50s: Dad Taught by Example; Mom by Talk

We were a typical family of the fifties. Dad was the breadwinner and Mom kept house. We had a family meal at six o’clock every weekday and most weekend days too. 

Gender roles were set. Mom kept the house clean, did the laundry, managed the kids, did shopping, made dinner, bought our clothes, and took us to the library on Tuesday nights, took us to doctors and dentists, and managed our chores and did most of the child raising. She’d have occasional work days, like cleaning up our rooms on a Saturday, and sometimes even vacuuming the living room. Sometimes she’d “go on the warpath” and we’d all avoid her. 

Dad was the best Ophthalmologist on the West Coast. He didn’t have odd hours, so he was home in time for dinner every day, preceded by two stiff drinks every day except when he had surgery the next day. Mom also had two stiff drinks before dinner. 

Dad supported Mom’s child raising and pitched in with a united front when needed, but his interaction with us was mostly around fun. He loves sports and brought us along with enthusiasm. He taught us football, basketball, baseball, gold, and tennis. He shared his life with us easily, not really sacrificing, just being happy to have us with him doing things he liked to do. Dad was also in charge of the yard, and he’d also have occasional work days that we hated, outside in the yard. Chip and I worked with him planting a lot of trees and shrubs to landscape the house. 

Mom taught by talk, and, her special grace, talk as equals. She’d drop her guard with me, open up, and share her views on the issues of the day.  We talked about politics, the war, hippies, free speech, Betty Friedan, the greening of America, civil rights, Kennedy. And we talked about questioning authority, Mom’s deep sense of right and wrong, and her passion for ideas. 

Dad taught almost entirely by example. Dad taught by sharing part of his life that he liked. He taught us sportsmanship and achievement on the ball fields, concentration on the golf course, focus on the tennis court. He taught us love as doing things, being there, quietly, constantly, off to work, back at dinner, being the best ophthalmologist west of the Mississippi, being a good friend, being home with us when he was home, and being the best in everything from his practice, to his fathering. 

50s: Gender in the Fifties

We were taught to respect women. Even back in those gender-restrained days, as we grew up, Dad was never disrespectful to women. Not when he was alone with his boys, and — we knew — not when he was alone with his friends. If there is such a thing as “locker room talk,” which became a thing in 2016, there wasn’t in our house. Nobody commented on physical attributes of women, so the most you’d ever hear was that some movie star was “sexy.” We were taught to open doors and pull out chairs for women, although not to hold them to the forced gender roles. Ladies first was taken for granted. 

When I started noticing girls as girls, they were magic, worthy of awe. Touching, or holding hands, connected me to their glow. They were soft to the touch and smelled like spring and flowers. They were different from us boys in all the best possible ways, alluring. And they were better. Higher beings. 

Love for us elementary school kids was a platonic “going steady” that started in the third grade for me, with Nancy Pershing. The other kids knew about it and respected it. It meant nothing more than an extra smile at odd times and partnering up during the square dance sessions in PE. Jane Trowbridge and Penny Tie in fourth, fifth, and sixth. 

And it also meant relating to the love songs they played on KYA, the rock station of the Bay Area. Earth AngelDream LoverYou Send Me, in my radio at night, with me dreaming of holding hands when we weren’t doing square dancing in PE. 

A lot of the oddities of gender from the fifties seem horribly out of place as I write this in 2020. 

Girls didn’t do sports. Not the cool girls. They could maybe do field hockey, but that was about it. Only boys rode their bikes to school, plus the occasional oddball girl who was not cool. 

Women were generally expected to be nurses, teachers, secretaries, waitresses, or retail salesclerks and cashiers. 

Mom, although she lived the stereotype, objected to the tight gender roles whenever she got a chance. Later in life, after we grew up, she resented her role as housewife and wished she’d had a career. She never wanted Martha to be pigeonholed. 

Mom and Dad taught us to believe in equality, ending segregation, civil rights laws, integrated schools.  But the blacks were in the Fillmore and Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and East Palo Alto, and we never went there. We also avoided the so-called “Mexican” neighborhoods in Mountain View.  The fear of the other was unspoken, in the background. Prejudice and bigotry weren’t allowed in our house, but then our house was in a lily-white suburb. 

For more about gender, then and now, there’s a password protected piece on some related issues, in my section on reflections.