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.
Little Sally, a five year old dressed in a pink nightie and with a mop of tangled hair, appeared. “I’m hungwy.”
I gave my best Donna Reed smile. “Give me a minute to take care of these little ones.”
An hour later, with both babies wiped, diapered, and chirping in baby talk, I dumped cereal in bowls, splashed in milk, and scooped in sugar. I stuffed the youngest baby in a high chair, then poured a chunky red glop of baby food into a bowl for her. She stuck her fingers in and smeared everything in a slushy free form mess like a finger painting, then tossed the bowl upside-down to the floor at the same time a bowl of cereal slopped across the table.
More than once I retched as I was slathered with poop while struggling to change the wiggly babies. Messes piled up like snow in a blizzard. They took naps, but never at the same time. By 4:00 Little Sally was still in her nightie so I helped her dress, then tried to brush her hair which ignited in her a fierce defiance. When the mother returned, I passed off the children then bolted.
The rest of summer continued in the same manner. Afterwards, dreams of wedded bliss and babies dimmed considerably.
In junior high, preparation for marriage began. My home economics teacher, Miss Kaaring, was a throwback from an earlier generation when teachers were not allowed to be married. Dressed in a homespun creation, sensible shoes, and with a halo of tight pin-curls pressed against her scalp, she posed before us in an Amazonian stature lecturing with unflappable convictions. She had a no-nonsense persona and must have written the syllabus while watching episodes of Donna Reed. Miss Kaaring worked to cajole us into replicas of fascinating women as we made aprons and casseroles. She gave advice to snag the perfect mate even though she’d never been united in a conjugal match. She was also in charge of sex education. With a lilting rhythmic Scandinavian accent she presented a brief lesson.
“Ladies! Do you know of urges men have?” Giggles ensued. “Keep your bodies pure ‘til you are married. Urges – men have – are nat – ural. Ven you – marry – you vill – learn more. Vhy do – men have – urges?”
“To make babies!” someone yelled. Again, laughter stirred up the mesmerized audience. Like most teenagers in those days, I had skewed information about sexual intercourse. I knew my parents had done the unimaginable three times to produce three children, but I’d had a shocking revelation when I discovered mom’s birth control hidden in the bathroom. It upset me to think my parents did the unimaginable with regularity. It didn’t fit with the cryptic messages Mom had alluded to during her talk about menstruation.
“Ya, goot. Vhat’s – da dif – ference – ‘tween da – goot girl – and da – nice girl?”
“A good girl goes on a date, goes home and goes to bed. A nice girl goes on a date, goes to bed and goes home.”
“Dat’s right. You are - smart girls. Here’s a – pamphlet – for you – to read – vit your – mudders.” The bell rang and that was that.
I knew to guard my virginity, but I was guarding another shameful secret. I had urges, too. At night, I’d sneak out to meet my boyfriend for lots of kissing and fondling. The first time I experienced a deep throbbing pleasure, I tried to disguise from him the lovely sensation. I had a vague idea about his excitement, but I was clueless about my desires. I was fearful the physical mysteries my body revealed might cause internal damage, but I didn’t care. I was hooked. Pleasure held sway over guilt, but I believed something was wickedly wrong with me.
Having been propagandized by happy TV families and home economics classes, the allure of domestic rapture captured me again. I’d get to have sex to accommodate my husband’s urges. Memories of tending real children who shit real poop, and made a marathon of housework faded away.