By Sarah White
The spring I was 10 – 1967 – my mother went to England for two weeks. Before she left she attempted to train me to take over her job as mother. Instead she made me a feminist.
At that time Mother worked at a textbook publishers’ down in Indianapolis. Father worked in the basement doing freelance writing. He was nominally in charge of us, my two slightly-older brothers and tom-boy me.
Our family included two older women who would come to visit us at every holiday and often for weekends in between. Ruth was a family friend, a freelance travel photographer who showed up with great stories and brought back presents from her expeditions. The other was Flosh, my father’s older sister. She had recently moved back to the Midwest after a career in publishing in New York City. Both women had never married or had children, and enjoyed playing a part in my family’s life in Carmel, Indiana. Both lived in Muncie, just two hours away.
I idolized them both. Ruth promised to take me traveling with her in her Volkswagen camper when I got older. Flosh would whisk me off to her house for weekends. I loved getting away from my brothers to be someone’s special child.
The picture each of these women presented looked good to me. Much better than my mother’s life. Mother, when I saw her, was always hurrying to get some sort of meal on the table after work, or to get three active children to do anything she had in mind and they did not, like picking up the house.
At some point she commenced to train me to be of help. She began by teaching me to make pot roast, so I could get Sunday dinner started while she was at church.
Sunday mornings were busy because everybody in the family sang in the choir. My turn came with the girls’ choir at the first service, my brothers in the boys’ choir at the later service. Mother and Father sang in both. My budding feminist soul took offense at this measure of the relative worth of girls versus boys. Being asked to start dinner while I was being excluded from the more important service didn’t sit well with me at all. I did not undertake my cooking lessons with a happy attitude.
Mother showed me how to hold the red slab of meat with tongs, pressing each edge against the hot pan to sear. She set me to washing and slicing the potatoes and carrots, and showed me how to combine them and the seared meat in the pan and lift the heavy mess into the oven.
She also began teaching me laundry. And I began to wonder… why was it me learning these things, and where were my brothers in all this?
Then Mother announced her plans to go to England. An old friend had invited her to visit her family in the Shetlands. Mother stepped up my kitchen and laundry lessons.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. Could it have made its way through the media and into my 10-year-old head by 1966? Possibly. I don’t know what told me to rebel against my domestic lessons, but I know I rebelled.
I was not at all happy about the I-cook-and-clean-while-Mother-goes-to-England plan. I responded by lobbying one single theme: in return for my cooperation, my mother should bring me home a Shetland pony.
My Aunt Flosh inquired with concern: shouldn’t she come to look after us? “No,” my mother insisted, we would be fine on our own. I wondered why my mother would refuse such an obvious solution to the problem. But she wouldn’t hear of Flosh coming.
The day came when we took my mother to the airport and I came home to my temporary job as her. Day by day I made dinners and washed dishes.
In a few days my mother called and we spoke for a few precious long-distance minutes. I reiterated my demand for a Shetland pony. After hanging up I felt guilty. I knew she couldn’t really bring me a pony. So how could I be so cruel as to put her in this bind? But the next time she called I again asked for the pony.
A week went by and it came time to do the family’s laundry. We had no washing machine in the house, so this meant going to a laundromat. My father drove me there and dropped me off with my six baskets of whites and colors.
I was an old hand at going to the laundromat by then, but as I saw it my job was to be the one who read my mother jokes from Readers Digest, and turned sheet-folding into a two-person peasant dance. Laundry is not for doing alone, not six baskets of it.
A big motherly lady was in the Laundromat that Sunday afternoon. “You have so much laundry for a little girl!” she said to me. “Where is your mother?”
“SHE’S DEAD,” I said.
“You poor little honey child,” she replied, and helped me work through those six baskets of clothes.
Now, Carmel was a very small community, and the people in it who used the Laundromat were an even smaller community. It is almost impossible that that woman didn’t know me or my family. Almost certainly she knew my mother was alive and in England.
Flosh appeared the next day in her blue Valiant and announced she was here to help. Thinking about it now, it’s clear to me that a direct line leads from the laundry lady to my aunt. My mistreatment had been observed and behind the scenes, someone helped to arrange my rescue.
Flosh’s arrival was a regime change. Unused to day-to-day life with unruly children or with her absent-minded younger brother, she quickly set about fixing our sloppy ways. What was rescue for me was unsolicited nagging to the rest. I had never seen my father be so unpleasant to Flosh before. Months later, when I asked my mother about that, I learned that the two had a long history. Today we’d say she pushed his buttons.
Day by day our motherless hours counted down to zero, and then our missing mother was back at the front door.
“Did you bring me a pony?” I asked before I let her in, astonished that I could continue to be so cruel. “Yes,” she said triumphantly, and pulled out of her bag of gifts an orange molded rubber pony with a cottony mane and tail. He was about 5 inches in length, and wore an elegant felt saddle. He was a perfect addition to my large and beloved Troll Doll collection. Not one girl in Carmel had ever seen anything like him.
He solved the Pony problem perfectly, and I forgave my mother. A little. But I never wanted to be a mother myself, ever again.