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The kid in grey flannel undies

When I was young, my mother had a Good Housekeeping view of motherhood and the ideal place for women in the family. She came from a family of twelve, ten kids whose stay-at-home mother was as stern as she was forgiving. Her father worked as a postal inspector, and in the evenings, he changed his coat and became a butcher at a local grocery store.

My mother learned an acute form of Catholicism that held sway over all family relations and allowed no quarter for women, except as wives and mothers. She married my father partially for love. He was a good looking, intelligent man who had a confidence born from absolute ignorance and naiveté. He promised escape from the totalitarian grip of her father and the responsibilities of raising her younger siblings.

Regardless of her ideal, the move from her father’s home to her husband’s was a graduation from one kind of autocracy to another. In marriage, she did not only what she believed women were supposed to but also what my father unquestionably expected: She raised kids, kept house, and had dinner on the table promptly at 6 p.m.

But after fourteen years of marriage, she admitted that life women’s magazines made seem so beautiful and fulfilling was lacking in all the ways that feminist writers of the time indicated. In a house full of children, she was alone.

As with many like her, she resorted to the exotic distractions of the age: afternoon soap operas, shopping at the mall, and belly dancing. She hosted and attended Tupperware parties. She crocheted pastoral scenes and framed them to hang on the wall.

As kids, we went to school wearing jackets with flowers needlepointed on the lapels. We wore stocking caps knitted with Day-Glo yarns.

When her youngest entered school, she took a job at the department store at the local mall, but only after a series of angry fights with my dad. He argued that the woman was supposed to raise the children and he was supposed to win the bread. She argued that after a lifetime alone in the home, she needed more than just cleaning and cooking for the family. The marital vows held sway, in the end, and my father had to adjust to life with a working woman.

Once triumphed, however, my mom found, however much work gave her identity and contact outside the home, retail was no less stressful, boring, and routine than the labors she just left.

What strikes me now is that my parents never understood the irony of cash registers and upscale perfumes and lingerie in their lives. They served money and power, systems of social and moral change beyond their control. Feeling powerless, they labored ever more intensely. They wanted life easy, unthreatening, their way. They sought the comforts of job, family, and retirement only to be imprisoned by them. Jobs for them created misery. Their children were inconvenient interferences. Retirement was a mythical dream that made the present that much more unbearable. Fear of routine and anonymity weighed on them. My father feared the creative and adventurous side of himself, yet yearned for immortality, to be a great man. My mother sought fulfillment where none could be offered.

Ultimately, they became extraordinary in my eyes, and today I understand that the struggles I witnessed were those of the age. Despite the misery, the degradation they felt, the embarrassment at their humble stations, they did what I cannot and cannot imagine for myself. My father sat at that workbench for thirty five years, providing enough money for his family to live in material comfort. My mother, too, raised kids and worked at retail and in offices at desks for twenty years. I have yet to stay at any job, physical or mental, for more than three.

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