On most afternoons, middle to late fifties through middle sixties when I left home for college, Mom held court in her kitchen. She’d talk with whoever sat on the kitchen stool while she worked. When I’d sit on that stool, she’d drop her guard with me, open up, and share her views on the issues of the day.
The kitchen window looked out over the street, across the quarter mile or so of open untended weeds, over a distant grove of high trees beyond the field, to the seemingly carved brown hills on the other side of the San Francisco Bay. We could see folds on those mostly bare brown hills, and dark spots where trees collected. They hinted of travel and adventure. In fact, one of the multiple moments of disillusion for me in my later teenage years was the discovery that those romantic distant hills we saw from the kitchen were the same empty foothills that formed the edge of the very unromantic town of Milpitas, a town that eventually took its place in the low end of the Silicon Valley, but was always a wrong side of the tracks kind of a place for us. But that was later, years after those kitchen stool days.
Mom dearly loved the radio in the kitchen and talk radio, KGO, so much so that even decades later I can still remember the voice, commentary, opinions, and callers of Jim Dunbar and Ron Owens, the talk radio KGO stars who kept mom company every afternoon. When I was in elementary school, she and the radio talked about the Russians, and Sputnik, education, Kennedy vs. Nixon, and society.
Sometimes I’d get home to find her and one of her two liberal friends sitting on a kitchen stool, drink in hand, talking while Mom cooked up dinner. That would be with Dorothy Gormeley, next door neighbor, wife of an executive at some big international enterprise. A true liberal, a great talker, and a pretty good drinker too. Or with Hester Beard, mother of a kid in my class, another great talker and true liberal. Mom loved their politics. And before-dinner drinks were a national custom.
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.
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 Angel, Dream Lover, You 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.
Mom cried the day dad brought home a used 1960 dark red Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible. “Frank, you bought a red convertible,” she cried, with heavy emphasis on the word red, which shepronounced like a guilty verdict. “Burgundy,” Dad said. “Burgundy. It’s Burgundy.”
I felt like an accomplice. I was a teenage car nut. Dad took me along with him to kick tires at the seller’s house before we bought it, used, a couple years older than new.
We did the twist at middle school dances. Chubby Checker, who made the twist popular, played in a concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. A couple of my girl classmates were there, and they were the envy of the rest of us.
Meanwhile, also in 1962, the Beatles were getting going in England, but we didn’t know about it. And the Beach Boys started in California.
And speaking of the Beach Boys, surfing was infinite cool, especially in California. Southern California more than Northern, where we were. But it spread to national cool and affected what we wore, what we watched, what we listened to, and what we did as well. Woodies, station wagons with wood sideboards, and especially older station wagons, were prized. Surfers had blonde hair, bleached or not, male and female.
In Los Altos, nobody I knew actually surfed. There was surfing in Santa Cruz, about ninety minutes away; but nobody had wetsuits so those were special hardy people, in the cold Northern California oceans.
What we did do was make our own skateboards and ride them down the asphalt hills. You couldn’t buy a skateboard back then. You had to buy adjustable metal roller skates, pull them apart, and nail them upside down to the bottom of actual boards. Which is what we all did.
Mom also cried bitterly, off and on for days, when a new neighbor planted trees across the street. Mom knew they would eventually block that view from the kitchen window that she loved so much. We tried to convince her that it wasn’t so bad, but of course she was right, and we knew it. Dad talked to the neighbor, but to no avail. I suppose ownership had changed, or there was some other problem, because I never knew what happened beyond the fact that the trees stayed. And grew.