In kick-starting my second career as a writer, I didn’t have to look far to find memorable characters for my stories. It helped to have two genuine. larger-than-life subjects as parents—though I wouldn’t recommend it, if you can help it. I just barely escaped from the madhouse to survive and tell the tale. Once this hard part was behind me, I merely had to find ways to let their true personalities dominate the pages. In my second biography, Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces, you can see what I mean
My cousins always considered my mother to be our family’s own version of Auntie Mame. Mom was a painfully shy person, yet nevertheless often managed to be that embarrassing relative who was blunt, outspoken and called ’em as she saw them. If someone staggered into a room with a hangover after a restless night, she’d be quick to observe, publicly: “Your eyes look like two holes burned in a blanket.” About a celebrity who typically said dumb things, she would bluntly tell you: “He’s a case of arrested development.”
One of the funniest chapters my mother wrote concerns her difficulty in acquiring the proper clothing for Chicago’s harsh climate. It also had to be suitable for a student to wear to school. Her father had taken the rugged fur coat he wore building railroads in Montana to the furrier to be remodeled for her, but failed to take Alice along. Her sleeves were so tight she couldn’t raise her arms. Her sisters topped off her outfit with a hat they considered very chic, in the latest 1920s bucket style, which was too big for her, and constantly slipped down over her eyes. Between holding up her black sateen bloomers with broken elastic and trying to raise her restricted arms to lift her hat so she could see, she risked her life every time she crossed a street. The ultimate resolution of this problem was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between a small, shy 12-year-old girl and her large, formidable father.
I discovered a photo of Mom at 19, on one of her last vacations with her entire family to the resort community of Bloomer Lake Wisconsin. Her brother Frank catches her proudly showing off a new dress of the current mode in front of her family’s Model-A Ford. Because decent clothes were so important to her self-esteem, it properly belonged on the cover.
I had some of Mom’s essays and stories and a lifetime of commentary, discussions of current events and favorite sayings from both Mom and Dad. From these I gleaned a sense of history, and how my parents related to it. When my mother wrote “We Bought a Crooked House,” her humorous take on their massive 1947 makeover of our 1890s Victorian house, we all celebrated it with great hilarity. In the face of a desperate postwar housing shortage, she and Dad were dragged, kicking and screaming, into this project by her “big builder” father, who considered this “minor” project his play-toy, a delightful diversion from his weightier construction challenges, like water treatment plants and the foundations for downtown skyscrapers. Unfortunately, it also remained our sole place of residence during construction.
From gathering my source material, I began to get an inkling of the true universal significance of their lives. World War II was a tipping point for social change in America. Maybe my father could stand for the millions of typical taxicab jockeys, office clerks or factory workers, magically transformed, or not, by a couple months of training, into warriors, wondering what the heck they were supposed to be doing there. And his wife, a mother and homemaker, whose breadwinner, head of household and answer to any problem too big for her to solve had been summarily snatched away from her, leaving her to cope with everything else. Maybe she could represent the nineteen million women, who joined the work force to earn precious dollars, or the rest, who coped with families alone at home while their men went off to war.
Until next time,. good words to you!