6 Things I Learned from a 1950s Baby Book

Years ago my mother was visiting from Long Island. With fanfare she rarely called into action, she said, “I brought something for you.” She pulled my baby book — old and worn — out of a Walbaum’s supermarket bag. I could tell she had planned a little ceremony surrounding the hand-off. I tried not to show it, but I was not pleased.

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She was being practical. My mother was always practical. She said something about not wanting it to get lost, and then her voice trailed off a little. She was talking about a time when she and my father would no longer pull up in front of my house and stay the weekend. She was preparing for a future when we wouldn’t be able to gossip at my kitchen table over a glass of wine, or catch up on what my kids were up to.

I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted the book to stay on the shelf at her house, where it had always been. I didn’t want to be the grown-up in the family yet. That was her job.

But I took it from her that day. And now the baby book lives on my shelf, with the other three baby books I wrote in (the third one sparingly, my third-born would tell you, rolling her eyes). I don’t know when their books get shuffled off to their homes. Not yet.

I haven’t opened mine in a long time, but I did today. We had a new baby born into the family last week, and every time that happens, it seems like a good time to revisit it. And every time I do, I learn a few things I’d overlooked before.

 

1. My mother was a stickler for details. But on her first try, she got not only the day of my birth wrong, but the month, too. And her corrections are in a different color ink. Translation: I’ve never been this tired in my entire life. There must be a medical term for this level of exhaustion.

 

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2. In 1950, people were far less worried about babies swallowing beads. And the identification bracelet was tied to my wrist with a piece of twine. I can see this was not a foolproof system, but feel pretty confident I landed at the right house anyway.

 

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3. My parents thought I was the most beautiful baby ever born despite concrete evidence to the contrary.

 

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4. I came from an extended family of comedians. My Godmother wrote: “When Ed called this A.M. I was only half awake and forgot to ask who Little Linda looks like — Mama, Papa, or the Bendix fixer? . . . I hope she has Mama & Papa’s disposition — but please, God, let Linda look like the Bendix fixer!”

 

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5. I got off to an impressive athletic start, which was brief. I peaked at ten months.

 

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6. I learned early to write for all the right reasons.

 

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When I open the baby book, I study her quirky handwriting. I picture the exhausted young mother at 22, thinking she’d better write down what happened that day. Maybe even back then she was thinking that someday — far in the future — I could read it and know the little bits of my history that only she knew.

I wonder if she realized I’d hear her voice again, too. I’ll bet she did.

 

Why I Don’t Throw Away My Parents’ Letters

When my parents were in their 70s, they downsized and decided on a sensible condominium. That meant leaving the house on Hamilton Avenue, in Massapequa, where I had grown up. They began getting rid of stuff, and my mother made it clear that I should make room in my car on my next visit to take some things back to Baltimore.

When I got to their house, five boxes with my name on them were stacked by the front door, my mother’s subtle way of saying, “Please get this crap out of here.”

Two contained books I didn’t read in college. Two more held clothes that might come in handy for a Halloween costume somewhere down the line, if I could ever fit into them, which would never happen. The last was a shoebox labeled, Linda’s Letters from College.

The box with the letters was unexpected. I didn’t know my mother had kept them, and knowing what they said, I wished she hadn’t. I considered just throwing the box away, unopened, knowing how embarrassed I’d be if I read them. Then I thought, “She saved them for 30 years.” So when I was back in Baltimore and alone, I opened each letter as if a hairy spider might jump out at me. They were every bit as bad as I remembered.

I can see I wrote every week of freshman year. I don’t know what got me the most — that I come from an era where people actually wrote letters, or that these innocent little envelopes contained such didactic drivel. Apparently, I had figured out everything by second semester away at a state college, and I felt the need to share.

I want to say it’s the letters from sophomore year in 1970 make me wince, but it’s worse than that. I’m ashamed of them. I was taking Sociology 101 that spring, which made me an expert on Vietnam, racial tension, and poverty. I had an epiphany in that class about my upbringing and, in those letters, hit my parents over the head with it, with lengthy paragraphs outlining their many mistakes.

They had given me a middle class childhood that I would now have to crawl out of because — really — there were few conditions worse than being middle class. Even I (who was practically a sociologist at that point) couldn’t think of anything worse. I lectured them on how they had bought into “the system.” They were materialistic. They didn’t understand oppression in America. If I had to label the tone I adopted, “How dare you!” would probably do it.

In 1950, ever the planners, my parents moved into our home a few months before I was born. Our neighborhood was just-planted maple trees, loose gravel on the road, and no sidewalks.

Most of the streets within a mile radius were named for American states and cities. But by the time they got to my street, Canada was suddenly involved with the street names Toronto, Ontario, and my street, Hamilton. I walked nine blocks to school, passing streets with names like New Hampshire, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Massachusetts, which gave me time to think about how the street-naming process should have been more organized. I wanted a street name that was American. I didn’t think it was too much to ask, considering the times and my patriotic heart. I took some solace in the fact that I didn’t live on the next street over from mine — Jerusalem — because I had no idea where Jerusalem was.

My parents wanted a house with a basement, not one built on a concrete slab, so Levittown was out. Ours was a two-bedroom Cape Cod with one bathroom. These houses also came with a garage, an unfinished basement, and an attic that, sooner or later, almost everyone would expand with a dormer for more bedrooms. Even when our parents looked at the tiny boxes these homes were, they were imagining the future.

The basement space came in handy for the rec room. I used to see ads in the Saturday Evening Post of families gathered around their ping pong tables, with trays of food behind them on a built-in bar. The lighting was always soft, and those rec rooms had carpeting. Some even had a fireplace and a piano with a dozen or so people arm in arm, belting out a tune.

Our rec room had trouble keeping up. It was at the bottom of our wooden stairs with those brown rubber pads on them so you wouldn’t trip. It had one tiny casement window, knotty-pine paneling that went halfway up the wall, and a linoleum floor in a pattern that looked like an accident of some kind. In the summer I’d make believe it was air-conditioned when we watched TV down there. In the winter you needed a blanket over you. My parents talked about mildew a lot. But at least our house didn’t sit on a slab.

My father signed up for the GI Bill and began college classes at night after his workday at Grumman was over. For twelve years, he commuted to Hofstra two evenings a week. The other three nights my mother worked the evening shift as a nurse at Brunswick Hospital, in neighboring Amityville. Those nights my father studied while taking care of me, and later, my two brothers. On the weekends they cleaned house, food shopped, and cleared the decks for the week ahead.

In the summers we took a vacation, but my father, a history buff and reader, was always partial to places like Gettysburg or Fort Ticonderoga, so even then I wasn’t having as much fun as other kids. Holidays involved the same cast of characters my whole life — aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. Food, fun, and lots of noise. Imagine my angst.

That was the life I was up against when I took stock in 1970. Years and years later, I got over the embarrassing situation my parents had put me in, and began carving out — imagine this — a middle class life for my own kids. The only differences were that I worked half as hard and talked about it twice as much as Jean and Ed DeMers did.

When do you get far enough away from your childhood to really see it for what it was? Maybe when you get your first job and that alarm clock isn’t your friend, and it dawns on you that your dad did this every single morning while you were asleep in your cozy bed.

Maybe the moment you see your first baby. And that overwhelming love takes you by surprise. And only then do you understand how your parents felt the day they met you.

I think my mother knew exactly what she was doing when she handed me that box of letters. It was as if she was saying, “Someday you’ll see.”

And I kept them all. And I do.

On Long Island, We Really, Really Loved Our Lawns

Everyone who lived on Hamilton Avenue had children, except for the Markowskis, our next-door neighbors, who owned a series of standard poodles instead, all with the name Claude. The Markowskis weren’t fond of kids playing on their lawn, which is to say the Markowskis weren’t exactly fond of kids. So since there were no fences in those days to show property lines, we just had to be light on our feet during games of Tag or Statue, and we got really good at giving the Markowski’s yard a generous berth, even when running at top speed.

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Lots of people in Massapequa were serious about their lawns, maybe because everyone had been transplanted from the city where the concrete in front of your apartment had been public domain. That could be unfortunate, especially when drunks peed on it or young love went bad late at night, and you could be awakened suddenly by screaming and reproach under your window. Once you moved out to Long Island, you actually owned this patch of luscious greenness. Dads mowed lawns with rigorous timing. When someone you were playing with did something to anger you, one of the best responses you had was, “Get off my property!”

For years on our school route home, a grandfather on Doris Place stood like a sentinel at the corner of his yard after school let out. If our feet veered in his direction, he would yell, “Get off my lawn!” For that reason alone, Mikey Gernhart made a point of his shoe going over the line Mondays through Fridays. This house was the only one in the neighborhood at the time with a built-in pool, which signified, of course, that the man was a millionaire. I vowed that if I ever had a million dollars, I would spend more time having fun and much less time screaming about my grass.

I spent my whole childhood figuring out the most efficient ways to avoid Mrs. Markowski’s lawn. I got pretty good at staying out of her way, using my Dodge Ball skills of always hugging the outer boundary when possible. When cornered by her, I became adept at her brand of small talk, which usually began, “Linda, I have a bone to pick with you,” and quickly got around to the latest time I stepped on her grass or made Claude bark. She didn’t spend much time outside, which was a good thing for us, and I have The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and the American tobacco industry to thank for her disdain of the outdoors.

lawn  My mother was a big believer of being neighborly, so when she’d say, “You know, it wouldn’t kill you kids to help Mrs. Markowski carry in her groceries once in a while,” we did it reluctantly, though the inside of her house was always dark because of heavy drapes at every window, and the crushing smell of her Lucky Strikes and her husband’s cigars made us gasp.

Many years later, when Mrs. Markowski became a widow, I was long gone from Hamilton Avenue, with a husband and kids of my own. My parents began inviting her over for holidays because there’s just so much a poodle named Claude can do for you at Thanksgiving. So I’d see Mrs. Markowski a few times a year, and she got to know my own children in a way I’d been shut out of, meaning she didn’t yell at them or constantly worry about what they were doing to her lawn. She bought them little gifts she found at the Dollar Store, and they were perpetually charmed by that.

She still dyed her hair a shocking burnt-ochre color that gave way to a few inches of white at the part when she didn’t keep it up, which was pretty much never, not even for holidays. She still swore like a sailor after her first martini, but she also smiled more, usually after her second. Lawn care had been given over to a neighborhood boy who did “a crappy job” according to her, but he kept his job since she had cataracts by then and couldn’t see the bald spots and the crabgrass.

When she died, she had no living relatives and had outlived the last of the Claudes. By the time that happened, I was 47. I’d recently been divorced, had three teenagers, and was winging it financially. There’s something about the phrase winging it that implies there was a carefree section of my life that year. There was not.

A few weeks after her death, my phone rang at work.

“This is Lawrence Slezak,” a man said. “I represent the estate of Miriam Markowski.” The lawyer told me I was named in her will. She had left me more money than I’d made the year before. I had no inkling this would happen, and the lawyer was more than patient with me as I got my bearings. Really, I just babbled in his ear for a long time. I got up from my desk and started telling a friend what had just happened.

“And you weren’t related to her?” she asked.

“Not exactly.” It seemed a funny answer but the right one.

“You were related to her?”

“I guess you had to be there,” I said.

“Where?”

I meant the 1950s.