When I was little, I imagined I’d grow up to be like the television character, Donna Reed, who exuded elegance and success. I’d live in a beautiful house with a beautiful family. Meals would appear like magic from an oven.
Wearing flouncy dresses and clacking heels, I’d serve green beans and tuna noodle casseroles to my loved ones who’d praise the delicious outcomes, then kiss my cheek before running off to take care of important business. With a radiant grin and a shake of my head, I’d scrape the leftovers into the garbage, then tackle the piles of dirty dishes. Tidy problems with tidy solutions could be wiped away as though swishing a feather duster like a magical wand. With infinite patience and lucrative finances I’d help my sweet daughter find a perfect prom dress. Each evening, I’d greet my tired husband, ready with a tray of chilled martinis garnished with speared olives. Marital disagreements would extinguish quickly with a stomp of my foot and a coquettish pout as he flashed a smile and patted my head. Within minutes we’d make up, harsh words forgotten. These wholesome escapades of domestic joy were the dreams close to my heart. Like the fairy tale promises of true love I would live happily ever after.
I was oblivious to the incongruence between my TV family and my real family. My parents were loving and responsible, but noisy children and messes were part of our daily truths. Dad’s departure to work and Mom’s whirl of frenzied housework didn’t help me grasp the finesse of household management. Pretending to be Donna, I played house, changed the diapers of my Wetsy Betsy doll, and cooked fake meals in my toy oven. What fun I had.
Many paradigms were visualized for me in the TV world. Other paragons of purity were God, teachers, and the president. Their infallibility led me to secure my integrity for marriage. I thought college was a place to find a husband and become engaged, then we’d marry and have children. My purpose was to arrange for the comfort of others, put my family’s needs first, obey my husband’s protective authority, and abide by his decisions concerning worldly matters. To be contrary or discuss unpleasant business was in bad taste for a lady and personal fulfillment was considered selfish. Such were the aspirations for daughters.
The first clue the fairy tale life I’d aspired to might not be enchanting, came the summer after fifth grade. I was hired to babysit three children. The mother worked full time to support the family and pay for the advancement of her husband’s career while he attended university. I babysat evenings for them while the children slept so I felt qualified to take on the weekday routine. Apparently, they thought so, too.
The first morning, the young mother answered the door draped in a bathrobe. She stood with a gooey baby slung on her hip and a naked toddler clinging to her leg.
“Come in! I’m not ready,” she said. “My husband left an hour ago. He’s so busy.” Before I could respond she shoved the baby in my arms while grabbing the other youngster. “Let’s get dressed, Sweetie.”
The baby belted out loud shrieks while reaching for her mother. I felt important as I cootchie-cooed her. She ensnarled her tiny hands in my hair and tugged as she threw herself backwards. From the bathroom came a loud crash, followed by maniacal laughing from the toddler who ran down the hall, and then the drone of a stern warning as his mother hurried after him.
Shortly, the mother returned dressed in a simple shift, sturdy shoes, and clipping an earring with one hand while lugging the toddler who was still naked. “I’m running late. Please dress him. Little Sally is in her room. Kisses…” She whizzed by, handed off the toddler, ran her fingers through her cropped hair, then flew out the door.
“You forgot your other earring…,” both youngsters went into spasms of screeching as if in competition to reach the loudest pitch. I did my best to comfort them.
Their wails subsided, but the door flung open, and the mom popped in. “Here’s a note with instructions. Bye.” She bolted and both babies let loose with more protests.