Generations Midcentury Modern
I find myself looking at the same memories with new eyes now that you’re gone.
Even before the dementia, you only remembered what you wanted to remember.
Dad was a saint. The two of you never fought. You had a happy marriage. We had a happy family in the blissful suburbs. It wasn’t until after you died that I read Betty Friedan and recognized you, a generation of white, upper-middle-class, stay-at-home housewives in the American suburbs after the Second World War. Women unwilling to admit their profound dissatisfaction with their lives. Many of them, like you, afflicted with an extraordinary range of psychosomatic symptoms that baffled their doctors: stomach pains, insomnia, skin conditions, hives, allergies, weight gain, a sense of malaise. And fatigue, unrelenting fatigue.
“I just don’t have any pep today,” you’d say, having roused yourself out of bed when Dad arrived home from his job in lower Manhattan. You sipped a martini, or two, he sipped a Scotch on the rocks, or two, and read the Wall Street Journal . “Will you be quiet, Peg?” he’d say, every night, as you interrupted his reading, starved for conversation. And finally, “Will. You. Be. Quiet!”
You’d cry. You’d say you were too tired to make dinner, though you hadn’t done anything all day. You’d sob some more, say “I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” say “I just can’t shake this cold,” say “My allergies are acting up again,” say “The doctor’s got me doing some new tests,” and then wipe your tears. “It’s Do-It-Yourself Night, kids,” you’d tell my brother and me, your tone sprightly, as if this were a rare treat.
When I suggested years later that you’d been depressed, you said, “Of course I wasn’t depressed. I had a lot of colds.” You’d never believed in depression (a failure of willpower, according to Dad), or antidepressants (“happy pills,” you and Dad called them), or psychiatrists (“witch doctors”).
I remember tiptoeing around the darkened house after school every day, curtains drawn because you were napping. The air smelled of stale cigarette smoke. When you weren’t in bed, you sat chain-smoking in front of soap operas like General Hospital on TV. “It’s company,” you said. You played solitaire, read romances and mysteries, and did the New York Times crossword puzzles. (You were good at them, a good bridge player, too, who later became a Life Master, won bridge tournaments.) You rarely got dressed. Instead you wore a housecoat with snaps over your pastel nylon nightgown, knee-length and bedraggled. Or, something fancier for cocktails with Dad, a floor-length velour hostess gown with a zipper.
When I was a teenager, we fought constantly. You wanted a popular daughter, a cheerleader, not an intellectual. I identified with my bookish father and wondered what he had ever seen in you. I must have made your depression worse, scorning your life choices, talking about books you’d never heard of, ready for college and travel and adventures you’d never had. I was reading Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen, bell hooks. Not Friedan—already considered classist, racist, and homophobic by feminists; the plight of women like you didn’t interest me. I traveled, lived in Europe for four years, came back for a graduate fellowship. My life couldn’t have been more unlike yours.
Only much later did I learn that you’d wanted to go to college and major in biology, but your father thought it was a waste of money. I was a mother and full-time professor then, teaching at a state university with many low-income returning students who’d been denied a chance to study when they finished high school. Mostly women. Your economic privilege prevented me from seeing similar restrictions in your life. You followed the social scripts available to a woman of your class—went to nursing school, appropriate for a young woman in the 1940s; worked as a nurse for a few years before you met Dad, a patient at the hospital; married him; and moved to a house in an upscale suburb. Everything midcentury modern: Danish furniture, abstract oil paintings, Pyrex casserole dishes, plain white Russel Wright dinnerware, Revere Ware pots and pans with gleaming copper bottoms. You were proud of your possessions, all in vogue again today. When I see millennials celebrating midcentury modern decor, I can only think of all those unhappy women expected to settle for the so-called joys of domestic life. You’d made it, by the standards of the day, but you hated cooking, you hated cleaning, you claimed housework gave you hives.
Were you ever happy as a suburban housewife and mother? I don’t remember you showing any interest in either role. I only know that you relived those three years as a nurse over and over during your years of dementia. You were nineteen again and told long stories about resenting your boss, about inadequate supplies at the city hospital, never enough towels. Was it the only time in your life that you were granted independence and authority? When you weren’t lost in the past, you thought you were one of the nurses in the memory-care facility. “We had our hands full today,” you said when I called on the phone. “It was just unreal.” The few years when you worked as a nurse seemed to be the only fulfilling years of your life.
We are all lost in the past, which changes as we grow older.
We are all lost in the past, which changes as we grow older. Familiar byways become unfamiliar when we circle back at a different time of day, surprised by details we’d overlooked or never paused to consider, despite traveling this way many times before. We walk more slowly, notice more, and stop more often. Lately, I have been dwelling on the short period of grace before you died, a light-filled visit when our animosities were suspended. You were in your eighties, adrift without Dad, suffering from memory loss and hallucinations. I was occupied with work and my own family, living three thousand miles away. We didn’t see each other often. You were too frail to go out and had lost your appetite; still you were delighted as a child when we brought a pizza to the memory-care facility and sat outside on the small, tree-lined patio. The afternoon was drowsy and quiet. I rubbed your shoulders, and you smiled.
I find myself looking at the same memories with new eyes now that you’re gone. When I was younger, I never understood how limited your choices were. You had so few intellectual outlets: solitaire, crossword puzzles, duplicate bridge. I wish I could have met the seventeen-year-old girl straining against her father’s prohibitions, the nineteen-year-old nurse who loved her job, the young mother who wasn’t angry or depressed yet, who hadn’t retreated to bed. The woman who was eager for the future and wide awake. We might have liked each other.