EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #6

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Managing, 1945

When Anna’s father had to take a job in Philadelphia, Anna’s mother said they would just have to manage. But she didn’t manage. Especially not after Anna began attending a selective high school for girls in Manhattan. Anna now had to leave the apartment at 7:30 in the morning to get to school by roll call at 8:30, and was almost never back before 5:30. She was in the Latin Club, the Drama Club and the Debating Club, all of which met once a week after school. Her class had elected her Class Representative to the Student Council, and she had also become a reporter for the school newspaper. She felt busy and important and excited about being in this interesting new school.

Her mother was not equally excited for her. Anna would often open the front door when she finally got home only to find her mother sunk in an upholstered armchair in the very clean living room still in her housecoat, apron and slippers, no lipstick on and hair not yet combed although it was almost dark out. Without Anna having noticed how or when it had happened, her mother had gradually slipped into a state of sour unhappiness.

What had become of the mother Anna loved so much? This one complained Anna didn’t keep her room neat, her bureau drawers were sloppy, all she did was read, read, read. This one scolded that Anna didn’t stand straight: Didn’t she realize what she looked like when she slumped? This one found everything wrong. Anna didn’t even try not to wear her glasses all the time. (Her eyes were her best feature — why was she hiding them?) Anna had no nice friends. (Peggy downstairs was a “shtunk.”) Anna should have gone to Forest Hills High like the other girls in her eighth-grade class, where she wouldn’t be wandering around downtown until suppertime. And where there were boys.

It was so unfair. She wasn’t fourteen yet. Did getting her period make everything different? Was she suddenly supposed to become another sort of girl? Or was it because of what her father, on one of his alternate weekends at home, had called “the change?”  Apparently “the change” had come early to her mother. Also her father’s absence in Philadelphia was in its second year, which meant that her mother had been having much less to do around the house for a long time. All his laundry was done at the hotel; the bathroom was much less untidy; her mother didn’t have to prepare meat and potatoes every night. She should get a job, thought Anna. Quite a few mothers had jobs. If she had a job, she wouldn’t always be picking on every single thing Anna did.

“Who would hire me?” said her mother.

“You could be a secretary.”

Her mother shook her head bitterly. “I can’t type.”

“You could take a course. You could learn.”

“I can’t spell right in English.”

Anna sighed. “You told me once you were good at mathematics in school. You don’t need spelling for that. You could be a bookkeeper.”

“I was working in bookkeeping in a big department store when Daddy married me,” said her mother. “But he made me stop. He said it wasn’t right for a man’s wife to work.”

“That was a long time ago. Maybe he’s changed.”

“Bookkeeping is what’s changed. I wouldn’t know how to do it any more.”

Anna didn’t know how to answer that one. She wasn’t sure if bookkeeping had changed or not.

“I’m useless now,” her mother said flatly. “And worn out. Just worn out.” She bent over in the chair; Anna could hardly make out what she was saying. She thought she heard, “What’s going to happen to you when I’m dead?”

“What do you mean?” she cried, frightened.

Her mother rocked back and forth, still bent over. “I sacrificed my life for you when you were a baby.” Her voice was shaking. “And now look at you.” She began to cry. “I wish I’d never been born.” After a moment, she added, “I wish you’d never been born!”

Anna turned away, so her mother shouldn’t see her face if she sat up. The parquet pattern of the wood floor blurred, but she managed to get to her own little room and sit down at her maple desk. A few tears escaped the back of her hand and fell on her desk blotter. She looked at the small wet spots with satisfaction, wishing someone could have seen how brave she had been when her mother said that horrible thing to her.

Then she promised herself that when she had children, she was absolutely never going to blurt out something on the spur of the moment that maybe she didn’t really mean without thinking first about how the children would feel.