My mother was the role model for Donna Reed and June Cleaver. She wore ruffled aprons, made our clothes, was a Cub Scout leader, baked bread, and never raised her voice. When my father came home from work, Mother greeted him with freshly applied lipstick, White Shoulders perfume behind each ear, and without a single complaint. Each day he left her a dollar on the kitchen table to do with as she wished and each evening he returned to find it still there. She didn't work, she didn't drive and she only left the house to visit the corner library, after which she'd rush home to field my father's business phone calls.
Mother ironed, vacuumed, scrubbed floors, prepared hot meals and polished our saddle oxfords daily, all the while singing songs like "Mares Eat Oats and Does Eat Oats and Little Lambs Eat Ivy."
This is the standard by which I grew up in the 40s and 50s. This is the gauge I used to pattern my marriage.
I was only married a short while when I realized something was wrong with me. It happened when I heard myself mumbling obscenities as I pushed the vacuum, powered entirely by resentment, over my lint-laden living room floor. I couldn't believe it but I detested housework. I knew my feelings weren't natural, but who could I tell? It was 1959, and women were supposed to enjoy housekeeping and tending to other people's needs -- at least that's what I'd seen, and what my husband kept telling me.
It appeared that the Domestic Gene my grandmother and mother possessed had skipped a generation and I was destined to a life of internal conflict and guilt. I suffered in silence, although my husband argued that bitching did not fall under the category of silence. I tried not to resent my 168 hour work week, and my husband's mere 40 hour week. I reminded myself that generations of women before me had survived -- and without microwaves. I was determined to be the Super Wife, Mom and Hostess my family deserved.
So, when my husband came home from work and announced, "I've made plans for us to catch an early flight tomorrow morning for a two week vacation in Florida," I resisted reaching for a kitchen knife. Instead, I smiled over clenched teeth and dragged out last year's summer clothes that neither the children nor I fit into any longer, and feverishly washed, ironed and packed. I clenched my fists as I canceled mail and newspaper deliveries, rescheduled doctor and hairdresser appointments and rearranged my life. My husband, rock that he was, watched TV and remained calm through it all as he bathed in the comforting knowledge that his secretary had efficiently tied up all of his loose ends.
My husband enjoyed having company. I only enjoyed the idea of having company, so when he said, "I invited the guys for a barbecue," I shopped for groceries, prepared salads, marinated meat, baked brownies and hyperventilated, and he asked, "Why the hassle, honey?" as he patted me on the backside, reminded me that I should learn to "go with the flow," and left to play a basketball.
Then he suggested we invite his family for dinner. So I sauteed, sliced and sweated and he pointed out that I was doing a great job and suggested that I try being less tense -- and left to play hockey.
And, immediately after desert he announced, "I'm going to watch the ball game on TV," or, "I think I'll run a few laps to work off all that good food," -- and he did -- and nobody noticed, and I was left sitting with a glued smile on my lips, and forefingers prying open my eyelids, while I listened to replays of every story his mother ever told, about his adorable youthful escapades.
When company left I dutifully cleared, cleaned and collapsed, and he walked by, kiss me on the cheek and said, "Leave all that, honey; you can do it in the morning." Then he informed me that everything was terrific and he'd be upstairs sleeping if I needed him.
And when I pointed out how wonderful it must be for him to come as a guest to his own party, he smiled, and reminded me that I was a great little hostess.
One day, in the mid 1970s, after being enlightened by my first issue of Ms. Magazine, I suggested, "Let's have my family to dinner." And while I marinated, minced and embraced martyrdom, he said -- all in one breath, "You're working too hard, honey; I'll be on the couch reading the paper."
And when everyone finished dessert, and he stretched, and began to stand, I quickly jumped up and declared, "I'm going to take a short nap; I'm dead tired," and I walked off, leaving him with his jaw hanging, and my mother retelling stories of my precious childhood.
It wasn't entirely his fault. We were both victims of the times. But, oh, how I would love to have written for the Donna Reed and Father Knows Best shows back in the 50s. Why, I might have even changed the course of history.
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