GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – My mother would have been 100 today and although she isn’t with us (she lived to a fine age of 95), my three sisters and I are sharing old family photos that Jeanne, the oldest, had scanned and sent to us all on CDs.
They live in three states and I live in Switzerland, which in her youth would have amazed my mother.
We’re chuckling over so many good memories and cringing at a few others, usually where we weren’t at our best for Florence Lonergan, who married our dad Bob Wallace.
My sister Mary recalls her great sense of humour, which stayed with her until the end; she could have the nursing home laughing to the point of tears over her sharp remarks about politicians.
She would have loved to have been around for another US election, and I’m sorry she missed Barack Obama’s win four years ago, but as it was, she lived through interesting times.
The Titanic sank when she was three months old and the Great War started when she was a toddler, although in her Irish-American household in Reinbeck, Iowa the greater excitement was over the Irish-Anglo Treaty that was signed just as she was turning 10 and which ended British rule in Ireland.
She graduated from high school as the world was tottering financially, in the summer of 1929, and dreams of college were pushed off for a bit while everyone counted his money, or what he didn’t have.
The Crash, the Depression, love and war and babies
She fell in love with a handsome and very nice guy in the heart of the Great Depression, and just as it was ending she spent three months watching her first child slowly die of a heart problem that it’s now commonplace to repair. Two small girls came along, but so did another war, and in 1942 her husband headed off to fight in the Pacific for more than two years, out of pride and principle rather than because he had to.
Tough enough for the 50s, 60s, and 4 more decades
Two more girls came after the war and then Florence the mother had her hands full for several years with ABC and rock ‘n roll parties at the same time. To my enormous admiration today she never lost her sense of self, the sharp edge that made her impatient with any kind of phoniness or people with airs, just as she kept her wonderful trim figure and grand and unswerving moral sense that there’s only one way to live and that is honestly, decently, fairly.
And modestly, which didn’t go down well with me in the freewheeling late 1960s when I bought a forbidden bikini and sneaked off to the beach with my friends; I discovered to my horror that she had sewn a lace ruffle along the top during the night.
And intelligently, which meant that she was forever correcting our grammar and pointing out mind-enriching articles. For years after I left home she clipped every newspaper column on grammar or how to make the world a better place and mailed them to me, with her comments in the margins.
And frugally, so that even when my parents had enough money to travel abroad, long after we kids left home, she still melted scraps of soap to make new bars. I hated our bathroom soap and wondered why we couldn’t have perfumed brand name ones, but she loved saving pennies thanks to Hints from Heloise.
She didn’t believe in leaving margins blank, so her letters were filled on both sides of the paper, then she carried on writing in her untidy scrawl, often with different ink or pencil in all directions in all the margins. And she loved abbreviating words.
Her letters were a challenge to read.
My sister Tara just sent me something she found among her own papers, a Mother’s Day card that I gave to Florence in May 1961.
We didn’t call her Florence, I hasten to add, until she was well into her nineties, and never to her face. The grandchildren knew her as Grandma Flo.
“I love you very much and will try to please you. I’ll do everything you asked me to do today. I would like to finish my Memory book for Camp Fire though. I can’t find my bathing suit so I can’t tell if it fits me. Anyway the straps are broken and then my suit always falls off. It was kinda of small last summer. It probably doesn’t fit me. You owe me $2.10.”
Tara says the front of the card has “you owe me $2.10 with the amount written several times. Mom wrote in red crayon “Pd.”
Our debt to her will never be repaid, I’m afraid.
I’ll bake a pie in her memory this weekend, since she loved pies almost as much as she loved donuts. And tonight we’re eating a Florence special from the 1950s, hardly changed and still a hugely popular family meal: tuna casserole (critics abstain – it’s great!). It’s a frugal, intelligently tasty, modest dish which any honest person can decently enjoy.
Here’s to you, Mother!
Bettie Page has died and she made the front page of the New York Times. To be honest, if you’d just given me her name I would have given you a blank stare. But the minute I saw her picutre, I remembered Bettie, born Betty Mae Page in Tennessee. She was more than just a Playboy pinup. She represented a world that shivered between sexual excitement and repression in the US before the sexual revolution came along.
Now how would I know this? Time for the confession to come out: when I was a young teenager in the mid-1960s, Bettie was at her Playboy best. I grew up in a conservative home in the middle of the US where religion and ladylike behaviour went together. Like so many of my girlfriends, I made pocket money babysitting at night. One of my families lived close by and the father worked with my father.
One night when the kids had long been asleep and I’d finished the Coke and potato chips the parents had left for me – things we never had at our house – I decided to look for the vacuum to clean up the mess I’d made. It was in the parents’ bedroom closet.
So was a huge pile, perhaps a metre high, of Playboy magazines, shoved to the back of the closet. Hard to imagine this straightlaced church-going couple looking at these! I had barely heard of Hugh Hefner and his bunnies.
I sat down and began to work my way through them and for the next year, while I went through the pile and leraned about sex, what adult women looked like and more, I loved babysitting.
Bettie was one of my favourites. Cheesecake poses, an astonishing body, those black bangs on her forehead (fringe to you, maybe)! And she came from a world of cornpoke and country music and truck drivers that had all the appeal of the alien and forbidden. In my family, people like that were a bit lower class.
And then I stopped babysitting, discovered that boys and sex in Iowa weren’t very closely related to Mr Hefner’s version of it (my first kiss, I told a friend, was like rubbing lips with a camel – a real letdown), nor did any of my friends or I grow into Bettie bodies. We were saved by the sexual revolution which gave us another perspective on women, our bodies, our sex lives, our potential. We spent evenings in our university dormitory reading The Joy of Sex, the original version which feminists hadn’t yet pounced on, aloud to each other. Then we started reading feminist literature and discovered yet more about ourselves.
But I still have a soft spot for Bettie, who offered me the sex ed class no one else thought I needed, until a Catholic nun gave us one session in biology. Guess which one was more interesting, the nun or Bettie?