She wasn’t the milk-and-cookies mother. You didn’t go to her crying for help. Yet one night, ever alert to dangers in the dark, I tiptoed downstairs while a party was in progress.
I must have been a pathetic sight, whimpering, “Every plane that goes overhead, I know the next one will drop the bomb!”
Detroit was a big industrial city at that time, it was the Cold War, and I was the Paul Revere early-alert person in the family, listening to overhead planes, cat-burglar sounds, and the occasional clanking of chains if my big sister was hiding in the closet.
Mother laughed and said, “Fiddle dee dee! When the bomb hits, we’ll be so busy, we won’t even notice.”
Wrong answer. I would notice! I slunk back upstairs. No, she was not a milk-and-cookies mom.
My brother commented recently: “It wasn’t easy growing up with Scarlett O’Hara.” And she was a drama queen. But her stage was too small, and because of this, she was an unfulfilled heroine.
Mother was a teenager in the late 1920s, when fashion was paramount. She became a fashion original. Her hats often featured fruit and flowers. By the 1940s, she must have been half-supporting Chanda, the maker of beautiful but wacky hats. Mother adored shoes; she settled on her signature 3- inch spike heels with open toes, commenting that she came into style every 10 years. She loved wild colors and odd fabrics and made it a rule never to be boring.
To me she was impossibly glamorous and sophisticated. I was in awe of her sharp tongue. Mother loved Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table gang, and, like the gang, she had a biting wit. When I told her I would like to study French, she replied that that should be easy, because my vocabulary consisted of “Y’know” and “I’m sorry.” She was full of clichés that she made her own by delivering them in a staccato, raspy Pall Mall voice, with a cigarette waving like a flag as she carried on. We kids were mesmerized by her tales, partly hypnotized by the cigarette’s weaving trajectory as the ash grew impossibly long and then crash-landed, unremarked. Her motherly advice if you were morose: “Don’t act like the dying swan.” If you were not going to bed in a timely fashion, she hustled you with “Parting is such sweet sorrow!”
Elisabeth Jane (Betty) Taylor was a smart girl. She attended the University of Michigan, but dropped out in order to marry Father. But Betty Taylor wasn’t suited to be the stay-at-home doctor’s wife in suburban Detroit, where we moved shortly after Father returned from World War II.
The happiest era in her life, I believe, was during the war, when Father was away running field hospitals. Her best stories conjured up the crazy doings of her pack of women friends in St. Louis. They were on their own, coping with children and rationing and faraway husbands. It was the one period of her life when my mother got to be in change.
In the suburbs she was adrift. She tried the PTA, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the ladies’ auxiliary to father’s hospital. The idea of getting together with neighbor women for coffee filled her with horror, a “crashing bore.” She enjoyed using her talents making tableaux featuring paper-mache dolls in diorama-like scenes for the ladies’ auxiliary teas. She gave parties, fairly wild ones, offering whimsical foods or whatever was new and different. A childhood favorite was Sterno canned heat set in a purple cabbage with Vienna sausages stuck into the cabbage here and there.
She did outrageous things—cut the thick telephone cord when she thought Father had gotten too many calls (you have to be old to understand that this was just not done). She covered our dog Hansy with Chanel No. 5 after he got into the dead fish by the lake water. She drove across state lines to get fireworks in Ohio, setting them off like a maniac in northern Michigan. One day at the lake, she fell asleep in Kontiki, our rubber life raft, and the lake current took her out to the middle. When none of us rescued her, she used the covers of the book she was reading to paddle back. I think her later emerging from the woods shooting a roman candle at us was revenge.
There was a bit of a soft side. She loved books, and she passed that on to me. I got my love of memorizing poems from Mother. We also grew up singing. Mother adored Broadway musicals—anything by Rogers and Hammerstein. I went to New York with her for Mary Martin in Peter Pan and Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town. She had us three kids perform “Be Kind to Your Parents,” from her favorite musical, Fanny, for Thanksgiving guests. We can all still sing it today.
But all those glasses of Canadian Club hidden in cupboards and branded with her telltale red lipstick were a reminder of how her boundaries narrowed as she got older. TVs were on everywhere as Mother hid out in her bedroom with Mama Sita, her wretched Burmese, and a box of chocolates and a good book for company.
She died in her sleep at age 67, a terrible surprise despite her heart disease and her habits. A neighbor who helped my father that night later described her as a “recluse,” an idea that took time to absorb. My vivacious, fun-loving mother a recluse?
I think about all the gifts she gave me: her romance with words; her love of poetry and music; her laughter at life’s absurdity; those big parties she threw; her fearless way of dressing (though mine is more quirky than elegant); most of all, her sense that life is meant to be fun—silly, big, gigantic fun. I carry these things with gratitude and a better realization of the limitations she faced.
I think about her talents, and how women of her time and social strata were expected to be happy being Ladies of the Auxiliary to their husbands. And I am grateful for the work I have been able to do all my life and for the expectations with which we live today. Barriers still exist for women, but few girls in our time need to look forward to growing up to be auxiliary.