The Solitaire game on my iPhone is way cool. It has features that aren’t available on the standard Windows download for PCs. Namely, there is an unlimited amount of "undos" unlike the restricted one allowed on Windows XP. Plus, after you finish a game, you can play the same one all over again. After playing one game 17 times, I finally won. Sort of like the movie, Ground Hogs Day, starring Bill Murray, a story line that forces the main character to re-live the same day over and over again, until he grows up instead of continuing as the self-centered sensation seeker.
Last night, while driving my teenage daughter home on Queens Boulevard, I told her I was offered the opportunity to be the art director for a documentary. What was originally intended to be a film only to be shown at our neighborhood’s final Centennial Celebration is now being considered to appear on Channel 13, in affiliation with the renowned New York Historian, Barry Lewis. Samantha congratulated me and told me how proud she was of me. As I slowed down at a stoplight, I said, “I want to be a good role model for you.”
A pause hung briefly in the air until the traffic light turned green. I pushed my foot gently on the accelerator and resumed our ride home.
“Mom," Samantha said. The steady sound stream of cars passing each other was interrupted by my daughter’s gentle flow of words.
“You’re already a good role model to me,” she said. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Thank you,” I said. I wanted to look into her eyes and say so. Instead, they began to mist. I continued looking ahead while responsibly holding the steering wheel. My thoughts drifted to my Mom. I wonder how her life would have been like if she didn’t adhere to the stereotype of her time. Back then, in the early ‘50s, if women graduated from college, the norm was to marry and become a housewife, which is exactly what she did. She was swept up by this trend.
She was a daughter of a secretary and engineer from Schenectady suburbia and a Grade A psychiatry major attending the University of Rochester on a scholarship. For whatever reason, whether it was the stress of living up to her parents’ expectations, if they had any, falling for my father's Ivy League charm, or just being swept up by the allure of joining the ranks of the privileged class, she made her move. Like placing the Queen of Hearts onto the King of Spades, she altered the final outcome of her life and married.
What if she chose the path less traveled, instead of following society’s acceptable route by marrying up in the world. Would she have continued her education by going to grad school? She could have become a formidable presence in the field of psychiatry. I see her living in a classically decorated pre-war building on Park Avenue, on a floor high enough so the sun can shine in. The walls would be ensconced with works of fine contemporary artists; maybe even a Monet or Klee. She’d be passionately involved with the arts; serving on museum boards and attending fundraisers for scholarships offered to promising painters. Not someone on the kitchen phone smoking a non-filter Pall Mall cigarette while waiting for the washing machine in the basement to complete its rinse cycle as John Gambling rambled on the radio.
Not only was she one smart cookie, she was also a real beauty. Her deep-set eyes and high cheekbones were a close match to Queen Nefertiti’s bust. Mom was tall and thin and carried herself with the grace of a ballet dancer. After she graduated she moved to my father’s neighborhood, Forest Hills, Queens and landed a job at Elizabeth Arden’s. She worked as a show room model mingling with the fashion elite. Who knows what untapped opportunities waited for her behind the famed Fifth Avenue red door?
Instead Mom walked hand in hand with our father off into the sunset. They had a no-frills wedding ceremony at the Fort Louis Army Base in Georgia, where my Dad happened to be stationed at the time. She eventually bore four children and attended to the day-to-day functions of household management through the years. A Bell & Howell home video camera documented our growing family and prosperity.
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.
I peruse over the choices I’ve made as I coast into a parking spot just outside our apartment building. I watch my daughter close the car door and walk towards the building. She’s in her own world of high school sophomore-ship. I proudly marvel at her living standard. She’s 16 and doing her best. She has a nice crowd of good friends. Her habits include Facebook, doing her hair and makeup. Her teachers give me glowing reports of her class work. She even tried out for the cheer leading team despite the odds of high competition. It wasn’t to long ago that she suffered the slings and arrows of poor management from the local public junior high school. Today, she’s risen above it all remaining loving and sensible.
A thought jumps in front of my meanderings as we wait for the elevator. If my mom didn’t fall victim to what was expected of her would I be having this moment? Would I be alive? Would I have a career? A fine husband?
Maybe I wouldn’t be having this conversation with my daughter or even be grateful for having her. Maybe it wouldn’t mean so much to me to be a good role model for her. As ugly as the results were from the decisions my Mother made, they provided inspiration to how I live today.