Suburban Housewife

When I was a suburban housewife in the 1970s, before everything changed so drastically, you could play with your kids and still smoke cigarettes. You didn’t want your kids to smoke, but back then, we believed in the old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do.”& Soccer had just become popular so I drove the kids in the station wagon to practices and games. Or they ran off to another kid’s backyard for T-ball or touch football or whatever else suburban kids did to fill up their day. You didn’t worry where they ran off because they never left the block. Back then, your kids were safe in someone else’s backyard.

When I was a suburban housewife in the 1970s, I had to find ways to fill up my days as well, but I didn’t have the luxury of T-ball. I had laundry to do. I had groceries to put away in the green Formica cabinets. I had bathroom scum to wipe up. I had Tonka trucks to trip over. Throughout the house, I played music: Neil Diamond, Mack Davis, Crystal Gayle. Back then, music was wholesome and smooth.

I left the albums of my childhood in the closet. My favorites: Buddy Holly, The Kingston Trio, Ella Fitzgerald. Those records were too painful to listen to. It reminded me that I was not in New York anymore. That I would never get a chance to go to the Village Vanguard to hear Dave Brubeck or Thelonious Monk anymore. Now, I was a suburban housewife living outside of Chicago in a land of green manicured lawns and garden gnomes. You didn’t talk about being a New Yorker, let alone a Jewish New Yorker. Back then, you wanted to act as goyish as possible. Wonder Bread was safe bread.

& When I was a suburban housewife in the 1970s, I made unique recipes cribbed from the Ladies Home Journal. Roast beef and mashed potatoes.& Liver and onions. Tuna noodle casserole. Ketchup goes great on every meal. What was a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn doing in this foreign kitchen?& I sometimes dreamed of potato knishes. Pastrami. White fish salad. Here, they did not know what a bagel was, never mind a decent bialy. We ate our meals in the kitchen; the dining room table was for special occasions. Everyone took turns talking. First the children spoke of their days: hassles on the playground, school projects, and little league practice triumphs. Then it was my turn to talk of the joys of keeping up a house, volunteering for the blind, contemplating joining the PTA. Then it was my husband’s turn to talk. And he would. For the rest of the time at the table. Work was interesting, it filled up the entire meal.& It might take you all the way past dessert. Back then, dinner was an orderly affair.

When I was a suburban housewife in the 1970s, you could drink in the early afternoon. A glass of wine or a gin and tonic while the kids were at school. It was something to accompany the folding of the laundry.& I watched my stories: Ryan’s Hope, Search for Tomorrow, All My Children. All those handsome doctors, all those pretty women dressed up as nurses making themselves appear competent and useful.& When the chores lessened—they never finished, they just lessened—I might lie down and read: Shogun, The Godfather, or reread favorite passages of Fear of Flying. Close my eyes and see myself as that woman. And maybe have a second drink before the kids got home from school. Sometimes I watched the high school kids pass by the window and wonder which one I could approach for Mary Jane. Do they still call it Mary Jane? But I never followed through.& Back then, it was all right to dream of a better numbness.

When I was a suburban housewife in the 1970s, the only thing we women talked about was our children.& No other conversation was acceptable. We only had two things in common anyway: we had children and we were stuck in the same bland houses every day. We swapped stupid kid stories, traded stupid recipes for mashed potatoes, complained about our stupid husbands, but never too harshly. We planned out what to do with the girls during this week’s Bluebirds meeting. We might have cocktails, but mostly it was Diet Rite soda or sun tea. Back then, you didn’t have friends but cellmates.

When I was a suburban housewife in the 1970s, before I became what you see now, I could sit on the half-cleaned bathroom floor, my hands still encased in the pink rubber gloves, and cry. Cry until the 5th& Dimension album had finished. Cry until the kids came home from school. Cry until I could get up and finish cleaning because the bathroom can never be untidy. Back then, you could be unhappy and depressed as long as you kept the doors closed. You could go quietly mad and no one bothered you. Those were different times. Not better. Not worse. Different.