Bringing Up Mother
My children don't purposely pain me.
They mean to be patient, I know,
As gently but firmly they train me
In the way that a mother should go.
They say my illusions are many;
They smile at the things I believe.
(My reasoning process (if any),
They laughingly label naive.
Do you think I resent them? No, never.
I accept all the training they give,
For I hope to be modern and clever
By the time that I die--if I live!
Ernestine Cobern Beyer
My mother saved letters I sent her about her grandchildren’s antics, returning them in batches every few weeks. Excerpt Summer 1950: Timmy stopped digging in the sand and stared at a buxom newcomer to Sandy Cove. She unfolded a chair and sat down nearby. She had more cleavage than he had ever seen in his life, arousing his curiosity and prompting a question: “Lady, is that your bottom?”
|KATHIE, TEDDY, TIMMY AND VONNIE LOOK THROUGH PANTRY WINDOW 1947|
Esther's day off is by far the most arduous of the week. l worry about my impending trial for the three days preceding it, and it takes three more to recover. Last Thursday was typical.
At 6:45 a.m. I am jolted awake by my alarm clock. I hasten to throttle it lest it disturb my sleeping spouse. Routine requires that he must not arise until eight o'clock. This ensures his arrival in the kitchen at 8:25, just in time to drop Kathie at the bus-stop.
I give Timmy his bottle after handing Kathie and Teddy their school outfits and shooing them downstairs, cautioning them not to wake Vonnie with their chatter. Nevertheless, weird noises float up from the kitchen. I rush downstairs and beg them to lower their voices. Experience has taught me that the presence of a
|VONNIE, A SPIRITED TWO-YEAR-OLD|
I get breakfast with one eye on the clock, the other on Kathie and Teddy, struggling into shoes and pulling on shirts. While the children are eating, I fix Kathie’s lunch and braid her hair. Then she must have her hands and face washed, bib off, leggings and boots on.
If my timing is perfect, Ed walks in just as Kathie is putting on her jacket and cap.
I kiss them goodbye, push them out the door, tell Teddy to finish getting dressed, and dash up to the third floor to get Vonnie up. Dressing her quickly, I hurry downstairs to help Teddy get his outdoor clothing on. His teacher blows the horn, and off goes another child for a few hours, thank heavens.
Vonnie has breakfast while I squeeze Timmy’s orange juice and finish my chores in the kitchen. Then we go upstairs where I make beds and straighten rooms from nine to nine-thirty, when it’s time for Timmy’s orange juice, bath, and bottle. While I take care of him, Vonnie bounces on beds and unstraightens rooms.
At 10:30 I prop up with a blanket what’s left in Timmy’s bottle and get his sister ready for her nap. I return to Timmy, bubble him, and put him back in his crib. Now I have one whole hour to myself. I have no laundry to do, no housework, yet already I am exhausted. So what do I do? I lie down for a minute and fall into a deep sleep, interrupted immediately, it seems, by the sound of an automobile horn. Teddy is home from nursery school, soon followed by Kathie.
Once in awhile the weather is nice enough for the kids to play outdoors. Once in a very great while I am able to persuade them to do so. Ten minutes later, wet and cold, they pound at the door. Off come mittens, caps, boots, jackets, snow pants, and mufflers, everything sopping, zippers sticking, noses running. I promise them that if they are very good while I give Timmy his 2:30 bottle, we will do something nice. I cuddle Timmy and try to think of something nice and not too strenuous.
When I return to the kitchen, the matter has been settled: I have a major role in cops `n’ robbers. For an hour I am killed and brought to life again by my indefatigable playmates. The game continues while I get dinner, as tricky a stunt as Eliza crossing the ice. I dodge fire-engines, duck airplanes, step over dead bodies, and still have dinner on the table by five o-clock. By 6:40 the children are bathed and ready for bed. Kathie is allowed to play in her room for awhile, providing she is quiet. She reads and talks to herself in a whisper.
I collapse on the bench in front of my vanity table. A wild-eyed apparition stares back at me from the mirror. Summoning up my last few ounces of strength, I perform a miracle. When Ed arrives fifteen minutes later, I am showered and dressed, combed and brushed, perfumed and powdered.
“Hello, honey, did you have a tough day?” he asks.
“Kind of,” I sigh, sinking into the living-room chair.
We have cocktails and dinner, I stack the dishes, and then I haven’t a thing to do until it’s time for Timmy’s bottle at 9:00. Goodness, it’s 9:00 now! Timmy is fed, changed, and tucked into bed. He is already asleep, and I wonder what made him so tired.
There is just one thing I want to know: how did grandmother, who had six children, field hands, a husband to feed, and no help, ever get her chores done?
|SNAPSHOT TAKEN BY ESTHER IN 1947|
April 22, 1947
I’ve sent Mother a picture of the Malley family in Ed’s convertible. It's the first one ever taken of all six of us. In another picture, Teddy is loving Timmy, not throttling him, as it may appear. I never thought boisterous little Teddy would prove to be such a tender, gentle big brother.
When Esther and her daughter Jacquie first joined our family, Esther asked Kathie why she called her grandmother "Isha." Kathie looked at her in astonishment and answered, "Because that's her name!"
Yesterday Esther asked Teddy, “Who’s that man getting out of the car?”
“Our father,” he said.
“Who art in heaven,” Kathie added.
“He’s not in heaven. He’s married to our mother.”
When Teddy’s nursery school teacher called for him this morning, she admired his new spring coat and hat. She was taken aback when he swept off his cap, bowed low, and said good-morning. He learned this gallantry in Sunday School last week.
November 6, 1947
Teddy came down with chicken pox the day after Halloween. Vonnie got it the following day, and Timmy the day after that. The baby’s case is light so far, but Teddy and Vonnie are covered with red, itchy sores. The doctor said the only relief for the itching is baby oil. Vonnie cries, “Put the oil-it baby on me!”
Sunday night Teddy came wailing to the head of the stairs.
“What’s the matter, dear?” his father called.
“I dropped the baby oil,” Teddy wept.
“That’s all right, don’t worry about it.”
“But I dropped it on my toe!”
December 21, 1947
I enjoy eavesdropping on the children’s conversations; their young minds work so unpredictably.
Kathie’s friend: “I have a puppy.”
Kathie: “Oh, if it’s a girl, can I have a puppy when it grows up?”
Friend: “I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. If it’s a girl you can have a puppy. My puppy is white.”
Kathie: “I like white horses.”
Teddy: “Yellow is my favorite color.”
December 26, 1947
My seven-year-old daughter loves “The Littlest Angel,” but Teddy won’t listen to it because it's “too sad.” Kathie told me some of the children in school say there isn’t any Santa Claus. She said with a patronizing laugh that when she was little, she didn’t believe in Santa Claus either, but now she knows better.
This year I labeled two or three packages "From Daddy" and "From Mommy," so we wouldn’t be accused of failing to give the children any presents, as we were last year. I gave Kathie a Dy-Dee doll that drinks, wets, and blows bubbles. Kathie brought a wet diaper for me to see.
”I had to change her. I’m going to hang this up to dry. Of course it’s only water.”
She repeated this observation at least three times. I think she was hoping I’d contradict her, but I had to agree it was only water.
While Kathie was caring for her child, Teddy watched her impatiently. She had interrupted a game of cowboys and Indians, and they were both dressed in character.
”Don’t forget we’re cowboys and cowgirls,” he reminded her.
“Well, I’m a mother, too,” said Kathie, her cowboy hat at a jaunty angle as she put another diaper on her doll.
January 12, 1948
To start with, Teddy was grouchy and uncooperative about getting ready for school. I bribed him by promising him a surprise after lunch if he would cheer up. Then, on this day of all days, the nursery school teacher had car trouble and was an hour late. After rushing to get Teddy and Vonnie ready by 8:30, I waved a weak goodbye at 9:30. I bathed Timmy, put him in his crib, and made the beds while he rocked his head back and forth and murmured, "Mmmm, mmmm," his way of falling asleep.
Before lunch I went to the hall closet to get some modeling clay for the promised surprise. The clay came in colored sections that looked like Tootsie Rolls. After their lunch I gave Teddy and Vonnie a piece to work with while I fed Timmy. A few minutes later a little hand tapped me on the knee.
“Me doesn’t wike it!” Vonnie said.
After breathlessly examining the box of clay and finding the phrase “non-poisonous,” I explained that the surprise was meant to be played with, not eaten. I took the time to model a worm for her.
When Kathie got home she asked me what she could do to help, dear thoughtful child that she is.
“How about straightening your room and doing a real thorough job of it?”
“Couldn’t I polish the silver or vacuum the rugs?”
If she truly wanted to help me, I said, she’d tidy up her disgraceful-looking room.
“All right, all right, all right!” Her pride was hurt at being reprimanded like a two-year-old. “You don’t have to be mean about it. I’ll do my room tomorrow.”
After supper I put the baby to bed and gave Vonnie a bath. Then I went to check on Kathie and Teddy’s progress. They were in Kathie’s room, mysteriously engaged behind closed doors. A sign warned: “BEWAR. DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT NOKING. DO NOT ENTER ANYWAY.” I knocked.
”Don’t come in!” they cried.
“Why can’t I come in? What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” said Teddy. “We’re not cleaning up the room, we’re messing it up more.”
“You’d better not!” I said in my sternest voice.
I returned to Vonnie’s room to read her a story and tuck her into bed, then called Kathie and Teddy to their baths. No answer. When I opened Kathie’s door, I found the room dark and soundless. Switching on the light, I gave a loud gasp—the children were in bed, sound asleep, and all that clutter on the floor had been transferred to the tops of bureaus and tables.
“This must be magic!”I exclaimed. “Yes, that’s it! The fairies have been here and put my children under a spell and cleaned up the room. This is wonderful! Now Kathie and Teddy will do anything I ask them to.”
Carried away by the drama, I waved my arm and quoth: “Arise, children, take off your clothes and get into the tub.”
Gleefully they sprang out of bed and threw off their bathrobes to reveal that they were ready for their baths. They doubled up with laughter as I gaped at the miracle. They scrambled into the tub with unheard of eagerness. Teddy asked me to wash his back.
“I’d be glad to. I’d do anything for such wonderful children.”
A few minutes later Kathie asked Teddy to pass the soap, please.
“I’d be glad to, Kathie.”
The bath over, Kathie was struck by a disconcerting thought. “Be sure to tell Esther about the fairies, Mummy. She might think we were being good on purpose.”
I cleaned up the bathroom while the children got into their nightclothes. I wondered if I had gone too far in stimulating their imaginations. This world is such a difficult place for even an adult to understand, was it right to plant untruths in their trusting minds? A reassuring conversation drifted through the open door.
Teddy, the Skeptic: “Does Mummy really believe the fairies did it?”
Kathie, the Credulous: “Shh, of course she does. And tomorrow we can fool Esther, too.”
February 6, 1948
My Purgatory yesterday was nearer heaven than hell. The children were unusually good, and their unintentional humor kept me entertained all day. However, a bad moment occurred in the morning. The nursery-school teacher had picked Vonnie up, and Kathie and Teddy were at the end of the driveway, waiting for the bus. It was snowing and very cold out, so when the bus didn’t show up after fifteen minutes, the children trudged back to the house.
Afraid that the bus might come and go without them, I said, “You two march right back there and wait.” Then I added a desperate threat. “If you miss that bus, I won’t let you in the house. You’ll have to stay out in the cold all day.”
They gave me deeply reproachful looks as they turned away, and I could see myself reflected in their eyes—Cinderella’s stepmother, the wicked witch, and the Dragon Lady rolled into one Monstrous Mom. I felt guilty and remorseful, but they arrived home from school in cheerful moods, the incident forgotten or forgiven.
At bath time, as I collected clean clothes for the next day, I could hear Kathie and her brother playing a new game. Teddy, at one end of the tub, was America; Kathie was England at the other. A large pan was a boat that sailed back and forth carrying toys from America to the poor children in England. Teddy had a whistle he was using to announce sailing schedules.
When the children got out of the tub they wanted to go into their rooms to get dry.
“No, dry yourselves in here,” I said.
”Esther lets us!”
“Well, I’m taking care of you today.”
Teddy said. “Esther’s nicer than you are.”
“That’s right,” said Kathie. Then she added kindly, “But you’re nice, too—in some ways.”
Before Teddy went to bed, Kathie wanted to train him to be a soldier.
“Do all boys go to war?” she asked me.
“Most of them, if there is a war, and if there’s nothing wrong with them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if their eyes are all right and that sort of thing.”
“Gee, Teddy, you’re lucky! You’ll be able to go to war. You’re not blind and you haven’t got a broken leg or anything.”
“I don’t want to go to war,” Teddy said. “With all those guns I might get killed.”
“Oh Teddy! You don’t understand.” Then she said uncertainly to me, “Right, Mummy?”
Not understanding wars myself, my sympathies were with her brother. We decided to make a sailor out of Teddy, so Kathie could train him whether there was a war or not.
October 27, 1948
Yesterday I took a walk to the village with Kathie and Teddy. When they sent out some feelers on the question of the Easter Bunny, I knew they were leading up to Santa Claus. We had a long talk, and I told them the truth. Instead of being disappointed, they appreciated my honest answer.
Kathie said, “If I were an orphan, I’d want you and Daddy to adopt me.”
“If you were an orphan, Daddy and I would be dead,” I said.
“Well, I mean, if I had another father and mother and they died, I’d want you and Daddy to adopt me.”
“Maybe we did,” I teased.
“Oh no, Mummy, you laid us.”
November 22, 1948
My trip to Fort Lauderdale did not turn out as I expected. The plan was for me to go down with Vonnie a few days ahead of Ed; then he would join us for a week. I had two reasons for taking Vonnie with me: one, Esther would have only three children to take care of during my absence; and two, I sensed that Vonnie needed the extra attention. Kathie and Teddy had each other to play with and fight with, while two-year-old Timmy was the petted baby of the family. I noticed that Vonnie was turning more frequently to sucking her thumb for comfort.
One child, I soon learned, was almost a heavier responsibility than four. Vonnie depended on me for companionship, and her strident little voice assailed me constantly with questions, comments, and announcements. As soon as we were comfortably settled under a beach umbrella—I with my book, she with her pail and shovel—she would announce that she needed to “go johnny.” Life would have been easier if she’d still been in diapers. I couldn’t convince her that it was all right to go johnny in the ocean, so we had to cross Atlantic Boulevard and take the Illini's elevator to our apartment.
Vonnie talked uninhibitedly with everyone she met—sales people, police men, tourists, passersby on the beach. We were in a taxi when she felt her chin and asked me if the bone she was feeling was a chicken bone.
“No,” I answered, “that’s yours. All of us are made up of bones and flesh and blood.”
“Mummy,” she said, “mothers and fathers make babies, but how do they do it?”
Since we had been talking back and forth with the taxi driver, I was betting he enjoyed my dilemma. I decided that regardless of what the books advised, I was not going to address the subject at this particular moment. I said something about a seed and changed the subject.
Another time, after asking my third-born to be on her best behavior, I treated us to dinner at a posh restaurant. The lights were low, and dinner music played softly in the background as the hostess led us to our table.
“What smells?” asked Vonnie in a loud voice.
“Shh, it’s just dinner cooking,” I said.
”It smells awful!” she said.
Having thus gained the attention of of the entire room, we took our seats. I chose chicken croquettes for Vonnie, thinking this would be the easiest meal for an almost four-year-old to handle. As I cut into my steak, I glanced up and saw Vonnie spitting her chicken croquette back onto her plate.
“Eat your dinner!” I hissed. “Don’t do that again!”
The next time I looked up, Vonnie was eating her meal, as ordered—with her thumb and index finger holding her nose.
While waiting for the check, I took out my compact and powdered my cross face. I thought we had provided quite enough entertainment for neighboring diners, but Vonnie watched me with her head on one side and then chirped, “See a monkey, Mummy?”
I called Ed and told him not to plan on joining us monkeys; we were returning the next day to the zoo in Cohasset.
Thanksgiving Eve, 1948
Here I am at my desk, alive and of sound mind after one of the most harrowing days I have ever spent. It was busy in the first place because I was getting ready for Thanksgiving. It was busy in the second place because Teddy was home with a mild case of German measles. I tried to keep him busy all morning, so I could get my work done without having him ask every two minutes, “When are you going to stuff the turkey?”
I told him he could be a big help if he’d sort the laundry.
This took him half an hour. He made several neat piles of towels and sheets, and spread-eagled the shirts on the floor. He was insulted when I stuffed his handiwork helter-skelter into the laundry bag. Then I said he could help make the beds with fresh sheets. After a lot of huffing and puffing on his side of the mattress, Teddy commented with six-year-old discernment, “You could probably get this done a lot faster if I just kept out of the way.”
Teddy and Vonnie played “Boston Going” for awhile, whatever that is. I know it involves moving as much furniture as possible from one room to another because I’m the one who has to move it back.
Kathie was home at noon, since it was the day before the holiday. I made a bargain with Esther: I would stuff the turkey and prepare the vegetables if she would take the four children for a ride.
|JACQUIE MONK AND HER MOTHER, ESTHER|
At six o’clock, after the children were ready for bed, Esther and Jacquie rushed to get ready for the 6:40 train. As we started off for the station, I noticed that the leaf-burning fire made by Mr. McKenna’s gardeners had flared up. Before they left, they had smothered it, but the wind must have fanned the embers.
When I got home I phoned the fire department. The children and I watched the firemen extinguish the flames.
“You were the one that did it, Teddy,” said Kathie.
“You did it, too, and anyway, it was your idea.”
“Yes, but when I did it, nothing happened.”
“What are you children talking about?” I asked.
Both of them explaining at once, they told me the gardeners had put the fire out, but after they left, Kathie and Teddy blew on the leaves until it started up again.
At least they were honest arsonists. . . .