The Forties and Fifties
At what point in time do I begin? – During the wartime years of the Forties? – During the idealistic haven of the Fifties? – During the ever-questioning, tumultuous era of the Sixties? – During the disillusioned, destructive decade of the Seventies? – Or the Day of Reckoning (Culture of Greed) period of the Eighties?
I know now that the past half-century has given our American Society reality check after reality check and a growing-up experience that has been a roller coaster ride. The rapid changes and experimental ideologies brought many who sought the truth of things to take leaps into the unknown. Pioneers of roads not travelled before were left with the outcomes unknown. The search for enlightenment for many has brought a full-circle realization that some truths are eternal. What appeared to be reality in the Fifties was opened up to scrutiny and sometimes brought down as farce, and in many cases the true reality was sometimes too harsh for those awakening to these realities to embrace.
So, I write my story as an effort to show one solitary woman’s attempt to sift through this period in the realities of these decades in America with as much integrity and self-respect as the given moment would allow. What I learned, what I have gained or lost, is LIFE. Though each one of us has come from different social, ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds, one day we all find ourselves looking back and arriving at a place where we come to peacefully accept this life – a life that is full of hopes and dreams as well as its shams and broken promises. What’s taking place in the public realm at a given period in time can effect and transform the private worlds of those living during that time.
The dark side of life was pretty well hidden from a young Irish Roman Catholic girl and her family in the forties and fifties. Being raised in a small family-oriented village meant learning about life from a small cast of characters. Our experiences were pretty well limited to the home, church and parochial school system. Our life was also fairly parochial when we had to deal with life’s complex issues. Questions we had were answered very simply through reassuring clichés which relieved us from the very necessary and difficult rites where we needed to find our own answers to things, and to learn how to discern where our actions would lead us.
Thinking out loud and questioning, was seen as a sign of weakness in the simple and happy world where family pride and pride of country say only the prideful things. The doctrines, dogma and right-ways promulgated by the Church, and the secure, comfortable faith of the Irish Catholic family environment gave way to escape from the frightening realities of life. They also held up a confidence that prayer and trust in God would be all that you needed to live a good and righteous life. As I look back it seems that a lot of these convictions were good in that they nurtured in us a trust in God, a trust in our journey and a belief that all things were possible with God.
(Written by: Lyman / Waggoner / Robinson)
1946 Version ~ Louis Prima and his orchestra
I was born the day after a major blizzard in February 1942. A number of the nurses at the hospital were enlisting in the War, so mothers and newborns were being released earlier than the usual two week stay. My parents had told me several stories surrounding my birth; One, which I loved to hear over and over, was that my father was so thrilled to have a daughter that when he heard the news, he skipped around the house singing the then popular song, “Mary Lou”. He would tell me that story each time my birthday rolled around, and then he would sing the entire song from start to finish, embarrassing me with his chivalrous attention. It made me feel special and cherished that I was such a happy event at the time when the country was filled with so much anxiety about the threat of invasion. During that week a French steamer, the Normandy, was destroyed by fire at a pier in New York City. It was a luxury ship that was being prepared for use by the troops being sent to Europe, and it was feared that the fire was caused by the Germans. Pearl Harbor stunned the people out of a sense of security on December 7th, 1941, but my father wasn’t pulled into the military as his two brothers had been because he was married with a family. His brothers’ lives were put on hold and at risk. The thinking was that it was OK for single men to be drafted to assist England; and the “Allies” to fight the “Axis”.
I always sensed that for my father, his family was a joy and a haven as well as a responsibility even during this time of crisis, and that he valued and respected marriage and family as an institution. The knowledge that he felt this way and that he treasured us, and found joy in us, left me with a feeling of being truly loved and safe.
The other story surrounding my birth left me with ambivalent feelings. It was the raw account of my mother’s experience of giving birth to me. The village physician was unable to be reached because her labor was so quick. There was no time to administer ether and the anesthesiologist was the only attending physician. When the nurse showed alarm that my head was crowning, he applied pressure on me to hold up the birth in hopes that the doctor would arrive on time. My mother’s account of being fully awake and aware of what happened next was that he could no longer hold me back and that “I shot out like a little football right into his arms.” At that moment, Dr. F stuck his head in the door and said “Am I too late?”
At my homecoming, my two older brothers, J (Three and a half) and R (19 months old) were waiting to welcome me.
I was raised in a strong Roman Catholic family and, at that time, Mary was given to many, many girls in the 40’s in honor of the Blessed Mother of Jesus. My parents wanted my name to give me more individuality since my mother’s name was Mary also, so they added Louise On my birth certificate I was Mary Louise. I have been very happy with that, especially when I was told they were considering naming me that or Gwendolyn.
I can’t remember ever being called Mary Louise on an everyday basis. I was always Mary Lou. When I became a teenager and a fan of Ricky Nelson, I fantasized and told friends that he named his song “Hello, Mary Lou” after me. He was born in the same hospital and the same town so it seemed to have some degree of truth, though I don’t think they believed me.
I walked to kindergarten at the local public school which was right down the street from our house. I was told that I was very excited to go to school and showed no apprehension at all. Although there is very little that I remember about that time, I do remember it was then that I got my first pair of glasses. My parents thought I was kidding around when I would cross my eyes. I guess when I kept on doing it they took me for a checkup. On my way home from school, an older neighborhood boy who lived on the corner down the street from us, made fun of my glasses and called me “four eyes”. He pushed me down and somehow my glasses snapped in the middle. I ran home crying and remember that my father took my glasses and taped the two pieces together with white bandage tape. Not sure of how long I wore them like this as money was tight during those post war days and we learned to make do and do without.
We went to the ocean a lot when I was little. The power and force of the ocean has always been a source of wonder and inspiration for me. I wasn’t afraid of it and listened to my parents warnings about the under-toe and not going out too far. Standing there, with the water about chest high, I could feel the sand travel through my toes as the water ebbed back into the ocean. One time, at Jones Beach, I was standing by the pillars and ropes with my father and my brothers. The waves were very powerful and I held onto my father’s hand. My brothers jumped in and out of the waves without any fear. Soon I told my father that I wanted to go back in on the beach. He let go of my hand and I started walking back, with the waves and undercurrent making me unsteady as I went. Suddenly I plunged into a deep hole that had been formed by the undercurrent. I remember loosing my sense of direction of where the top and where the bottom was as I floated in the water. When I opened my eyes I was unable to see anything except murky water and pieces of my long hair floating around me. It seemed like I was there for awhile and I didn’t fight it. Then I felt strong hands pull me up out of the hole. It was my Dad and he seemed annoyed with me. He took me by the hand and walked me over to our blanket on the beach. I was trembling as my mother dried me off and gave me a P&B sandwich and told me to go and sit on the beach. Here’s a picture of me after that experience. I love this little girl. ❤
I went to the same parochial school from first through eighth grades. We wore uniforms: green pinafores over tan shirts. I remember the nuns lined us up whenever we went into the school or over to the church. School and church were tightly connected, and the nuns did all the preparation for our first confession, first communion and confirmation during our school time. The catholic kids who went to public school had to go to special after-school classes. I felt bad that they were made to sit on the outside aisles of the church while we catholic school kids sat in the center aisles. When we were promoted from one class to another, the pastor of the church would come into the classroom and read down the list of those who were promoted. Once your name was called out, you could get up and go home. I remember a sense of relief and joy as we rushed home singing out loud: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” The ones who weren’t promoted remained in the classroom to be told they wouldn’t be moving up to the next grade. My brother, R, repeated the first grade because he had missed a lot of school due to illness, so he and I were in the same class all the way through primary school.
And of course every Catholic School kid has stories to tell about the nuns! Most of nuns who taught me were very nice. There was one third grade teacher who threatened to cut off the pig tails on one of my classmates and I do remember her crying as Sister held up these huge scissors. I think it was the same nun who told us there was a deep pit in the back of the stage in the auditorium where they threw the bad kids into. One sixth grade teacher, Miss B, made me stand in front of the class with the gum I was chewing stuck on my nose, and Sister K caught me turning around talking with the boy in back of me. I was suddenly aware of movement coming up to me and wham ….. she hit me right across the head.
The Basement of our home was a special place holding a lot of memories for us kids when we were growing up. It had three entrances to it: the stairway leading down from our kitchen; the slanted cellar door that you pulled up from the outside and descended down a set of cement stairs; and the coal chute that slid the coal deliveries into a pile next to the furnace. My father would fill the furnace with coal in the morning before we all got up. We still had to bundle up with robe and slippers because of the chill in the house while the radiators clanked and hissed, slowly adding the heat into our rooms. One of my memories is of Christmas morning, waiting excitedly in bed, while Dad went down in the basement to take care of the furnace. We’d soon hear that familiar hissing and knocking of the radiators. When he returned, we were all allowed to get up and wait in the hallway for our parents to turn on the tree lights so we could see where our presents were. The best presents that I remember were a pair of figure ice skates and a blue Huffy bicycle. The memory of the first time I got to try them out still stays with me.
The basement was also the place where my father worked on carpentry projects My brother, J, would keep frogs and fish there that he collected in the swamp. Each corner of the basement housed interesting things: the huge sink that the clothes washer would drain into; the piles of magazines; the old furniture not in use; garment bags hanging on a hook; even an old locked treasure chest that we’d play with imagining what might be inside. The other rooms in our house held many family memories too, but the basement was the magical place when we were little. Later we would learn that our grandfather, in the early days, used the basement as a still for making alcohol.
One time doing an icebreaker at a social gathering, I drew a diagram of the home I lived in when I was around ten. Of course, for me, the family homestead has always been the same. I drew a diagram of the basement, showing the steep descent of the wooden stairs that I went down when we returned from sleigh riding or playing in the snow in the side yard. On days when it snowed, we would stay out in the side yard and build snowmen and throw snowballs at each other. Sometimes we would go to the hill near Veteran’s Park and sleigh ride. When we got home our feet and hands were frozen and Mom would have us go downstairs in the basement to take off all our outer clothes. I could recall the smell of the musty-dusty air and feel the damp darkness as I started down the stairs. I remembered the tingly feeling in my toes as I pulled off my boots at the bottom of the stairs, picking off the clumps of ice that had been captured inside my boot and plastered to my socks. Peeling off those stiff, frozen socks would reveal bright red toes that I was sure would never feel alive again. The pain made me realize what a horrible death it would be to be lost in the woods at the height of a blizzard. The saving grace was the coal furnace in the corner at the opposite side of the cellar that would be chugging away with the sounds of the roaring fire. It was kept fueled by my father who, every morning in the winter, would shovel the daily supply of coal into it. I remember the coal chute where the delivery was made through the side of the window and we would climb up the mountain of coal.
There was a sense of freedom and adventure for me in that basement on the gray winter days that kept us more indoors than outdoors. There was a pole in the center of the room about half a foot round. I would hang onto that pole and skate around in the new roller skates I got for Christmas. There were also the pretend games of me being Dale Evans and I would throw a paper lariat that would hum in a low continuous tone when it circled at top speed over my head. When we were ready to climb back out of our fantasy worlds, there would be hot chocolate and oatmeal cookies waiting for us in the kitchen, where Mom was ready to listen to our adventures of the day.
In the kitchen, I remember Puff, our cat who would be weaving in and out of our legs and purring up a storm to let us know she was happy to see us. Puff provided us with many memories of giving birth to a few litters of kittens during those years and with our first awareness that all living things die when at a ripe old age she died quietly during the night.
My mother and father had the master bedroom on the first floor, and I guess my baby brother, S, was in the back bedroom which was once shared by my brothers and I when we were very small and before the upstairs was refinished into two more bedrooms. I have memories of being very small and standing up in the wrought iron crib along the inside wall by the closet in that room. I recall that my brother was in another bed on the other wall and we were both sick with the chicken pox or measles. Our family doctor, Dr. F, would ring the front doorbell and we heard his loud booming voice calling out his entrance as he made his way down the hall into our room. He smelled of cigar and medicine, and he always brought his black medical bag with him and a shot of penicillin for our fat little bottoms. When he finally left I was happy to nestle down beneath the covers, curled up with a good book.
The living room and dining room were the center of our family life. I don’t recall if we had television in 1952 when I was ten, but I do remember the old box radio against the outside wall toward the side yard. We would all be settled in either reading or playing a game (Slap Jack, Solitaire, Old Maid, Clue, Scrabble, Charades or Authors). I can see my two brothers sprawled out on the living room rug and my father in his lounge chair by the window and my mother in her chair in the corner by the inside wall next to him. My mother would read something inspiring out of a book she was reading and we would all stop what we were doing to learn the lesson of the day.
My father, a newspaper man with the Herald Tribune, would get us into States and Capitols games, as well as spelling games. One event that really captured my imagination was when his newspaper created their first magazine insert and opened the naming of it to all the readers. My father had us brainstorming about a creative name, and I remember the excitement I felt as my creative juices came alive. We submitted one of our choices although it didn’t get picked. I’ll never forget the great feeling of being together in that venture.
The living room was also the setting for the formal holiday events. It was the place we retreated to, reflecting on the meaning of the day and processing the meaning of family, of God and of who we were. Easter involved the eggs that were colored the day before in the kitchen and then hidden in all sorts of nooks and crannies in the living room. Christmas Eve took on a transcendent quality in the living room: as night fell there was only the glow of the tree lights (bubbling ones at that) and the light of the stable in the homemade fireplace created by my father. The scene really opened my heart to the birth of the tiny infant they called Jesus. My favorite story of Jesus was about his birth because, during the rest of the year, I found his life obscure and abstract with only the symbols of the Station of the Cross to represent his message. The Easter message was obscure to me also as the Catholic Church didn’t encourage reading the Bible.
I liked the spiritual message of Christmas – a child so small and helpless bringing the message of hope and peace to the world. Christmas day always started with opening presents, which, although they weren’t abundant in quantity, they were very meaningful from the feeling they gave of togetherness that came from the ritual. I can remember always feeling a little disappointed when I didn’t find just one more gift under the mounds of crumpled paper. But then I was reminded of what the true meaning of Christmas was as we were herded off to get bathed and dressed for Christmas morning Mass. I loved the Christmas Carols! Singing them always brought a sense of joy to me. I loved the smell of hay when we stopped by the stable to pray to the Babe. I loved the smell of the crisp air when we left to return home and watch Babes in Toyland with Laurel and Hardy, which became a family tradition.
When we had TV the tradition for Christmas Eve was the “I Remember Mamma” show (The Night the Animals Talked). There was magic in the air during those times. So much magic that I actually believed I saw a Christmas elf sitting on the fence post that my father put up along the side yard. Our whole house vibrated with the Christmas Spirit – at least in my mind and heart it did. My father would walk around the house singing “You’d better watch out, you’d better not pout, you’d better not cry, I’m telling you why – Santa Claus is coming to town.” My sister and I used to sing “Silent Night” together before we fell off to sleep, and would break into gales of laughter when we would come to the end and would sing – “sleep in heavenly peeeeeaaaaace – sleep in heavenly peace.”
Sundays were always a day of rest and family gathering. We went to Mass and returned to breakfast because, in those days, there was a strict fast rule before receiving Holy Communion. One really cute story I was told was when I was two or three years old ,I stood up on the pew and started singing my own song after the people stopped singing theirs. My choice was really neat: “Lay that pistol down, Babe. Lay that pistol down. Pistol packin mamma, lay that pistol down”. Maybe I was foretelling about the need for reasonable gun control measures in today’s world!
Another story about church and me was about a Novena (meaning nine days in a row) that I went to with a special intention that at the end of the Novena, my baby brother, S, would walk. He had gone through surgery, having had problems with his feet when he was born and so he was late learning to walk. At the end of the Novena, I went home and stood him up in front of me and told him to walk to me. Well, he did and continued to walk from the front of the house to the kitchen, back and forth, laughing as he went. My parents were astonished, and went to tell the priest that they felt it was a miracle. I believe the priest mentioned it at Church to the people.
Every Sunday my Mom would prepare a Sunday dinner that we ate in the dining room with Dad sitting at one end of the large family table and Mom at the other end. I remember standing by the oven as my Grandmother basted the roast, telling her how starved I was, and she would take a slice of buttered bread and dunk it in the drippings of the meat. This was the greatest treat! I remember exactly where I sat at the table- on either side, right in the middle chair with two other chairs on either side. I remember grace before meals, always led by my father saying a very traditional Catholic grace.
My Dad liked to read the Herald Tribune throughout the day, and you could smell the pipe tobacco as he relaxed in his Big Easy Chair. My grandmother and grandfather came for Sunday dinner, usually bringing a gallon of ice cream for dessert from the ice cream store up the hill from them. My grandfather always was dressed in a suit and vest. He liked to sit in the chair with us and play Fly Away Jack, taking his cigar bands and putting them on his fingers and then making them disappear by saying “Fly away Jack.” In the evening we would all sit down to watch Ed Sullivan’s Variety Hour. There were very few channels and there were rabbit ears on top of the set. My earliest memories of TV were Hopalong Cassidy; Lone Ranger; I Remember Mamma; Howdy Doody; and Time for Beanie.
The dining room in our house was a special place where we had Sunday dinners; It was the place where we had birthday cake and ice cream, it was the place where we did our homework, and it was the place where my father sat down to work out the bills and taxes. There were two homework projects I can remember that I was particularly proud of. One was a poster collage of products produced in each state. I used cotton, rice and other props to make it come alive. The other project was a display of Eskimo people I made with two of our dolls. My mother was always good at coming up with material to help me put together these assignments at the dining room table.
The loving environment of a safe and secure Catholic family was a source of pride and stability for each of us. The good feelings were there; the old stale jokes told over and over by my Dad were there; and the sacredness of God present at our table was there. Mom guided the mealtime discussions away from anything disturbing and there was the sense that everyone was on their best behavior. Any unpleasant feelings or disturbing off-limit topics were just below the surface, like the old dirty, sticky chewing gum we’d stuck underneath the table on less formal occasions. As an Irish Catholic girl, and the middle child, I felt somewhat invisible when discussions focused on topics I felt I couldn’t measure up to. When I did dare to speak of something important to me, I blushed when the table became silent and all eyes were on me, especially disturbing were the taunting, teasing looks of my brothers. I suppose I have to thank mealtimes at my house for making me aware of the need to be heard by those you care about and those who care about you.
Those interactions around the table were a training ground for interactions in the world around us when we tried to be heard and have a voice. They still are. There’s the everyday banter, which is safe and secure, and then there’s the “get real” moments when we attempt to bring to light the “gum stuck under the table”, and face the reactions of those around us. As I said, dinner at our house while I was growing up was the typical Irish Catholic gathering – everyone in their proper place. Dad was quiet and reserved, appearing as the head of the household, and Mom being very much in charge. When I had my own family, dinner was less idealistic and more democratic, less censored and more spontaneous.
Looking back and analyzing these two different experiences, I’ve come to cherish the effort it took to bring about these moments of sharing food, sharing stories and loving one another.
The upstairs part of the house was, at first, a full attic when we were little. Later on, it was renovated after my youngest brother was born. My sister and I were in one bedroom and my two brothers were in the other. There was a walk-in closet in each of the bedrooms. Our walk-in closet was unique in that it had a sliding door in the wall inside of it which led into a deeper storage apart from our closet space. When we finally moved all of our possessions upstairs, it took awhile to get used to the new environment. Rarely did we venture into the scary storage place with the sliding door deep within our closet. Of course our two brothers didn’t help much when they hid in that storage place, and groaned and moaned in an eerie, haunting cry. The door to our closet, if it wasn’t closed all the way, would slowly swing open with a creak …… in perfect timing just as we fell asleep
One night I was facing the wall and dozing off to sleep. I opened my eyes to see a flashlight beam moving slowly along the wall. I held my breath…… convinced a burglar had gotten upstairs and was going to kill me if I moved or made a noise. I could hear the footsteps moving across the room. I knew my sister was asleep and fully unaware of our imminent danger. It seemed forever before I was finally able to let out a bloodcurdling scream for anyone in earshot. (The next morning, my mother told me that the neighbors across the street heard me screaming and they were alarmed. They were ready to call the police if my screams went unanswered .. …..) After a meticulous search of every inch of the upstairs, my father finally convinced me there was no one there, though it seemed so real to me. I still wonder if my brothers were at the bottom of all this.
All of the neighborhood kids played outdoor games until it got dark. I also had a neighborhood friend, Judy D and we like to play with dolls. Judy had a lot more toys than I had; kid-sized refrigerator; stove and sink; piles of games; and a collection of dolls to be envied. One day we got into a fight and she took my one and only doll and smashed its head on the sidewalk. That was like murder to me, and from that day on we were no longer friends. She didn’t go to the same school as I did so we didn’t bump into each other very often. She went to public school which was down the street and I went to the Catholic School. I remember swimming in the indoor pool at the public school down the street from us but that’s all.
I was kept busy during my elementary school years. The walk to school was about a half mile, and my brothers, my sister and I walked to school and back every day including coming home for lunch. I joined Brownies and Girl Scouts, and went to Girl Scout Day Camp during the summer. I remember the Girl Scout Cookie sale each year even though I was never competitive in trying to sell the most. I made pot holders with a loom and sold them to the neighbors. A few years I got involved with selling Greeting Cards.
My mother arranged for me to take piano lessons at Miss T’s house. I still remember walking with the music books under my arm to her house and practicing on the upright piano at home in the dining room. I liked playing the piano and did pretty good at it. My interest in piano lessons all came to a thundering halt when I performed in a recital at the piano teacher’s home. I kept getting to the same point in playing “The Bells of Saint Mary” each time and froze. I just couldn’t remember what came next. There was a small group of people sitting in the dining room watching me play and I remember getting up after two tries and going into the hall. My father brought me home and sat down with me while I played through the entire song so I would know that I could do it. I felt he cared about me. And I felt my mother was disappointed in me. She played the piano too, and we’d gather around her to sing the Big Rock Candy Mountain and other favorite songs.
My sister, E, was very much my best friend when we were young. She was 4 1/2 years younger, and we shared the same bedroom. I remember paper dolls and puzzles. We went to the movies a lot together and I remember seeing the movie “The Song of Bernadette;” the story of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. We were so emotional about it that when we got home we knelt on the front porch of our house in front of the statue of Mary. We really believed that Mary would appear to us. E would tag along with me and some of my friends when we went bowling and ice skating.
When I was a teenager we would walk up the main street in town to see how many guys would beep their horns as they rode by. One time two guys from Bergenfield pulled up and asked if we wanted a ride. Foolishly, we piled into the back seat of the car and took a ride with them to a town across the line into NY. When we got home and my parents found out about it they were very angry with me. Back then, in the fifties, I had very little awareness of any danger I might have put myself or my sister in.
I remember when I had boyfriends over to snuggle with on the couch and watch American Bandstand, she was the brat who hung around and annoyed us. One time I talked Tom C into giving her a quarter to get rid of her.
My parents took the two of us into NYC to the Dick Clark Show when we were teenagers. It was a pretty big deal and very exciting. I can still remember being outside the theater waiting in the crowd for the doors to open. The headliner performers were Fabian (Turn Me Loose 1959) and Jackie Wilson (Lonely Teardrops 1959), and I couldn’t keep myself from joining all the other fans and screaming and singing along.
E was my Maid of Honor when I got married and the godmother of my first and fifth child. Our families would get together when the children were young, especially at their farm.
Today, our relationship is not as close. Our lives had taken different paths and the political polarization of the last decade has put a distance between us. We still get together and chat, and we’ll always love each other as sisters. The Tea Party “Revolution” and the Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh movement that she embraced made it hard to share anything too much in the political realm. So when it comes to family, it’s not that important to me to have the last word. In the end, we all vote in privacy and it’s not worth trying to be right in the political debates, although the strongly partisan members of the family might not agree with me.
One summer we had a cabin on Salmon Lake in River Edge, Connecticut. It was a long trip by car back in the Forties and Fifties. There were no expressways or Interstate Highways back then. Our family of seven spent a lot of time on winding country roads with all the windows open to keep things cool. The gas station game kept us busy. My sign was always the Mobil Flying Horse, and my brothers had Gulf and Sunoco (maybe Exxon, too). By the end of the trip, whoever counted the most signs we passed along the way would win the game. Everyone else had to see it when you shouted out the name.
When we were at the cabin on Salmon Lake, it was the first time we had the freedom to explore without our parents. There was a group of young adults who planned activities for families staying in the cabins. As a seven or eight year old who knew only my parents, grandparents, nuns and priests, this was the first time I got to share time spent joining in with and having lots of fun with others. We went out on canoes, went fishing off the dock and even got to pet the fawn that was orphaned when her mother was hit by a car. They kept it in a fenced-in corral. On one evening, we all went by canoe to a campground and had a late picnic of roast corn, baked potatoes, grilled chicken and marshmallows cooked right on the campfire. We then returned to go to a barn dance with lots of great music. As I stood and watched the young adult counselors dancing and laughing and really having a good time, I wondered what it would be like to be their age one day.
We used to play in the new houses that were being built in our neighborhood. All the kids would gather together as soon as the foundation was being dug up and the construction crew had left for the day. We’d begin climbing the dirt mounds and running down into the deep hole. We would climb into the frame once it was up and try to figure out which was the kitchen, which was the living room, etc. We’d jump down into the unfinished basement which was filled with pieces of wood, cinder blocks and puddles of water. I remember one of the neighbors had a cousin who was visiting from England. He was thin and dark skinned and wore short pants. That was new to me because my brothers never wore shorts. I had very fair skin and lots of freckles, so with his British accent on top of it all his differences were interesting and attractive to me. I remember having a new feeling towards him and wanting to follow him around and be close to him. We explored together in the house which was being built across the street from us. He was my first experience with a summer crush and I was sad when he left to return to his home.
When the house next door to our side yard was being built, we kids all would beeline out of there whenever the police would come to chase all the kids away. After that, our parents set down the law that we couldn’t play in the unfinished houses anymore.
Another crush I had was on a boy who lived a few houses down the street from us. Georgie S was among the neighborhood kids who played ‘hide and seek’ and ‘giant steps’ in our side yard. He was a few years older than me so I think it was a one-sided crush. One day I was hiding in the tall sassafras in our side yard and Georgie tossed a rock. I’d like to think he didn’t know I was hiding there. The rock landed right on the top of my head. My memory of it was vague, with lots of blood from the head wound. My dad took me to Dr. F’s to be checked over and stop the bleeding. The take-away from all this is that I was told then I’d make an excellent nurse because I stayed so calm, and also I will always have that memory of Georgie. I was also told that my brothers chased Georgie home that day. I don’t remember ever seeing him around after that.
In the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, I remember more of a social life with the other girls in my class. We rode our bikes and hung out at a few of the girls’ homes. Pat D and Nancy S both lived in the apartments on the main road. We brought our movie star magazines and traded pictures of our favorite stars. My favorites were Ann Blythe, Grace Kelly, Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum. When we started trying to use make-up, I can remember taking the bus to the city nearby and going to the five and dime store to pick out tangerine lipstick. I can also remember my mother and I going to buy my first pair of stockings and a bra when I was in the eighth grade. I don’t remember having a best friend that I always hung out with, just a lot of different people that I’d go to the movies with and sometimes visit their homes.
We used to have kissing parties at some of the kids’ houses. I remember going to George G’s. He had on a green mesh shirt that I thought looked good on him. It was all pretty harmless and innocent and I remember going into the bedroom and kissing. For Valentine’s Day, George bought me a chocolate heart and took me downtown to get ice cream. I remember his sister pulling up to us in her car when we were walking home to tell him he should be walking on the outside to protect me.
There was very little open discussion about sex. I remember reading with eagerness the Dear Abby columns in the local newspaper hoping to pick up as much information as I could. She seemed to be the most honest source of information in the midst of what was in the Hollywood movies, the words and images in rock and roll songs. My parents avoided the subject all together. I was a cheerleader for the boys’ basketball team and we wore gold sweaters with navy blue corduroy short skirts with gold lining that made me feel lively and pretty. It was nice to feel a part of the team spirit. I do remember one game when we rode to the other team’s school and we sat on the boys’ laps in the car. I sat on Billy B’s lap. My brother, R, was on the team also but I don’t remember hanging out with him very much. He was also at the ‘kissing parties.’
One of my most vivid memories of death was when my grandfather died. My sister and I were upstairs in bed and I remember our grandmother coming into our room crying. My grandfather had fallen from a ladder while painting the side of the house and they said he had a stroke. He died in his sleep after a few days of being bedridden. I remember the funeral home and handing out holy cards with my grandfather’s name and date of death on it. At the funeral mass at Saint Francis, a lot of my classmates were singing in the choir. All seventh and eighth grade girls sang at all the funerals in the parish.
That day I wore a red coat and hat, and after the funeral my classmates told me how much they liked them. My grandmother was very sad for a long time. At the cemetery they had a flag ceremony because my grandfather served in the Spanish-American War. I remember the solemn ritual of the folding of the flag and handing it to my grandmother. Afterwards, I remember being alone in the dining room and picking up the crucifix that had been on my grandfather’s casket. It slipped out of my hand, fell and broke. I panicked while carefully putting the broken crucifix back on the buffet. My grandmother was very upset and I remember feeling terrible about it. I understand now the immense grief she must have been experiencing. Not only did she lose her life-long companion, she also lost her own home. It was decided that it would be best if she sold the home and moved in with us. A decision my mother told me she sometimes regretted.
Another memory of death I have was when my sister and I were walking around our block. We came upon an ambulance and a garbage truck standing at the corner. There were policemen there too. As we got closer we could see a small body lying on the ground with one foot showing from under the blanket. The foot had only a sock on it. The sneaker was dangling from the bumper of the garbage truck. We soon learned it was Frankie D, one of the neighborhood kids who lived in our neighborhood. He had jumped onto the truck as it was leaving his house and hitched a ride. He slipped off and was dragged when his foot got caught on the truck’s bumper. I could tell my sister wasn’t aware of what had happened, so I told her we needed to go home right away.
One thing I loved was going to the library in our town and walking home with an armful of books to read for the summer. There were stories about the Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew mysteries, Cherry Ames Nurse Stories.
During the summer I was a volunteer at the hospital where I was born. I was a “Candy Striper” in the Maternity Ward and Nursery and wore a pink and white striped pinafore. I would fill the patients’ water pitchers, deliver flowers, wheel the babies to the mothers, clean the baby carts and sterilize the baby bottles. I also remember stringing the name beads on the little bracelets they used as ID’s back then. One year I won an award for the number of hours I volunteered. The singer, Pat Boone, who lived with his family in a nearby town, presented the awards.
Things I did to earn some money included a lot of babysitting (.50 an hour); selling handmade potholders,; and selling girl scout cookies, and Christmas Cards to people in town. I very rarely felt scared or threatened in my hometown. There was one time when I was walking home from Brownies as it was getting dark. A dog ran up to me and blocked my way, growling and barking. A teenage boy rode up to me on his bicycle and chased the dog away. I didn’t know who he was, and just rushed on home, relieved he was there to help. A kind act I still remember! Other than that, we kids weren’t aware of the dangers that might be lurking on our streets like children today are taught to fear.
When it came time for choosing a high school, I remember going to Saint Cecelia’s to take the entrance exams for Catholic High Schools. My brothers both went to the local public high school and I’m not sure why my sister and I both went to all-girls Catholic school. I remember my mother saying that my brothers would be going on to become the wage earners and possibly going to college. It was assumed that both my sister and I would get married and raise a family, so they wanted to give us a good private high school education. I wish I had gone to our local public high school for the total high school experience. The traveling back and forth by bus limited my chances of making lasting friendships nearby.
I remember my mother telling me that another girl in my eighth grade class, J, was going to the same high school and that both mothers were taking us for an interview. I never felt comfortable in that school but went along as this seemed to be my only choice. Again, my school life was very intertwined with Catholic ritual. We were taken for visits to the novitiate (where young girls were trained to be nuns) with the hope of encouraging us to enter the convent. I never understood the enthusiasm of a lot of the other girls. It seemed like too much of a pulling back from life for me. I felt a pull toward the future and what it could bring me. When I tried to picture myself never being with a man, and never having children, it made me very sad. There was no way I could or would totally and forever renounce these possibilities which was so final at that time in the 50’s.
One of my favorite trip memories in high school was our senior year trip to Washington, D.C. There was a sense that we were going to become free to be on our own in the real world. D.C. was exciting! We did a group tour of the White House and where Congress meets. There was less supervision and I remember meeting a boy at the pool who came over to talk with me, and later sent a note to my hotel room asking me to meet up with him. I was too scared to act on it as there were other girls sharing the same room and I was afraid I would get in trouble if I went to meet him. On the bus ride home, my classmates were asking me a lot of questions and asking me to show them how I put my hair up in a twist, and generally treating me as if I suddenly became popular. I never was one of the most popular, nor was I one of the geeks. I was always kind of in the middle.
My favorite class was biology and I remember dissecting worms and frogs. One day when we had dissected worms and were allowed to bring them home in formaldehyde, it snowed very hard and we were stuck on the bus. The whole bus stunk of formaldehyde and we were throwing the worms out the window. One of my classmates, A, (the one who was a cousin of my future husband) called her father and he came and got us. I was really impressed because he was a big politician and he treated us all to supper during the snowstorm before he took us home.
I used to doodle a lot and draw fashion styles while in class. The thought came up about whether I was good enough to be a fashion designer. I did OK as far as grades (B’s mostly) but I remember feeling great when I won a writing contest and had it printed in a National Journal. It was a short creative story about the Life of a 1950 Ford. I think I was influenced a lot by the teenage culture and “Rebel Without A Cause”. James Dean had a magnetic influence on me. Elvis wasn’t as big a deal for me as Ricky Nelson was. Pat Boone was just a bit too squeaky clean for me.
I can remember considering going to college when I was in my senior year of high school. I had chosen the academic program in school instead of the business program. I was into boys at the time, and had met Steve H and then Tommy W during my junior and senior year. I think getting an education beyond high school was kind of a huge abstract idea for me, and the message at home was that being a wife and mother of a family was the best choice for daughters. I thought of becoming a nurse or a teacher or a librarian, but wasn’t able to make a definite decision at that time and the subject of paying for school wasn’t brought up by my parents. There was no financial aid or student loans back then. It was kind of a silent message that my goal was to get married and have a family, and I was ok with that.
Later on in life, I would remember that my father gave me a book on Becoming a Copywriter for my birthday. He and I would have wonderful father and daughter trips into New York City to visit his office at the Herald Tribune. I’d see all the daily activities of the newspaper business and really felt alive in the atmosphere. He also took me to the Rodeo at Madison Square Garden, along with a co-worker and his daughter. We had lunch at Horn and Hardart Restaurant which was a fascinating experience.
The only other option coming from the all-girls Catholic School was to become a nun. A large number in my class did enter the convent when they graduated, and I remember feeling like my choice not to enter the convent was a real independent decision with all the peer pressure around me. The thought of becoming a nun made me very unhappy, and it was when I began to take a closer look at what the Catholic Church was teaching.
I don’t remember getting beyond the thinking stage about going to that college for journalism, and I guess any interest in going to college just wasn’t a driving force for me. The memory of my Dad bringing home that book on copy writing for me was the only thing that stands out because I can remember one part of me wondering if I could make it in the world of reporters and newspapers, and another part of me passively resigning myself to the “less challenging and safer” world of traditional roles for young women. I don’t remember any encouragement from my parents to go to college as my friends’ parents did, but I do remember them encouraging my decision to go for my secretarial certificate at a Business School, just as my mother did before she got married.
Once that decision was made, I vowed to be the best typist, the best stenographer and the perfect image of the secretary. They had a representative from Katherine Gibbs Modeling School who came in and showed us the proper professional attire and the proper way to sit, and the proper way to walk. The Business School was where I met my future sister-in-law-to-be, G, who would marry my brother, R. R was at the same bar across the state line in New York where we went one night. New Jersey’s drinking age was 21 at the time. The place was packed and you could hardly move. I turned around and there was my brother with his friends. Later, out in the parking lot, he came over to me and said “I won’t tell Mom and Dad that you were here, if you’ll give me your friend’s telephone number. And that’s how they met.
My boyfriend, Steve H, and I double-dated with my brother, J, and his girlfriend, H, at the drive-in theater – Steve telling J that his sister was “some great little make out”. Steve was a “man of the world” – a hood, (short for hoodlum, as they were called in those days). He had a DA (duck’s ass) haircut and a leather jacket and reminded me of James Dean or the gangs in the West Side Story. He especially reminded me of Dion, from Dion and the Belmonts. I met him in May 1959 at the Rialto Theater and when he called me I told him to come over to my house to meet Mom and Dad. He said sure! We went to the movies a lot after that and his mother owned a bowling alley in Bogota so we went bowling there off and on. He asked me to go steady about three times but I told him I wanted to know him better. After two months of going together we decided to go to the Amusement Park. He didn’t have a car so my parents drove us and dropped us off. We were on top of the Ferris Wheel and Dion and the Belmont’s song “Teenager in Love” was playing. It was a magic moment where I felt intoxicated with the feeling of being with him. One night while talking with him on the phone he told me he had gone to a prostitute in NYC because I wouldn’t go all the way with him, I was devastated, and stopped seeing him. One day I happened to see him while riding on the bus. He was sitting in the back seat and had on dark sunglasses and looked much thinner. I assumed that it was drugs that made him look so bad, but I’m not sure if that was true. I wound up writing a fictional story about him in my attempts to get over him. I guess I felt I had failed to turn him around to what I wanted him to be. The story was about him in the jail and me rescuing him and changing his life.
Teenager in Love
Dion and the Belmonts (1958)
“Each night I ask the stars up above
Why must I be a teenager in love’
Another learning experience was when I was at the movie theater with some friends and this older rough looking guy was sitting behind us and began flirting with me. When I went to the ladies room, he followed me out and was waiting for me to come out. He asked me for my phone number and like a fool, I gave it to him. He phoned and asked me out. When he came to pick me up, he sat outside in his truck, honking his horn, instead of coming to the door as others I’d dated had done. My father wasn’t too happy about it. I felt excited by him but got nervous when he pulled into the parking lot of a motel (who knows where?!?). When I wouldn’t get out and go in with him he jumped out of the truck and walked around for a while. Then he brought me back home and parked down the street from my house. When I resisted his advances and got nervous, he slapped me in the face. I got out of the truck and ran home. Instead of driving off, he followed me home and came into the house. Dad and Mom were in the living room and Dad told him to leave. They shouted back and forth a few minutes with him saying something weird about my father not respecting me and then turned to leave. I screamed at him to get out of my house. I remember tearfully apologizing to my parents for being so stupid and putting them in that situation. It was a lesson that shook me up and I knew it could have been worse. It was never mentioned again.
Tommy W was my boyfriend in the first-half of my Senior Year. There was a group of us who used to get together at the home of one of the girl’s from school who just happened to be dating my brother, R. Tommy was her cousin. He also had a DA haircut and wore a leather jacket. I remember making out with him in a park and a cop coming over to see what we were up to. I also remember getting into trouble with the principal of my high school because he picked me up outside of school. Tommy, like Steve, was too much for me to handle and I think I was afraid of where life would take me if I let myself get in too deep with him. He wanted to get married and I later found out that he did marry the year after I got out of high school and that his wife was pregnant.