One of my many blessings is a group of women who I’ve known since high school. Susie, Sally, Mary Ellen, and I have supported one another through the ups and downs of life for almost 50 years. As an added bonus, we gained the wisdom of each other’s parents. All of our parents acted as our bumpers in the bowling alley of life. My friends and I could go to any parent, any time.
With the recent passing of Susie’s mother, our last living parent, I was reminded of the responsibilities of women in our early childhood. Homemaking was an exhausting full-time job back then. Mothers had little, if any, time of their own. Their life was about service to family.
When I was a child, visions of my mother included seeing her standing at the washing machine, ironing board, or wearing an apron at the stove. Mom was always working. She didn’t have the conveniences of a microwave, dishwasher, permanent press clothes, or even the ability to drive a car. She walked to the grocery store dragging her folding shopping cart and kids in toe.
Women’s work was labor intensive. Food was cooked from scratch, dishes were washed by hand, clothes needed knuckle-bleeding scrubbing on washboards before tossing into the washing machine, socks were darned, everything had to be ironed, and shoes were polished weekly. The work was never-ending.
Some vendors went directly to the homemaker. Vacuum cleaner, encyclopedia, magazines, and cleaning supply salesmen knocked on the door and gave their sales pitches. Milkmen dropped off the heavy glass containers of milk. Some vendors strolled the streets with push carts or small trucks while ringing bells or calling out their goods such as rags, fresh vegetables, and even bleach for sale, as well as knife sharpening.
During the school year, children came home for lunch. Mothers had only a couple of hours for their morning chores before they needed to prepare our lunches, clean up, and send us back to school for the afternoon. No doubt, it seemed that they barely got us out the door when we returned looking for snacks, needing help with homework, and asking the all-important question, “What’s for Dinner?”
What seemed like most of my childhood, my mother was pregnant. Mom was accomplishing her duties in hot summer kitchens and chilly winters with a growing belly. She had five live births and one stillborn, a total of 54 months of pregnancy in 13 years, which wasn’t unusual at that time. Reliable birth control was not available and any attempt at preventing pregnancy in our Catholic families was frowned upon.
One of my favorite memories of my mother is of her ironing in the living room and watching soap operas, with me at her side while I “ironed” doll clothes on my little ironing board. I was raised to be a wife and mother, just like Mom. However, I had no idea how exhausting her days were. Some women worked outside of the home in limited positions, such as nursing, secretarial, and teaching. However, once married, most “retired.” Wife and mother was their job.
Through all of this, women of the 50s/60s were required to look their best at all times. Most wore (circle or sheath/wiggle) dresses, pencil skirts, stockings, and pumps or stiletto shoes year-round, although pants were becoming popular on occasion. Waists were cinched with a belt or sash. Undergarments included girdles, bullet bras, garter belts, slips, and scratchy petticoats to make their circle dresses stand out.
When out of the house, women were certain every hair was in place and makeup was applied, especially lipstick. Accessories included pearls, clip-on earrings, broaches, gloves, a clutch purse, and often, a hat. Little boots could be worn in winter snow storms, but their outfits were designed for beauty, not comfort or warmth.
On behalf of all the “children” my age, we are most grateful to all the loving and hardworking moms. Their attention to providing us with nurturing homes is gratefully appreciated.
Photos: Mary, Susie, Sally, Mary Ellen, 2020. Shopping cart and washboard. My parents, John and Pat Doyle, 1956. My grandmother (Florence McCarthy), mother, and Aunt Marlene, 1963.