Happy Mother’s Day, Olive
Olive C. Watson was born in Montclair, New Jersey, to a family with not many resources. It was clear from an early age to Olive that all she had to parlay herself into a better life were her looks and her mother reminded her of this on a daily basis. She attended the Kimberly School where they had two programs: one for the girls that were college bound and the other, for girls who hoped for a good marriage. My mother fell into the latter group. She spent her senior year making mountains out of papier mache while the other group studied for final exams and applied to the seven sisters. Her mother told her often that “It was just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one”.
My mother describes this period as a fun one, however, despite the bleak expectation for her future. She was the Peanut Queen of Montclair and wore a dress made out of peanut shells in the parade and spent a lot of time with her aunt who lived in the Hamptons in summer. She went to dances and dated Jack Kennedy.
My mother moved to New York at 18 and was hired by the Powers Agency to model. In those days a girl who was only 5’5 was still a good prospect for work in the glossy pages of Vogue. After a few months of living in the Barbizon and dating men she met at El Morocco, she was sent to Hollywood with a group of fellow models to work in a Walter Wanger film called “Vogues of 1938. They paid my mother $1000.00 dollars which was a fortune in those days and when she got home to her small bedroom she threw the cash up in the air over her bead and delighted in the sight of all that money falling around her. Unfortunately the next day she got appendicitis and had to spend all her hard earned money on the surgery.
She met my father, Thomas Watson, on a blind date arranged by friends. After dinner at a lovely restaurant in Manhattan he asked if she would like to go for a ride and, dazzled by my father’s handsome looks and persuasive charms, she accepted. They drove to a small airport outside of Manhattan where my father kept his single engine plane and they took off for a tour of the city. It was a full moon and they held hands.
They were married within the year and after six months my father returned to war leaving my mother to live in his mother’s country house in New Canaan with his sisters. Upon arrival she was instructed to make 100 double damask napkins by my Grandmother who insisted this was a wife’s duty and no household was complete without them. Night after night my mother sat in her third floor room heavily pregnant hemming the napkins while listening to the sounds of her sisters in laws entertaining friends for dinner. We used those napkins for as long as I can remember.
How alone she must have felt.
Once my father returned from war they settled down in Greenwich, Connecticut and added to their family almost on a yearly basis. My mother had a cook, a butler, a nanny, a housekeeper, a laundress, and nothing to do but stay in her room with the door closed. Even her children were forbidden to her.
I wonder now what she did in there. Was she napping or talking on the phone or simply lying on her bed and wondering how it would all end? Surely she was the most beautiful of all the women in Greenwich. Surely she had had all the children expected of her. She told me once that her biggest fear was getting fat as then “no one would want her”.
My mother invented reality for all of us. On Sunday nights when there was no one on duty she said it was “Make your own dinner night” which meant we could actually go into the kitchen and use the stove to make whatever we wanted. My sister, Olive, made pea soup while I always made tomato. Thank goodness for Campbell’s Soup with its red and white cans, always ready to be served. In summer my mother made ice tea which was always a production as she never went into the kitchen. She told a story of how on her honeymoon she cooked a chicken for dinner by putting the entire chicken, feathers and all, into the oven in a pan. She couldn’t bear to touch it and hoped it would emerge looking edible.
When hurricane season arrived she would pile us all into the station wagon and take us to the beach so we could really see the waves happening. In winter she would tie five flexible flyers to the back of the same station wagon and drive down Meadowcroft Lane in the snow with us screaming with fear behind the car swinging wildly back and forth on the slippery road. She taught us to ride a two wheeler by pushing us donw a hill behind our house all the while saying she wouldn’t let us go.
Sometimes she seemed happier than others. She loved summer and the deep heat of Connecticut and we would often find her in front of our house when we got home from school with her bra straps falling over her shoulders, and a scarf tied over her front so she could sunbathe and turn her olive skin even darker.
I think of her now on Mother’s Day and am grateful for what she gave us. Magic, imagination, spontaneity, romance and the best she could give as a mother. My clearest memory of her in old age was sitting in the seat of her airplane on our way to a meeting in Providence with her purse firmly on her lap saying to me. “Just look at me, Lucinda, little Olive Cawley sitting in her own airplane going somewhere! “