Here’s What Mine Did

mom 6 mos pregnantTalking of what mothers did back in the day – I was kidding when I portrayed them as ladies of leisure yesterday – let me ask myself what my own mom did every day. (This is she, pregnant with her first child at age 39.)

Let’s see… Well, when she was in her 20s her dad told her that she and her sister Grace had to run the family business, a summer camp for girls.

This wasn’t always the family business. In the beginning, it was just that their dad invited people to sleep over when they came to visit him in the country. He had grown up near there, the youngest in a farm family and it may be that he loved the nearness of other living beings, like the farm animals sending up that lovely exhalation of warmth always in pasture and barn. Anyway he got his wife to go along with the idea of making these sleepovers  a paying concern, and, as luck would have it, the concept of summer camps for children was just beginning to take off at the time.. And so ‘Camp Fernwood in the Berkshires’ opened when our mom was 16. A decade later, with his poor wife dead, of what was very likely exhaustion, he got his oldest daughter our future mother to say she’d try her hand at running the thing. “No harder job in the world” she told us kids later in life. “What’s harder than to convince parents to give you their kids for eight whole weeks?” Because that’s what people did then. They sent their kids off for that long.

She worked all summer ordering food and minding the counselors and offering comfort to little girls who got their period for the first time in those eight weeks,  then worked all winter trawling for new campers. She spent all day  up in our attic with Aunt Grace sending out brochures, talking to prospects, begging for the chance to come visit families and describe the fun of it all.

Thirty-five years down the line, however, things had changed: people were buying RV’s and the eight-week camp was becoming  a thing of the past, With great sorrow, because it was their one link to the now-dead father they loved so much, they sold the camp and at age 65 mom got her first salaried job, working for Family Service, this time giving counsel and comfort to the “homemakers” who went in to help out families in times of trouble.

She worked all her life, in other words, without ever making any money to speak of. (The camp was never a paying proposition; it was a whim dreamed up by a man who had his own job as a lawyer and a judge. You can bet HE never helped run the camp.) Then, like every other woman in America, she cooked for the family. And ironed our blue school uniforms, and polished our clunky blue shoes.

There were no labor-saving devices that I can remember. No dishwasher. No real vacuum that I can remember but only a carpet sweeper that looked like it was from  1920s – oh and a washing machine that had an actual wringer on top. Needless to say we had no drier.)

After her husband left her 18 months into the marriage she had no desire to socialize so she just worked at that attic desk and only in her 60s had the joy of job with office chums and office humor and the occasional office birthday party. I remember watching her dress mornings for this job. Sometimes she would say “Today, kids, I’m wearing’my fightin’ suit!’ That’s what she called the outfit she would don on the days she knew would be long ones.

Ah Mom, you wiseguy, you sport, you life of every party: how your children both miss you! How we wish you could be here now laughing about the latest overcooked pot roast.

And so do we all feel I am sure, when we look back and remember all that they did.

grace last day of camp

Aunt Grace (Mom in the background) at camp Fernwood in 1935, and under this the littlest campers in the summer of ’52 and their two sweet counselors Jane and Ina.

this is how little we were

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7 thoughts on “Here’s What Mine Did

  1. Mine worked as a secretary while my father served during WWII. Because she took shorthand, she was in huge demand in the pre-Dictaphone era. One day, she had three job offers. She accepted the first, and started the next morning. She didn’t like them, so she went on to the second. That didn’t feel right either, so she ended the day at the third place, where she stayed for several years. Her boss desperately begged her to keep working after her first baby was born, so my older brother spent his early days in a playpen in an ad-agency. After staying home while producing the next nine (!) children, she decided to go back to work. For fun. So she went to the Music Center in Los Angeles and asked if they needed anyone who took shorthand. Thrilled that someone wanted a job (instead of to be discovered by Hollywood), they put her in Development. She spent another few years very happily meeting celebrities and enjoying herself before retiring again.

    Our mother served as cheerleader, mentor, and the voice in our head for all ten of her children, especially her eight daughters. She doesn’t believe in “women’s roles”, so with her encouragement she has daughters who are engineers, lawyers, doctors, bankers, teachers, and executives. “Remember, girls,” she tells us. “The age of slavery is past. If that job doesn’t give you what you need, and if they don’t get how lucky they are to have you there, just vote with your feet and head on to the next one.”

  2. My gosh, A picture of Grace so young I hadn’t seen. !952 was my first year – cabin 5, age 10, while these littler ones trailed behind. I notice that Ina and Jane put bows in Mary, Ansie and Eleanor’s hair. I’m sure Nan wouldn’t let them to that to her!

    1. ha! I will tell Nan you said that Gwen. Strikes me so funny. I don’t think the Sheehy girls HAD bows.. Maybe they were the props from that parents weekend play with all the five-year-olds lined up dancing. Let me dig up that photo and send it .

  3. Sometimes I wonder if we ever would have met if Caroline and Grace hadn’t invited us to Camp Fernwood after the season. Its the one and only vacation I remember of my childhood and to meet the cousins was even bigger than that. What great women Caroline and Grace!

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