You’ll never see me shopping for faux-Danish modern furniture, or checking out flea markets for kitchy 1950s memorabilia. I have to roll my eyes when I see people drool over West Elm catalogs filled with shag rugs and streamlined sofas.
That’s because I’m no fan of “midcentury chic.” I had enough of the 1950s in the 1950s.
In the 1950s, young women still lived in their parents’ homes because going away to college was the exception, not the rule (at least in my middle-class Jewish experience).
In the ’50s, girls like me got a teaching degree because, as our mothers told us, teaching was something you could always “fall back on.”
In the ’50s, the second commandment — actually even more important than the first — was to get a husband, preferably one with what our mothers called “a good future.” Just what that meant was imprecise.
The night Sheila got engaged, our black dial phones were ringing off the hook. Sheila caught the brass ring — or more precisely, the white-gold one with the solitaire setting — and triumphantly left our ranks.
As it was when Sheila got engaged, and later with others, there was often an icy anxiety that clamped down on our presumably delighted hearts: “When will it be my turn?” was the question too terrifying to utter aloud.
By the way, when Sheila got engaged, we were all 20 years old.
Sounds almost medieval, getting chosen.
I was reminded of that night during a recent conversation with my thoroughly 21st-century, confident, competent daughters about my young life vs. theirs. I could see my daughters’ bafflement as I described a coming-of-age pretty much defined by conformity and caution, the 1950s twin gods.
And how bizarre that decades later, in the “winter of my life,” as the poets call it, those times continue to impact me. Those were the years that shaped me, defined me, and in so many ways determined my future.
Daughters Jill, Amy, and Nancy just don’t get it. And why should they, these living, breathing beneficiaries of the women’s movement?
How can they be expected to understand the 1950s, what someone once characterized as the time America was in a decade-long trance?
“But were you happy?” my daughters asked me during our recent conversation.
Happy? That would not be my operative word. Good, more likely. Focused? Absolutely. But not spontaneous, not carefree, and certainly not spunky. No, not at all spunky.
A decade later, the social revolution came. The young rebelled, they broke with convention, they “dropped out.”
And there we were, the 1950s maidens, presumably chaste girls, and as we now joke, America’s last virgins.
Our generation of women didn’t know from dropping out, let alone dropping acid. At the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, it was considered daring to go to class in the spring wearing Bermuda shorts under our raincoats. No matter that the classrooms in that era were stifling. But proper skirts and demure blouses were expected, along with dresses.
Maybe that’s why I still veer away from dresses — or what we called “frocks.” Ditto for Peter Pan collars, and crinolines, instruments of torture we wore under our whirly ’50s skirts.
Dare I mention panty girdles with garters that make Spanx seem like the ultimate comfort zone?
With hindsight-insight, our midcentury clothes now seem a perfect metaphor for the social order.
I married the second man who asked me. I was, after all, 20 when we met. He was sweet, funny, and already a lawyer. My mother beamed — he had a future. My father, a lawyer himself, was delighted to have someone in the family who could speak legalese.
My parents planned our traditional wedding as I finished up my last miserable geology final.
I count it as a miracle that, together, we’ve somehow maneuvered the minefields of long marriage, creating a life, a home, and three remarkable human beings who gave us seven grandkids.
Vic and I are part of that seemingly endangered species: first and only spouses to one another. And still grateful for that.
Not one of our daughters married at 21, as I did. Their lives and their goals are entirely different.
Still, it occasionally stuns me that my daughters, raised by a product of the 1950s, move with grace, courage, and wisdom through the uncertainties that ambushed me.
They cannot believe that in 1961, I had to stop teaching English to eighth graders when my pregnancy was showing, so as not to scandalize the little darlings.
No, the 1950s were not so nifty. And now I tell my granddaughters about that time in my life because I want them to know how lucky they are that the humble-pie crumbs of my generation of women haven’t spilled over to theirs.
Even the youngest two, still in their teens, have spunk and grit, and at least for now, a sense of entitlement that the 1950s never gave their grandmother.
“Those were the olden days,” 14-year-old Emily told me. And from her perspective, how truly ancient.
From mine, still uncomfortably close and still sometimes nipping at my heels.
True comfort, confidence, and entitlement for me are still a bit like trying on an outfit that I’d love to own — but that doesn’t quite fit.
I keep hoping that, despite my baggage, someday soon it will.