Monday Jan 4
It’s been a while since I’ve chipped away at this, and my parents’ declining memories have made me realize I really need to be writing down more of what I remember. I can’t ask them about any of it anymore.
The older I get, the more history in general intrigues me. Times were different, but people…people were so much the same.
After the S—–s left we bundeled the children off to bed then decorated the tree.
I believe we’ve already covered my horror at this practice.
Afterwards Chuck and I sat back to back on the livingroom floor to finish up our wrapping for each other. Finally, with all the loose ends tied up, we grownups had our Christmas – and what a Christmas it was!
For a second here I thought my mom was getting saucy, but it turns out they really did open their own gifts the night before.
I don’t remember what we did when The Kid was little. To be completely honest, the first five years of her life are a blur, punctuated by occasional cuteness and moments of sheer terror (like her first seizure, which she had in the car, and you’d think seizures would get less terrifying as they get older but no, they really don’t). I didn’t sleep through the night ever. It was almost like having cats.
Also, this is the second physical page of the letter, and it’s clearly the “IDGAF I already typed this thing three times” page. I usually transcribe typos; I couldn’t this time:
Charles found mostly clothing under the tree. Actually I can only think of two exceptions: an incense burner with incense from Gery and Bob and a transistor AM*FM radio from my parents. The radio was on of our big surprises this Christmas.
And isn’t that a snapshot of the times?
Pretty sure they had a television—black and white, of course. This was 1965, only four years after Disney’s The Wonderful World of Color, and they didn’t have a lot of money to throw around.
Besides, you know if my dad’s parents had tried to buy them one, my mom would have insisted they purchase it as a kit.
It was probably 1970 or so before we got a color set. I know it was closer to ’70 than ’65 because I remember it. My dad took the TV out to be repaired, and came back with a brand-new color TV. I was thrilled. My mother was livid. They had agreed to repair the old set, no spend money on a new one. A tabletop color TV would have been about $350 in 1970—about $2300 today. This is not impulse-buy money for a family of four on one income.
This is why my mother eventually stopped getting involved with the family finances: her opinions literally did not matter. Even after she got a job. Even after she made more than he did. Even after he retired, and she was still working.
It’s a problem now, because he can’t do math anymore. What it means is I’m managing their money. It’s a good thing I’ve had a few decades to learn about finances, because I learned eff-all from my dad.
We got The Kid her first cell phone for Christmas. It cost (in 2020 dollars) less than 1/4 what that color TV cost my parents.
From Grandmommy there was a white shirt and a blue jacket-shirt; from Mom and Dad, underwear and socks (badly needed!), 2 ties and a white shirt; from Chuck’s parents a sports shirt and pullover sweater and from his wife the cardigan.
At some point, my mom started buying my dad identical socks. Like, 20 pairs of the same socks. This was because he couldn’t be bothered to pair them properly, and Way Back Then, how you dressed at work actually mattered.
It’s a good strategy, tbh. You don’t have to pair anything, and if one sock gets a hole you’re not stuck with a useless singleton. Sometimes my dad’s utter lack of interest in anything past the end of his nose resulted in some useful ideas.
Presents not found under the tree were subscriptions to various magazines. From Jan and Gene came a renewal of our National Geographic subscription. Grandaddy Greer sent Chuck subscriptions to Consumer Report, Sunset Magazine and Reader’s Digest.
So my mother rejects the Oxford comma.
This is possibly the most shocking thing I’ve found in this letter.
We also got a Readers Digest subscription from the Bonesteels so now we will be getting it for two years.
I feel like today, with everything automated, magazines would screw this up and send you two copies a month for a year.
Our major present for ourselves this Christmas was a new hifi system that Charles built himself from a kit. It is a stereo system and has a beautiful tone. Unlike the dishwasher, its paid for! So it can really be called a Christmas ’64 present.
Oy. There’s a lot to unpack here.
My mother’s economic anxiety was not misplaced. My dad was terrible with money—and, early on at least, typically sexist about it. If he wanted something, it appeared. If she wanted something, he would make fun of the desire. Once, when they were first married, she asked for a nice watch; he laughed at her and told her she didn’t need such a thing.
I mentioned Alice Bonesteel, my grandmother, the Piece Of Work, and how my dad was remarkably nice given his upbringing. The truth? He often wasn’t nice at all. One thing that’s hard to take, now that he’s suffering from dementia, is how often people tell me how nice he is. He’s always been able to turn on the charm, but that’s never been who he is. He’s not without kindness and generosity, and he’s often thoughtful, although these days in a sort of disjointed, reflexive way.
But “nice”? No, not really. Sometimes not at all. He’s got a vicious mean streak. (So do I, although I can count on one hand the number of times it’s snaked out of me.)
On the one hand, I can forgive him, because his mother was awful and he’s done some tremendously loving things in his life.
On the other hand, I can’t forgive him.
“Nice” is so reductive. I know what people mean, but I sometimes feel the rest of the world is gaslighting me.
Which brings us to the hifi. This was almost certainly his idea and not hers. They both love music, but they’d always be listening to what my dad wanted to listen to. Which isn’t to say my mom didn’t enjoy much of the same music, but 10-15 years ago, when she discovered she could buy music online, she didn’t buy Sibelius and Beethoven and Mozart, like my dad did. She bought Elvis Costello and Nancy Sinatra and singles of pop songs she loved as a child. And she listened to them on her own, in her home office, because the house audio system was always tuned to NPR or WCRB (the local classical station).
He’s bad at sharing music. Today, that’s actually useful: I know the music he likes, and when I have to take him somewhere, I can play it in the car. He still gets such pleasure from music, and he can’t figure out how to play it at home anymore.
Back then, it was part and parcel of how we all wound ourselves around the unbending pillar of his needs. I saved up for and bought my own system for my own room so I could listen to what I wanted. And…he enthusiastically helped me research components, and showed me how to wire things together. I didn’t build my own, but he could’ve shown me how to do that, too. I needed my own stereo because he wouldn’t share, but he got a huge amount of pleasure helping me acquire it.
He has weird blind spots, my dad.
I’ve already mentioned my biggest Christmas present—the dishwasher.
Gotta make sure that gratitude gets in there often enough, or there’ll be hell to pay.
Do you know? Reading this is exhausting.
Of all the wonderful presents I got, though, my favorite is my little instamatic camera.
Both of my parents did a lot of photography. My dad had a darkroom in our basement, and developed his own black and white film. (I used to ask him about color; he told me the setup would be too expensive. Which was probably true, but what have we learned about my dad? Oh, yes: if he’d wanted to develop color film, he would’ve done it, even if it had meant skipping the electric bill.) By the time I was old enough to have memories of it, though, it was a Dad Thing: he was the photographer, he took the pictures on vacation, he was the Artist.
When my mother finally retired from the law, she started taking pictures more and more seriously. She got into digital photography, worked her way up to a digital SLR, mastered Photoshop more than I ever will, traveled all over the country to take classes. Most of the pictures I have of my daughter’s early life are my mother’s work. She took my author photo, and regardless of what’s happened to my writing career, I’m having a hard time giving that photo up.
Her camera got lost on a flight back from Hawaii some years back. It broke her heart. She stopped taking pictures. Now I suspect she wouldn’t be able to figure out how to make it all work.
And in 1964, her favorite Christmas gift was a camera.
Don’t put off your dreams.
Then, let’s see, Grandmommy sent me a lovely Vanity Fair slip, a set of Christmassy placemats and napkins, writing paper and money for a place setting of our China (we will then have six settings), Jan and Gene sent me a really attractive pendant and matching earrings from spain. Also from Spain, the Bonesteels gave me a three strand pearl necklace with earrings as a combination Christmas and Birthday present. They’re really beautiful.
And we’re back to the times, aren’t we? Household items and jewelry. Be decorative at all times. It probably sounds paranoid to say there was a message in the jewelry she was given, but having been given jewelry by the same people—pretty sure there was a message.
My mom told me once she had this vision of being married: she’d always be “put together,” her home would be beautiful, there would always be cookies or fresh bread baking in the kitchen. But to do that with two little kids, never mind a husband oblivious to the value of any of it, revised her ideas somewhat. Bread from the store wasn’t bad, and neither her husband nor her kids cared whether the cookies were fresh or not.
But she still wears jewelry. Not, it’s worth noting, pearls. She loves natural stones and color, long strands that bring out the brightness of the clothes she wears. Turquoise and deep blue and red. Costume jewelry in green and gilt. Big, showy, loud pieces. Not the jewelry of a background player.
When I was in high school, I was in the drama club (I know, you’re all shocked). Most of the time I worked stage crew. One night, during a production of The Wizard of Oz, Munchkinland started lurching on stage. A few of us had to sneak out and sit on the set, out of sight of the audience, so it would be stable throughout the scene. All the audience saw was Munchkinland.
My mom was stage crew for our family all on her own. I don’t think my dad had any idea whether or not the sets were stable. He didn’t have to worry about any of that. It all took place out of his sight.