Remembering a Mother Defined by Her Times

A mother-daughter moment prompts thoughts of a mother defined by the 1950s.

by Cheryl Cuddeback • Member { View Profile }

For a while it seemed like she made the right choice. Dad continued playing at the West Side Tennis Club. Now us kids attended private schools. We moved into a larger house that had a driveway and greenhouse and even joined a beach club. Mom had her hair touched up once a month in Manhattan by the same hair colorist who did the Gabor sisters. Our parents went on vacation trips together.

Like cards in a Solitaire game sequentially piling onto their designated suit, so was the life of our family. Mom and Dad hosted many impromptu parties during weeknights where everyone would dance to Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass, The Dorsey Brothers and German music blaring from our new stereo console. There was always a dinner guest and wine on the table. We even had a live-in housekeeper for a while. The cards kept moving without dipping into the reserve pile in search of hope.

Our downfall sneaked up on us like losing to a sure win game of Solitaire. No matter how many delicious dinners Mom prepared, cleaned the house till it sparkled, or made strides to look her best, she and Dad fought incessantly. What began as “Living Happily Ever After” became “The Glory That Once Was Rome." Dad moved out and Mom was left with the task of telling us about the divorce. She said it was for the best, but I cried. Dad cancelled our credit with the local grocery and drug stores. We could no longer shop at Best & Co. Bills accumulated. My brother and I transferred into Forest Hills High. I don’t know what hurt me more — my parents’ divorce or never seeing the sun set over Rockaway from the Sun & Surf Beach Club.

A week after the divorce papers were signed, my mother ended up in The Mary Immaculate Hospital’s Intensive Care Ward in Jamaica, Queens. She was diagnosed with pancreatitis. This was only the first in a series of emergency hospital visits. During one stay her heart actually stopped beating. Despite all of mom’s brushes with death, our father rarely mailed out the alimony checks on time. Often they didn’t include the correct full amount and always they were made out by my father’s new wife.

We continued living in our grand house, and it reflected our decay. Mom stopped paying for the heat; the gas oven was the sole supplier of winter warmth. None of the broken air conditioners were replaced let alone removed. Cool summer showers were welcomed despite the growing leak in the sun porch’s ceiling. We washed our dishes by hand after the dishwasher died. Only the refrigerator, washing machine and dryer remained reliable.

Mom took in a couple of strayed dogs and cats. They offered us much happiness and comfort but were rarely walked. The wall-to-wall carpeting needed to be removed. An aroma of urine and feces remained until Mom had to sell the house. Her story became Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.

Mom spent the rest of her years sitting on her bedside. She’d cross her thin legs while smoking a cigarette and watching the news. There was either a cup of coffee of a glass of beer on her nightstand. Her short cotton-thin hair displayed an inch or two of dark roots. Once in a while she’d eat.

What if Mom could have experienced her own Groundhog’s Day when she was younger? What if she were to re-live one day over and over again, similar to what Phil Connor’s underwent? What would have been the magic ingredient to release her from living a repetitive day and alter her destiny?

Maybe she would have shunned the typical role of what was assumed of so many women, pre-Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique? Yet how tempting it must have been to marry a handsome and charming man who came from an upscale neighborhood and who could provide for a family. Maybe she wouldn’t have passed out while smoking a cigarette and die in New York Hospital days later.

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