vice versa, of course.
Many years passed before we would spend much time together once more. He was a wonderful grandfather, sending the kids into peels of laughter at his antics and always carting them off for ice cream. Staring contests became a dinnertime ritual when we were all together. He never failed to win.
When my mother grew seriously ill, he and I became a team, consulting on her care. He took care of her at home, and only acquiesced to putting her in a “home” when it became impossible for him to take care of her. Their’s was a deep love.
I would try to visit my parents as much as I could when my mom was declining, although I still had children at home and I lived across the country. Saying goodbye to each other became particularly harder as the years went on. I distinctly remember having to wake him up very early one morning when I had to depart for the airport. He sat up in bed and began to sing to me, You Light Up my LIfe!
Lyrics: And you light up my life / You give me hope to carry on / You light up my days and fill my nights with song…Never has anyone expressed their love for me more beautifully.
On the occasion of his 90th birthday, we held a big celebration luncheon for him at a nearby golf club. At first, he didn’t want the fuss of planning a party, but he soon warmed to it. I made up the guest list, which just began with a few people. Each day I would be asked to add another and another guest. Without exception, everyone we invited came to the party. It was an amazing assortment of former customers, golf buddies, friends and family. In the end, we had 100 guests, which was quite a testament to his popularity at age 90. Former customers told me stories of how my Dad extended credit to them when times were tough. With his help, they fed their families. It was then I understood what it meant to lead a meaningful life.
Over the years, I learned some very important lessons just by being near him. He never did teach me how to throw a ball. But there were much more important lessons. Dad taught me the power of humor, integrity, love, generosity and the not to be dismissed value of a good gin and tonic.