Looking back over my childhood, I realize I had the perfect mother for the fifties. There was no way of her, or I knowing the following decade would bring the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and the culture of doing your own thing. Not that my mother was perfect, no mother is except the TV moms of that era, Donna Reed, Jane Wyatt, and June Cleaver.
My mom had nothing in common with them, except she wore spiked heels like June Cleaver. Cleaver wore the high heels daily, to appear taller as Wally and the Beaver grew. My mother wore spiked heels because she had great legs and she was not shy about them or saying so. Mom also had a different air about her than other women of the era. She carried herself as if she had the Crown and Title to “Queen of Say So.” It was only later in life I discovered she had skipped two grades in school and graduated at age 16.
She was born Frances Marie Knizikiewicz and possessed a strong identity to her Lithuanian roots. She spoke the language and followed the traditions, though she was born in New York. On Shrove Tuesday aka Fat Tuesday, she would spend the day making homemade jelly donuts for our family to enjoy before Lent. On Easter Saturday, she would take baskets containing homemade, coffee cakes, pickled beets, picked eggs, ham, and a stick of butter molded into the shape of a lamb adorned with a red ribbon on its neck complete with peppercorn for eyes, to the church for “The Blessing of the Food.”
Mom was home with me the first seven years of my life. She cooked, cleaned, and took care of her children. She was not the doting mom that TV portrayed. If any of my siblings or I fell and suffered an injury, my mom would comfort us with “It will be better by the time you get married.” If any of us went to her with a compliant, she would tell us to “Look on the bright side.” When we like most kids were unable to find a bright side, she found one. Even if it was, “Well you’re not dead.” There was no excuse for complaining about anything.
I was the fifth child in a family of six. My eldest brother Richard died of cancer at the age of three, exactly one month before my sister Judy was born. As an adult, I try to imagine the various feelings mom had at that time. Was it possible to feel the joy of a new baby while mourning another child’s death? She commented once that she lost so much weight the month before my sister was born that Judy’s skin sagged over her body.
My mother mourned Richard’s passing throughout her life. We were always encouraged to pray to him if we needed anything. I never knew Richard but I was forever asking him for things. When the anniversary of his death came around, she was saddened for a time, and she was not timid about telling us the reason for the change in her manner.She cheered up though after the anniversary date passed.
In the summer, she gathered an abundance of "Jersey Tomatoes" from our small but efficient city garden and spent days canning. We had plenty of stewed tomatoes, whole tomatoes, and ketchup to last us until the next harvest. After processing the tomatoes, she went on to peaches bought by the bushel for homemade jams and jellies. The smells from our kitchen rivaled those of Stokely's the local cannery.
My father came home from work each day about 7 p.m. Each night mom served dinner twice. Often making my father, an entire different meal then we ate earlier. Frances hoped my father’s special meal would keep his blood pressure and weight down. It never did.
Many women in the fifties did not have a driver’s license and those who did, had their husband drive them. Frances could never understand why women wanted to be so dependent on their husband, “What if he dies, or gets sick? What will they do?” Although my father took the car to work, my mother would get up early and drive him to work if she needed to do shopping or errands.
When I was seven, my mom returned to work. It was a temporary position that lasted twenty-five years. I remember feeling abandoned. During the fifties like most children, I came home from school to eat lunch. Now I went to the neighbors. No more boats made from oranges or having my sandwiches in pretty designs, the neighbor made me substantial food, but it was not the same.
Besides lunch, not much in my life changed but Frances' life did. Like most fifties families, we had but one car. My mother would wake up every morning; slip her full-length beaver coat over a sheer silky nightgown and drive my father to work. It was a 30-mile trek. My father asked several time for her to put real clothes on. He feared the cops would pull her over and find her wearing sexy, flimsy nightwear. My mother continued driving in the nightgown and beaver coat for years.
After her daring drive she came home made breakfast, dressed and then drove another 20 miles to her job at Trenton State Hospital where she an executive medical secretary. When her workday was finished, she came home, made dinner, feed us kids, and then hit the road again to pick up my father. Upon returning home, she made his dinner. She continued this routine for the next eight years, until our family bought a second car.
My mother was not timid with anyone. She always told us “Might does not make right.” Once at my brother’s Little League game my mother approached the Mayor and gave him her not so high opinion of him. The Mayor kept smiling while she listed all her complaints. He later offered her some insight into his reasoning. Although my mother never cared for the Mayor, she did respect him because he addressed her issues.
Mom was not one of the mother’s that made the monthly PTA meetings but that didn’t mean she was not interested in our education. It was common for her to march into the principal’s office and expound a complaint against a teacher, or policy. She stated with pride “They don’t want to see me coming into the school.” More than once, we would be afraid to go to school after one of her numerous visits.
When I was in the sixth grade my teacher molested me, and I told my mother. After making certain I was not fibbing, she visited all the other mother’s of the girls in my class and urged them to come forward to make a compliant. She was disappointed that none of the mothers wanted to come forward even though their daughter’s also experienced advances by the teacher.
She was appalled at their fear and weakness, but it fueled her mission. Mom went to school and in no uncertain terms told the principle what act she would physically perform on him and the teacher if the teacher ever touched me again. In the fifties, incidences like this did not get the attention they do today, but the teacher did not bother me for the rest of the year.
My mother was a role model for me entering womanhood in the late sixties. She taught me to; Question authority, be independent, fight for what you believe in, do not be afraid of your sexuality, and not to care what others think. The most important thing she taught me though her words and her actions was to be a strong woman for that I am eternally grateful.