I was recently interviewed about what it was like being a child in the 50s. It was a class assignment for a friend of mine who is a university student studying psychology. Question: What were family roles like back then, and were the 1950s really “the good ole days?” Here were some of my thoughts.
I was six years old when the 50s rolled in and sixteen when they rolled out. I spent those years living in a subtext: a culture within a culture. I was a military ‘brat’ in the 50s, or as we were officially labeled—a dependent.
Family roles were strictly spelled out: subordinate, dutiful spouse whose purpose in life was to faithfully serve her husband as a stay-at-home wife and mother, and to do so while looking glamorous at all times. The children were literally to be ‘seen and not heard,’ and above all things—to obey. Original thought was not permitted. We were told what to think and how to behave, when to sit and when to stand, what to believe and what to disdain, what music we could listen to (not Elvis!), what clothes we could wear, and how our hair should be styled. We didn’t have to salute—but almost. . . All responses had to be, “Yes, sir. No, sir.” Our family had to look picture perfect from the outside, and if any cracks showed up in this frame—anywhere—there was hell to pay, from the Base Commander on down. It was a tight ship, and we abided by the rules or else. . .
As a military wife, my mother had to slip back and forth between multiple personalities in order to survive. She was constantly shape-shifting. I never knew which personality was her real, authentic self; I’m not sure she did either. My father flew airplanes in the U.S. Air Force and was often gone for long periods of time. While he was away, my mother had to be a single parent and run the household alone: pay the bills, make all the day-to-day decisions, and constantly maintain discipline. I remember her as being a beautiful and competent woman, but she was stressed and irritable more often than not—clearly for very good reasons. She was more lenient when dad was away, letting us break the rules occasionally, and sometimes we could even have conversations with her and share our day. When my father was home, however, all bets were off. My mother had to pretend to be incompetent and step aside while he resumed his role as ‘boss of the house,’ or ‘lord of the manor.’ The title varied, but you get the idea.
I would listen in on my mother’s conversations with her friends as they bragged and shared their techniques on how to trick their husbands, so as to keep them happy. I remember countless times seeing my mom suddenly look up at the clock realizing that my dad was due home from work and she hadn’t given a thought to dinner. She’d wildly chop up an onion and garlic and throw it in a frying pan so the odor would be wafting through the house when he’d walk through the door. “Hi, babe, I’m home. Hmm. Smells good, I’m hungry,” he’d shout out. “Take your shoes off and relax, honey,” she’d coo. “I’ll get you a little libation. Dinner will be ready in a minute.” Then she’d give me a big wink like I was in on this sham.
I think our family was fairly typical, because the military dictated the structure of our lives, making for a homogenous culture. I don’t recall any moms working beyond the home. We were constantly moving, so holding down an outside job would have been problematic. The women kept busy by joining volunteer organizations, such as the PTA and the Military Wives Club. They played a lot of bridge and pinochle, and drinking and smoking were also favored pastimes.
My brothers and I spent most of our time playing out of doors—often from early morning to when the sun went down. Basically, we were kicked out of the house most days unless it was pouring rain. “Go! Don’t bother me. Come home when you’re hungry.” Parents never seemed to worry about you being outside on your own the entire day, especially on a military base.
Radio shows played a central role in my early childhood. I spent hours hovered at the feet of our Motorola console—listening spellbound to all the stories. Then, when I was ten, television entered our lives. I became fanatically addicted to all the numberless shows that depicted “perfect families.” I would watch them with an ache in my chest. I felt certain that everyone but us lived this way, so I would pretend that these fictitious people were my real family, not the dysfunctional one I was born into.
There is the notion that this era was an idyllic time in America. Ha. For most people I knew during that time, certainly for me, that idea is a joke. The shallow 50s felt like a ruse—leaving us ill prepared to do life. Consequently, I launched into adulthood clueless. Everything had always been decided for me. I had no idea who I was, nor what I liked and didn’t like, wanted or didn’t want. When I left home I found it was very tough to suddenly know how to think for myself, exercise judgment, and make my own decisions when I had had no practice doing so. I had been raised in a time warp. It is telling that the first classes I took in college were in acting and theater. Now this I knew how to do; I was well versed in playing roles!
Fast forward. . . neither my brothers nor I did time in the penitentiary. We became productive citizens. We bypassed major addictions, and we did not turn into abusive adults. In our elder years now, I can truthfully say we are happy. We have contentment. We are “good” people—loving and responsible. Do I attribute this to being raised during the apple pie, “all-American, fabulous 50s.?” I do not. I would have to say it was the sixties and seventies that uncorked my life and helped me find my way.