A Mother Like You by
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(226 Stories)

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My mother was born in 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey. She was a bright and precocious child, and skipped three grades in school, finishing high school in 1936 at age fifteen. When she graduated from New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College, part of Rutgers University) in 1940, she had just turned nineteen. She majored in French and minored in Spanish, and after she graduated, she got a job as a tri-lingual secretary for an import-export firm. She only worked for three years though, because in 1943 she married my father and they moved to Indiana, where he was stationed at a naval hospital for the remainder of the war. She was only twenty-two, but he was thirty-four and in a hurry to have a family. While in Indiana, she had two babies only eighteen months apart. Taking care of them was more than a full-time job.

I'm glad my mother was at home for me. I liked having her there all the time.

After my father got out of the service, they moved back to New Jersey, living with my grandparents in Jersey City for a while, and then eventually buying a house in Belleville. I was born in 1951, when my sisters were seven and five.

June 1952 with her three daughters

My mother never worked outside of the home again, nor was it something she even contemplated. In those days women who were married to men who made a good living generally stayed home, because it was thought that the only reason for women to work was if they needed the money.

The stay-at-home mother was pretty typical in my world. None of my friends had mothers who worked either. My aunt Daisy was a kindergarten teacher, but that was because she was divorced. (Which was also unusual in those days.) I’m pretty sure that once she remarried she stopped teaching.

In my parents’ marriage, the division of labor was clear. My mother was in charge of the house and the family, my father earned the money to support us. He might have disagreed with some of the decisions she made regarding us kids, but he would have no more told her how to raise the children than she would have told him how to practice medicine. She paid attention to what was happening for all of us at school and with extracurricular activities, bought us supplies, took us to meetings, and just told him what she thought he needed to know. We generally only saw him at dinnertime, when we all ate together.

In elementary school, everyone went home for lunch. There wasn’t a cafeteria or any kind of lunchroom at the school. It was assumed that every student had someone at home who was preparing lunch for them. If there had been any kids at my school with working mothers (and no grandparent in the home, which would be another option), I don’t know what they would have done.

The first working mother I ever knew who had a husband was the morning driver in my College High School carpool. College High was the school I went to from seventh through twelfth grade, and it was in Montclair, a town about ten miles away from Belleville. There were students from many different towns there, but only one other person from Belleville, a girl named Vicki who was two years ahead of me. The two of us carpooled for four years, until she graduated. Her mother worked in an office, so she drove us to school in the morning and then went to work. I have no idea what kind of job she had, or where her office was. I also don’t know if she worked because her husband didn’t earn enough to support them, or because she wanted to. That wasn’t the kind of question one could ask. I was amazed by the fact that when we dropped Vicki off at her house after school, there was no one there, and she let herself in with a key. Before our carpool she used to take the bus home from school. Having a working mother made Vicki seem very exotic.

I never knew how my mother occupied her time while I was in school. Of course she did the grocery shopping (the Acme was three doors down from our house) and cooked all the meals, and a certain amount of housekeeping, but I wonder if that filled her days. She wasn’t a fanatic about keeping everything spotless (which is probably why I’m not either). She belonged to some organizations like Hadassah and Sisterhood, though I never knew what that entailed. At some point she joined the local chapter of the Brandeis National Women’s Committee, which was a book club and also raised money for this new university that didn’t have an alumni base yet.

I do know that she was never too busy for me, always there no matter what I needed. She helped me with my homework if I was having trouble, sewed the badges on my Girl Scout uniform and the nametapes into my camp clothes, and “pegged” my pants to make them skin-tight when that was the fashion. She drove me to friends’ houses and to school dances, as well as being the afternoon driver in my high school carpool. And then drove me both ways for the last two years, after Vicki graduated.

Once I got to the point of having papers to write, she always typed them for me. Having been a secretary for three years, she had become a very fast typist, and she hadn’t lost her speed over the years. Sometimes she would be typing the first part of the paper while I was still writing the end, since I was always a last-minute kind of person. She also had the most amazing ability to eyeball the footnotes and know exactly when to stop typing the text to leave the right amount of space for footnotes at the bottom of the page. This is a skill that obviously became obsolete once computers came along, but that didn’t happen until long after I finished college. I wished she had been able to type my college papers — and especially my senior thesis — because without her help, I ended up putting all the footnotes at the end of the paper instead of on each page, which doesn’t look nearly as good.

Junior Parents Weekend 1971

She encouraged all of her daughters to have careers, and we all did. She said that if she had grown up at a different time, she would likely have continued working after getting married, but I never heard her say that there was any particular career she would have liked to pursue.

  • * * *

By the time I had my first child, I had been a lawyer for eight years, and I had a good job in the Attorney General’s Office. (My mother had her first child at twenty-three; in contrast, I had my first child at thirty-three.) While I took a year of maternity leave when each child was born, and only worked half-time from then on, I could not have imagined being a stay-at-home mother. I liked practicing law, and I wanted to continue doing it. I actually felt that working half of the time and being with my children the other half of the time was the perfect combination. When my cases were driving me crazy, I could go home to my kids, and when my kids were driving me crazy, I could go in to the office.

I have to say, though, that I’m glad my mother was at home for me. I liked having her there all the time. I considered her to be just about the perfect mother. Once I had my own kids, I tried to be as much like her as possible. When I had a problem with any of them, I would try to imagine what she would have done. Sometimes I would ask her advice, but usually she couldn’t remember ever having had any problems with us – I guess in her memory, we were the perfect children too!

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, through the years, we’ve learned about the love you have for your mother. She does, indeed, sound like a wonderful mother. It’s interesting to know that she worked on behalf of the Brandeis National Women’s Committee (which has now gone co-ed and has all sorts of study groups beyond just the book group). Let me thank her for that! It was a huge organization back in the day.

    I love the fact that she could type up your papers for you. I took a typing class in high school, so that was always my job, even for my husband in our early years of marriage, before word processing.

    Your work arrangement does seem perfect – a year of maternity leave, then half time work, so you had the ability to spend loads of time with each child and not let work or mothering frustrate you too much. Yes, ideal! And you had a great role model. I have tried to NOT follow in my mother’s footsteps, except in her love of the arts and sharing that with my children.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your perceptive comment, Betsy! I miss her so much, and especially on this Mother’s Day weekend. I do remember how important it was to her (and everyone in the Jewish community) to support Brandeis in those early years. I almost went to college there – just imagine, you and I could have met 50 years earlier.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Through your mother, Suzy, you have really captured the generation of all our mothers. Bright, talented women who nonetheless stayed at home when their children were growing up. And, seemingly, happily and busily so.
    And yet, as you note about your mother, she was completely encouraging of her own daughters’ professional lives. She was clearly wonderful in all respects. And, incidentally, I would have killed to have her typing my papers during high school — and college, for that matter. (My non-skills in this area are well documented in my Retro stories.)

    Finally, thanks for sharing those three beautiful photos.

    I am also fascinated by your section about Vicki. She sounds like a true “latchkey kid.” I think today, if a child were regularly left home alone after school, some school authority would call in a social services agency.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. Regarding Vicki’s situation, I don’t know if social services would be called in for a high school kid who was home alone. When my kids were in high school, I think plenty of their friends were at home by themselves after school. If those teenagers were old enough to be hired as babysitters for small children, I certainly think they were old enough to take care of themselves.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    I can’t believe the similarities in our upbringing, Suzy. My mother was born in 1923, started her family when she was young, and took care of everything related to raising her three children. I love all of your photos. Your mother was beautiful, and I especially love the picture from parents’ weekend. Your half-and-half career/stay-at-home arrangement sounds perfect!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Laurie. Fun to learn about our similarities. I wish I had more photos from my early years. All the pictures from my childhood were slides, which I need to figure out how to convert, and there are no pictures from my college years except when my parents came to visit. I didn’t have a camera, and neither did anyone I knew.

  4. Suzy, you’ve painted a wonderful and endearing picture of your mother and your delight in having her there for you those formative years.

    My mother went back to work after my younger sister started school. She was a high school art teacher and an artist in her own right, and altho – inconceivably to me now – I never remember discussing this with her, I have the sense she was frustrated not having pursued her own art. As far as I know she never entered her work in an art show, but painted portraits for friends and family, never selling her paintings.

    She was a wonderful mother and grandmother, gone now for 20 years, she had been my best friend.

    • Suzy says:

      Sounds like you could have written a story about your own stay-at-home mother, Dana. My mother has been gone for four years now, and I miss her every day. You can read the story I wrote when she died, entitled “This Story Is Not About Cooking.”

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    We are definitely of a generation–my mother also born in 1921–with so many shared experiences. Everyone needs parenting, and parents need help. And women still carry most of the caregiving responsibility, even as we try to figure out how to be part of the non-domestic world–the endless quest for balance. Things have changed so much, but where is the childcare support still? You mother sounds like a wonderful person, and your love for her shines through.

    • Suzy says:

      My mother WAS a wonderful person! But I agree that childcare is not valued by our society, and the support isn’t there. My mother would have said that she didn’t have a job, but really she had the most important job there is!

  6. Oh, I just love that photo of you and your mother, Suzy…even without the story, it tells a lot about how close you were. As always, I’m struck by the natural tone and the warmth of your writing.

    Interesting that we have stories of stay-at-home mothers who were content to put work aside and focus on raising families, stay-at-home mothers who gave up work and resented doing so, and mothers who chose to work. So far no stories of stay-at-home fathers. I wonder if there are any amongst us.

    I represent another group…I had no choice but to work but managed a schedule that allowed me to go to work while my daughter was in school and, thanks to the advent of computers, continue working at home at night. I admit I was stressed out as a single parent and know my daughter thought of me as a workaholic, but hey, at least I was there. (I Googled your song title and watched the video…that’s the kind of mother I wished I could be. The Hallmark card mother. Sounds like you had one…but you were also the ideal mother…one who enjoyed the best of both worlds!)

    Wonderful story!

    • Suzy says:

      Wow, Barb, thanks so much for your comment. I’m really touched.

      Also thanks for telling us about your own experience as a working mother, which we have heard about in dribs and drabs in some of your stories. (I still want to taste your cheesecake!)

      The video of the song is pretty sappy, but I had a hard time finding a decent song that used the word Mother instead of Mom, since (as I think you know) I don’t like to have her referred to as a “mom.”

  7. You’ve always sounded like a warm and balanced person in your posts, Suzy, and this story gives me a profound sense of the origins of that warmth and balance! You also manage to get across how much formality there was in so many of our families. Regardless of the circumstances, there always seemed to be questions one just didn’t ask. I loved your latter-day formula for sanity: ‘When my cases were driving me crazy, I could go home to my kids, and when my kids were driving me crazy, I could go in to the office.’ Right on!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Charlie. Although “warm and balanced” sounds almost like “fair and balanced” and we know who used that as their slogan! I certainly don’t want to be confused with them!

  8. Marian says:

    It’s gratifying to read a story of a mother who was happy with her role and so talented at it–after all, she raised you! However, I really like how you were able to practice law part time and have time with your kids as well. I’m feeling somewhat similar now trying to care for elders. It’s nice to have a few hours a week of professional work. Each part of my life helps me appreciate the other part.

  9. Risa Nye says:

    Suzy, I had to laugh when I read about your mother’s first job! After graduating from high school, I worked full-time for a year. Because I had studied French, Spanish, and Italian I thought I could find work at an international company of some sort in San Francisco. The problem? I was 17 and had no other skills. Couldn’t type at all. My boyfriend typed all my papers for me in college–he was really fast and still is! Your mother got what I would’ve considered my dream job at the time.
    I enjoyed reading such a positive and heartwarming story!

    • Suzy says:

      Risa, she really enjoyed that job, because it made use of her language skills. But the fact that she could type definitely helped. In a different era, she might have moved up through the ranks of the company, but I’m not sure that would have happened in the 1940s.

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