Growing up as the Donna Reed Show

Okay, I admit it: I’m the kind of tedious baby boomer who reminisces about the 50s and that part of the 60s that came before the real 60s, or as my parents thought, the time just before everything went to hell. Women in those days did their housework in poplin dresses with which they wore stockings and utilitarian shoes, their hair done and their makeup on. My mother’s hands were always full, of laundry, sewing, the vacuum cleaner, or dishes. She always had a fragrance about her, which I called a “mummy smell”: something along the lines of Jergens hand lotion, light and sweet.

I played on the dining room floor under the table, with coloring books and dolls and picture books. I vaguely recall a playpen prior to that, and a crib for nap time. I seem to have memories of very early childhood, of being held in my mother’s arms at the kitchen table, where she would spoon baby food into my mouth and coo at me. I tried talking to her, but she didn’t understand me very well, which was mildly frustrating. In the evenings after the dinner dishes were done she would bathe me in the kitchen sink.

At some point before dinner my father would come home, calling out a cheerful hello as he came through the front door. I ran down the hall to him and he would pick me up and swing me in his arms. He wore a suit and tie, with a grey fedora and grey wool coat. His shoes were always shiny and his shirts neatly ironed. He told me he was “the boss of the bank,” which strictly speaking wasn’t true, although he was the treasurer, close enough. We lived in a two-story white house with black shutters,  a full front porch, a bay window, and an enormous yard with a barn in back for the blue-and-white car.

I have two older brothers, but they didn’t live with us; they were “at school.” Mark was seven years and Tommy four years older than I. Three or four times a year they would be home for visits that typically lasted two weeks, and we would be a family together. In between times we would drive up once a month or so to their school in Rhinebeck, New York. Both our visits and theirs were the high points of my young life. I loved my big brothers and saw them as living an exciting, grown-up life away, bringing welcome noise and laughter into our quiet home. We spent the entire visit playing together, going on excursions in the car, and hiking in the woods looking for snakes and turtles, which we would keep for a day or two and then set free again. Mark was very knowledgeable about the different varieties, garter snakes and grass snakes, box turtles and painted turtles. The fact that some of these creatures could be deadly was a source of fascination—over and over, he would ask our father, “Can I pick up a snapping turtle?” and Dad would answer, “Sure, just as soon as you figure out which of your fingers you don’t need any more.” “No!” Mark would say with a big laugh, and not long afterward would ask all over again.

Tommy was quieter, pacing around the dining room with his hands in loose fists to either side of his head. Once in awhile he would come out with some brief remark, and then return to his pacing. He played with blocks and simple white plastic bricks, or else drew rows and rows of tiny, square-shaped objects on sheets of paper, always in pencil. He would vocalize aimlessly in keening sounds, sometimes singing a little. Outside he liked the swing set in the back, where he would sing loudly as he pumped higher and higher.

Why couldn’t Mark and Tommy live with us all the time I once asked, and my mother simply groaned and shook her head. I didn’t get it. I could vaguely remember a time when Tommy was still with us, at a school across town. Earlier still they had gone to the same school I would attend. On my first day of kindergarten, the teacher called my name and then said, “I had your brothers,” through lips that were pursed just a little, and maybe by then I had some idea why. My brothers were “a handful,” especially Tommy, although according to my mother Mark had been an even bigger handful at one time. That was before he was sent to his first school away from home, a place called Strawberry Hill, where the teachers used a clever strategy to get him to stop screeching: every day my brother loved going along to meet the mail truck, but he could only go if he didn’t screech that day. For awhile he responded by screeching until he was hoarse, but eventually he learned to stop doing it.

These stories were nothing more to me than ordinary family lore, along with the fact that while the boys were home, none of my other friends came around. It was understood that the time with them and the time without them were separate, and I got used to never so much as talking about my brothers with people from our life apart from them, not with people my age or with grownups. I did not break this rule for many, many years.

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