It’s never too early to put a child on the road to a profession. With only one child, all my parents’ efforts focussed on me. Not until I began sifting through their pictures from 1950 did I notice the trend.
On this Christmas morning photo, my mother wrote on the back, “This probably turned you off ironing.” My expression says, “What’s with this padded dressing gown? I’m not in a Thirties film.” My dad was a movie booker, and I went to private screenings with him from the age of five. If I had to be Myrna Loy, couldn’t I be Nora Charles and help solve cases? Yet strewn around my feet in this photo are little evidences of career choices. A blackboard. A tea table.
Here’s my first cutaway dollhouse. I invited my large dolls to examine the little people inside. Would interior design interest me? Women weren’t majoring in architecture yet. Fashion? Why did the Daddy doll have an ugly brown suit? There’s my horse Pegasus in the back. Mom loved mythology.
Cooking is useful, career or not, and my mother filled her house with homemade pies, cakes, and cookies. Here I have my own apron, rolling pin, and even a meat grinder! Early Hannibal Lecter? The doll folk are avoiding my glance. Mother writes, “This is why you are such a great cook. Encouragement.” Too true. I rarely eat out.
Next the dolly family examines the fruits of my labours. My smile looks forced. Note how I refuse to stick out my pinky. I do have a politically incorrect brown doll, and is that Betty Boop in the back row? My family is growing. Time for a little birth control. Not long after I will cut their hair and draw anchor and US Navy tattoos on their chests, even my mother’s 1912 cloth baby. Why does my only boy doll get to sit alone at the table?
Every kid loves animals! Women vets were beginning to appear. Here’s my budgie Winky. “Look into my eyes, bird. Stop pooping on the curtains.” Windy was actually very mean and bit everyone except my mother. It had a bad habit of walking on the floor. One day my father, well…..the less said, the better. It was fast. Tekoe and Pekoe replaced Winky but were not allowed to fly the coop. Since we lived in an apartment (before litter boxes), dogs or cats were out of the question. I did raise scores of white mice, two favourites were Errol and Bette.
Time for sports. Here I am with my brand new Schwinn. A light that flashes, a horn that beeps. It’s gigantic, but I will grow into it. No training wheels for me. I graduated to a racing bike at eleven. But few women made sports a profession other than Barbara Ann Scott or Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
Let’s get professional. My aunt was a nurse, and in that headdress, so am I. Check that medicine cabinet and the stethoscope. I have an assistant, so perhaps I was ward matron. I had my own chemistry set, too, but I combined ingredients at will and heated them over my Bunsen burner until they turned black and smelled up the house. I liked lighting candles in closets, and my mother let me. Can you believe it? If we hadn’t been Episcopalians, maybe that habit would have suited me as a nun.
Teaching was the last logical path. Mom made it to vice principal in the Cleveland schools. In my misguided career from 1966 to 2005, I had the same happiness and success as this expression. The dolls seem to be listening, and they’d better, thanks to the punishing pointer, but they were a captive audience. Although later I was happier teaching English at a community college in Northern Ontario, I can never forget a year in a high school in Portsmouth, a shoe- and pottery-factory town bypassed by time since 1900 and the poorest county in Ohio.
The seniors were very civil, and my mythology class was sweet. But the tenth-grade boys I could line up against a wall and……..where’s my Uzi?
“Why you always sayin’ that I act like a fool?” one lad asked.
“Jim, you don’t have to ACT like a fool,” I said.
“Kiss my ass!” He got it loud and clear.
Off to the principal’s office. Many youthful tears later, parents brought in and more crying. No wonder I preferred being called Coach for my volleyball duties than Doc in honour of my useless PhD in Christopher Marlowe. But for $7500 a year? No thanks.
The first picture should have given me the hint. This can’t be my mother’s Misery-style Remington basher, but it’s no toy. Later on, she will bribe me with money at twelve to teach myself to type. Here I look serene, surrounded by the Internet of the day, an encyclopedia set. Should I have followed my heart and leaped full-time into creative writing? The juvenilia in the next essay will demonstrate my early efforts.