"I can't believe you're moving to Brooklyn. All my life I've been trying to get away from Brooklyn..."
--Mom to Madame X, mid-1990s
So, when the family saga last left off, my Dad had just met my mom. It's sort of amazing that they even got to that point.
My mom grew up poor. Really poor. Walking 2 miles to school in bare feet kind of poor, literally, during her early childhood on her grandparents' farm. She moved to Brooklyn as a kid in the early 50s, not knowing more than a word or two of English. She and her father, who worked as a barber, came to New York first, followed by her mother and 3 younger sisters months later. They lived in tenement apartments, including one where, she told me, there were rats "the size of kittens." When I was a kid, I had never seen a rat, let alone a mouse, aside from a little white one in some classroom habitrail, so it wasn't until much later that I realized how horrible this must have been.
My mother never had a bike, or even roller skates. She never learned to swim. There was never a family car. Another story she once told me (to explain why she always goes overboard on groceries): some friends of her parents' came to their apartment to visit, and they had no food or drinks in the house to offer them, "not even a can of Coke... I was so ashamed." Despite all this she remembers her childhood fondly, and when she and her sisters get together and start reminiscing about all the places they used to go to, to dance to Latin bands and '50s rock and roll, you'd think their childhood had been blissful, unmarred by poverty and the disruption of their parents' eventual divorce.
But Mom always had her eye on some kind of "better life." She learned flawless, unaccented English and did well in school. She had some talent for drawing, and she loved clothes, so she ended up going to a high school that specialized in fashion industry training, and she was the first person in her family to get a high school degree. (Her parents never finished school, and at least one of her grandparents never learned to read.) Pictures of my mom from the early 60s make her look almost like Jackie O. She had the gloves, the little suit jackets (even if she'd sewed some of them herself)-- she was stylish, and beautiful, and somehow, she had class and good taste. She had dreams of working in the fashion world, and briefly had a job at Christian Dior, but something about it didn't work out. Then she had a few other short-term office jobs, was a flight attendant for a while, and ended up as a receptionist in a law firm for a little while. One of the partners was related to my dad by marriage, so that is how they met-- and it's a perfect illustration of the difference in their backgrounds.
"I thought he was like one of the Kennedys," she later said of my father, and I can see why: he was blue-eyed and Irish, with a sailboat and a big boisterous family (albeit one with a LOT less money than the Kennedys, and fewer alcoholics and no lobotomies). But in any case, my dad was a highly eligible bachelor-- and very much unlike the other boyfriends my mother had had from the world she wanted to leave behind, such as a greasy-haired mechanic, and some guy who got involved in a gang.
So then it's the classic story-- she gets pregnant, they get married, they buy a house in the suburbs and have 2 kids. It's just what she's always wanted, to be a wife and mother: a homemaker. But is she happy?
She's happy in some ways but not in others. She's always wanted to escape from her past. But as assimilated as she is, she's always a wee bit more "ethnic" than the neighbors in our small waspy town, and sometimes she's lonely, and wants to escape back to that other world where people didn't seem so uptight, where they actually danced at their parties. But more importantly, she and my dad are realizing more and more that they are not quite on the same wavelength, in a variety of ways, but especially in terms of how they think about finances. She wants to spend money to make everything clean and pretty and comfortable, to dress her children nicely and fill the fridge with food. He wants to save money, so they can maybe move to a bigger house someday, but more importantly, to send the kids to college. Mom thinks about "now" and "beautiful," Dad thinks about "later" and "practical." It's beginning to be a problem.
TO BE CONTINUED...