The Forties and Fifties
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 of passage 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 were seen as a sign of weakness in the simple and happy world where family pride and pride of country meant you only say the prideful things. The doctrines, dogma and right ways promoted by the Church, and the secure, comfortable faith of the Irish Catholic family environment gave 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. 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 had stunned the people out of a sense of security two months earlier, 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 okay for single men to be drafted to assist England and the Allies to fight the Axis.
My parents had told me several stories surrounding my birth; one 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 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.
For my father, his family was a joy and a haven as well as a responsibility, even during this time of crisis. And the way he treated my mother showed 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.
Another 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, being fully awake and aware, 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, the doctor stuck his head in the door and said ‘Am I too late?’
The name Mary was given to many Roman Catholic girls in the Forties in honor of the Blessed Mother of Jesus. My parents wanted my name to give me more individuality since my mother’s name was also Mary. They added Louise, and so on my birth certificate I was Mary Louise.
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 check-up. 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. I’m not sure how long I wore them like this as money was tight during those post war days and we learned to make do.
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 undertow 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, although my brothers jumped in and out of the waves without any fear. I told my father I wanted to go back in to the beach and he let go my hand. I started walking back with the waves and undercurrent making me unsteady as I went, when suddenly I plunged into a deep hole that had been formed by the undercurrent. I remember losing my sense of direction and where the top and bottom were 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 a while 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 peanut butter sandwich and told me to go and sit on the beach.
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. One of my brothers 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.
Of course, every Catholic school kid has stories to tell about the nuns! Most of the nuns who taught me were very nice, but there was one third grade teacher who threatened to cut off the pigtails of one of my classmates and I do remember her crying as Sister held up 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 that they threw the bad kids into. One sixth grade teacher made me stand in front of the class with the gum I was chewing stuck on my nose, and another caught me turning around talking with the boy behind 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 and had a lot of memories for us kids 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, but we still had to bundle up with robe and slippers while the radiators clanked and hissed, slowly adding the heat into our rooms.
One of my memories of Christmas morning is waiting excitedly in bed while Dad went down to 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, and one of my brothers kept 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 a magical place when we were little. Later we learned that our grandfather, in the early days, used the basement as a still for making home brew, grape wine, whiskey and root beer.
On days when it snowed, we stayed out in the side yard and built snowmen and threw snowballs at each other. Sometimes we would go to the hill near the town park and sleigh ride. When we got home our feet and hands were frozen and Mom would have us go down to the basement to take off all our outer clothes. I can recall the smell of the musty, dusty air and feel the damp darkness as I started down the stairs. I remember 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 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. I’d pretend to be Dale Evans, an actress and singer in the Forties and Fifties, who was married to Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys. I’d throw a paper lariat that would hum in a low continuous tone while 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, Puff, our cat would weave in and out of our legs and purr up a storm to let us know she was happy to see us. Puff gave birth to a few litters of kittens during those years; she died quietly one night, our first awareness that all living things die once they get to a ripe old age,
My mother and father had the master bedroom on the first floor, and my baby brother was in the back bedroom which was once shared by my brothers and me when we were very small and before the upstairs was finished into two more bedrooms. I have memories of being very small and standing up in the wrought iron crib; my brother was in another bed and we were both sick with the chicken pox or measles. Our family doctor would ring the front doorbell and we’d hear his loud booming voice calling out his entrance as he made his way down the hall to our room. He smelled of cigars 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. We would settle in, either reading or playing a game (Slap Jack, Solitaire, Old Maid, Clue, Scrabble, Charades or Authors). My two brothers would be sprawled out on the living room rug, with my father in his lounge chair by the window and my mother in her chair in the corner. 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.
I do recall the televised McCarthy hearings in 1954 when I was around twelve. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy publicly accused many of treason and disloyalty without sufficient evidence. The hearings were among the first to be televised and when army lawyer Joseph Welch delivered his famous ~ Have you no sense of decency? ~ my parents reaction was one of relieved gratitude that someone finally confronted him.
My father, a newspaper man, 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 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. At Easter, eggs 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 infant Jesus. It was my favorite story of Jesus since, during the rest of the year, I found his life obscure and abstract with only the symbols of the Stations of the Cross to represent his message. The Easter message was also obscure to me, not least since the Catholic Church didn’t encourage reading the Bible.
I liked the spiritual message of Christmas: a child so small and helpless bringing a message of hope and peace to the world. Christmas day always started with opening presents, which, although they weren’t abundant, were very meaningful, with the feeling of togetherness that came from the ritual. I always felt 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.
Once we had a television the tradition for Christmas Eve was the I Remember Mamma show, The Night the Animals Talked. There was magic in the air. So much magic that I once 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 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. Once 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 the need for reasonable gun control measures in today’s world!
My belief was so sincere that I attended a Novena with the intention that my baby brother would be able to 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 he continued to walk from the front of the house to the kitchen, back and forth, laughing as he went. My parents were astonished and told the priest that they believed it was a miracle. I believe the priest mentioned it at Church to the people.
Every Sunday, Mom would prepare a dinner that we ate in the dining room with Dad sitting at one end of the large family table and Mom at the other. 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! My father always said grace before meals – a very traditional Catholic grace.
My Dad liked to read the newspaper 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 was always 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 television were Hopalong Cassidy, Lone Ranger, I Remember Mamma, Howdy Doody, and Time for Beanie.
The dining room was a special place, for Sunday dinner, birthday cake and ice cream, where we did our homework, and 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 that I felt I didn’t know. 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. Dinner at our house 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 at these two different experiences, I’ve come to cherish the effort it took to bring about moments of sharing food, sharing stories and loving one another.
The upstairs part of the house was a full attic when we were little. 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 had a sliding door inside which led to a deeper storage apart from our closet space. When we finally moved all of our possessions upstairs, it took a while to get used to the new environment. Rarely did we venture into the scary storage place with the sliding door. 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 would slowly swing open with a creaking sound, in perfect timing just as we fell asleep.
One night I was dozing off to sleep and I opened my eyes to see a flashlight beam moving slowly along the wall. I held my breath, convinced a burglar was upstairs and was going to kill me if I moved or made a noise. I heard 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 had a neighborhood friend, Judy, and we liked to play with dolls. Judy had a lot more toys than I had: a 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.
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. I got involved with selling greeting cards for a few years too. 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 aware of.
My mother arranged for me to take piano lessons. I would walk with the music books under my arm to the piano teacher’s house and I practiced on the upright piano at home in the dining room. I liked playing the piano and did pretty well at it. My interest in piano lessons all came to a thundering halt though 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 and then 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 younger sister and I are 5 years apart. We shared the same bedroom and I remember paper dolls, puzzles, piles of books and dolls. I was given responsibility of walking her to school when she started kindergarten. When we were halfway there, she sat down on the curb and refused to go any further. I sat down beside her, trying to figure out what to do. A short while later, our father showed up and took her by the hand and marched her off to school.
As we got older, we went to the movies at the local theater. Each year they had a holiday show for Christmas and gave out boxes of hard candy. We saw 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.
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 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 New York. 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.
My parents took the two of us into New York to the Dick Clark Show when we were teenagers. It was very exciting standing in the crowd outside the theater waiting for the doors to open. The headliner performers were Fabian (Turn Me Loose, 1959) and Jackie Wilson (Lonely Teardrops, 1959), and I couldn’t help myself from joining all the other fans and screaming and singing along.
My sister was my Maid of Honor when I got married and the godmother of my first and fifth children. Our families got together when the children were young, especially at their farm. There are lots of good memories.
When we were at a 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 spend time joining in with and having lots of fun with others. We went out on canoes and went fishing off the dock. We even got to pet a fawn, kept in a fenced corral, that had been orphaned when her mother was hit by a car. 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 returned later to a barn dance with lots of great music. I stood and watched the young adult counselors dancing and laughing and really having a good time, and I wondered what it would be like to be their age one day.
We used to play in new houses being built in our neighborhood. All the kids would gather together as soon as the foundation had been dug up and after the construction crew had left for the day. We’d climb the dirt mounds and run down into the deep hole. We climbed into the frame once it was up and tried to figure out which was the kitchen and which was the living room, and so on. We’d jump down into the unfinished basement which was usually filled with pieces of wood, cinder blocks and puddles of water. One of the neighbors had a cousin 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 wanted to follow him around and be close to him. We explored together in the house 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.
Once when the house next door was being built, the police came and chased all us kids away and we made a beeline out of there. After that, our parents set down the law that we couldn’t play in the unfinished houses anymore.
I had another crush on a boy who lived a few houses down the street from us. George was among the neighborhood kids who played Hide and Seek and Giant Steps in our 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 the yard and George tossed a rock. I’d like to think he didn’t know I was hiding there. The rock landed right on top of my head. My memory of it was vague, with lots of blood from the head wound. My dad took me to the doctor to be checked over and stop the bleeding. I was told then I’d make an excellent nurse because I stayed so calm. My brothers chased George home that day. I don’t remember ever seeing him around after that.
In the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, there was 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 and Nancy both lived in 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 would take the bus to the city and go to the five and dime store to pick out tangerine lipstick. My mother and I went together to buy my first pair of stockings and a bra when I was in the eighth grade. I didn’t have a best friend that I always hung out with, just a lot of different people that I’d go to the movies with and whose homes I’d sometimes visit.
We used to have kissing parties at some of the kids’ houses. It was all pretty harmless and innocent and I remember going into a bedroom and kissing one boy, George. For Valentine’s Day, he bought me a chocolate heart and took me downtown to get ice cream. His sister pulled 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 read 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 a context of Hollywood movies and 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. Once we rode to the other team’s school and sat on the boys’ laps in the car. My brother was on the team also but I don’t remember hanging out with him very much.
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. At the funeral home I handed out holy cards with my grandfather’s name and date of death on it. At the funeral mass, a lot of my classmates were singing in the choir. The seventh and eighth grade girls sang at all the funerals in the parish. I’d worn 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. My own memories of my grandfather were of the two of us walking up the hilly street where they lived and going to the small ice cream store where he treated me to a half-pint of coffee ice cream. My favorite!
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 it being given 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 felt 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 it and moved in with us, a decision my mother told me she sometimes regretted.
(This is what Grandmas looked like back in the 40s. Housedresses for women and kids wore clothes their mothers ordered from Sears or Montgomery Ward Catalogs. We didn’t have malls or many choices of styles. )
Once 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, one of the neighborhood kids. 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. I read the Bobbsey Twins, the Nancy Drew mysteries, and 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, and I used to string the name beads on the little bracelets they used as IDs 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. There are two memories of babysitting that stand out for me. One was when the four children I was babysitting for let the family dog out of the upstairs bedroom. Their parents had confined the dog because he wasn’t too friendly and they didn’t want to frighten me. I spent the whole evening stuck in the living room with the kids, and the dog on the other side of the Dutch doors, until the parents came home. The other time was for two children whose parents were going to parent/teacher conferences at their school. Later in the evening, I was surprised when the father returned home ahead of the mother. He had with him two milkshakes, one for him and one for me, and invited me to sit down at the kitchen table to enjoy them. We sat drinking our milkshakes in silence and it felt very weird. I was glad to get out of there! I didn’t babysit for either of those families again.
When it came time for choosing a high school, I took the entrance exam 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 the 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. Traveling back and forth to the Catholic school by bus limited my chances of making lasting friendships nearby.
My mother told me that another girl in my eighth-grade class 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 renounce these possibilities which was so final at that time in the 50s. 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 really independent decision with all the peer pressure around me. The thought of becoming a nun made me very unhappy, and it was then when I began to take a closer look at what the Catholic Church was teaching.
One of my favorite high school trips was our senior year trip to Washington, DC. There was a sense that we were going to become free to be on our own in the real world. DC was exciting! We had 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 we had dissected worms and were allowed to take them home in formaldehyde. It snowed very hard and we were stuck on the bus. The whole bus stunk of formaldehyde and we threw the worms out the window. One of my classmates 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 drew fashion styles while in class. The thought arose as to whether I was good enough to be a fashion designer. I did okay as far as grades (Bs 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 was magnetic. Elvis wasn’t as big a deal for me as Ricky Nelson was. Pat Boone was just a bit too squeaky clean.
I considered going to college when I was in my senior year of high school, especially as I had chosen the academic program in school instead of the business program but I think getting an education beyond high school was kind of a huge abstract idea for me. I was into boys at the time 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 okay with 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. 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.
I don’t remember getting beyond the thinking stage about going to journalism college and I guess any interest in going to college just wasn’t a driving force for me. Dad bringing home that book on copywriting 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 didn’t have the encouragement from my parents to go to college that my friends’ parents did, but they did encourage my decision to go for my secretarial certificate at a business school, just as my mother had 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. My brother was at the same bar across the state line in New York where me and three friends 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 other brother and his friends practiced in their band up in my parents’ bedroom and I would stand nearby listening. They were too old for me and I fantasized about being the female singer. My boyfriend Steve and I double-dated with my brother and his girlfriend at the drive-in theater. 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 West Side Story. He especially reminded me of Dion, from Dion and the Belmonts. I met him in May 1959 at the local movie 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 so we went bowling there off and on. He kept asking me to go steady 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 New York 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 the bus. He was sitting in the back seat and had dark sunglasses on 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 short 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 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’
Once when I was at the movie theater with some friends, an older, rough-looking guy was sitting behind us and began flirting with me. When I went to the ladies’ room, he followed me 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 in an agitated state. Then he brought me back home and parked down the street from my house. Again, he aggressively attempted to force me to do what he wanted. He wasn’t gentle or encouraging at all. 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 right 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 tearfully apologized 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 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 girls from school who was also dating my older brother. Tommy was her cousin. He also had a DA haircut and wore a leather jacket. I made out with him in a park and a cop came over to see what we were up to; and I got into trouble with the principal of my high school because Tommy picked me up outside 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.
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