Talking 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.
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.