Mother’s personal liberation began in 1961 when her youngest child enrolled in first grade. She’d been bored out of her mind as a housewife. She took a couple of undergraduate courses at St. Francis University and then registered for temporary work with the Kelly Girl Agency.
At first she only accepted short jobs until she was confident she could manage family and work. With longer stints, a month’s assignment would turn into three. She ended a couple of jobs because she wasn’t willing to convert to full-time. That changed when she went to work for the insurance company.
Midwestern United Life Insurance Company specialized in the shady financial transactions that define the industry. And they were making money hand over fist. MULIC (pronounced mew-lick) had just moved to their new headquarters outside of the city limits. They were the only commercial building for miles.
The single story thin gray facade hugged the horizon atop a slight knoll. It was in the middle of a twenty acre pasture. The quarter of a mile curved drive worthy of Chatsworth was the only access route.
Rosie Didier was the aesthetic mastermind. She started as a secretary in the company and ended up Executive Assistant to the Chairman. She called the shots In designing the new office that followed the International Style.
Rosie needed an assistant for her various projects, Kelly Girl sent my Mother. As a mentor she was generous with ideas but not affection. Which was fine with Mother. She spent the next year learning by osmosis.
When MULIC decided to bring in a new executive, Rosie offered the secretarial position to Mother. She leapfrogged everyone in the pool and accepted full-time status.
Mother grew up in farm country where the word “jew” was only used as a verb. Her new boss, Mr Reitman, had relocated from Chicago and was having difficulty adjusting to Fort Wayne’s much smaller Jewish community. His attempts to find local sources for his creature comforts fascinated her. And affected how we lived.
When he found a good local deli, we started eating lox and bagels (I’d never heard of them before). And when he mentioned in passing that he and his wife spent Sunday mornings reading the New York Times that he could only find in one bookstore, Mother started picking up the Sunday Times every week.
Our participation in the local Methodist church had been more a social obligation than a spiritual need. We were happy to substitute our new Sunday rituals for yet another chorus of “The Old Rugged Cross.”
The only true confidant Mother had was her younger sister who moved to California. So in my mid-teens I became her sounding board. I’d hear about what she learned and the people she met. But most of it had to do with fashion and the pressure she felt to look good in this high profile position.
There were a handful of work friends she talked to about clothes. Rosie was not one of them. She did not engage in gossip mainly because she was the subject of most of it.
Once I realized I only had to listen and not offer advice, I knew sounding board was the job for me. Then things took a darker turn as Mother started to contemplate divorce. I didn’t want to take sides as I heard things I didn’t want to know.
Like after my youngest brother was born she insisted Dad have a vasectomy. He did but argued it was tantamount to “stealing his manhood.” Mother gave birth to four boys in a period of eight years and thought the damage to her uterus exceeded anything his pride had sustained. Then she burst the bubble of fairy tale marriage.
When she graduated from high school in 1946 there was intense pressure from Grandmother to enroll at Purdue University like she had done 25 years before. The war was over, Dad would soon be out of the Army, Mother felt time was wasting. She didn’t want to go away for four years leaving him behind.
Dad graduated a year before her from a rural high school whose senior classes averaged about 25 students. Mother thought he was the only chance she would ever get.
The compromise with Grandmother was a shorter secretarial course at a business college in nearby Fort Wayne. Mother lived with an attorney’s family and worked as an au pere while she attended classes. She enjoyed the family as much as the school. When she finished the program she moved back home then got married.
Thriving on youth, the first few years of marriage were fun. But over time it slowly devolved into a dull coexistence of two minds that didn’t meet.
Among these revelations was one that she’d been passively paying attention to me. When she was making her decision to divorce she said she thought of the lyrics to a song I Iistened to all the time: “If you ain’t got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose.” Who knew? Dylan as marriage counselor.
After months of marital confessions it was a relief to get back to office gossip: Rosie’s trip to Europe or San Francisco to buy art; the lengths of skirts; and, Mother’s latest hair style from The Corner House called the George. It was a slightly teased, small bubble that had a diminutive queue (tail) at the nape of the neck tied with a tiny black ribbon.
Mr. Reitman left the company and was not replaced so Mother was reassigned to another department. She enjoyed it because her group included the first female Vice President of the company and probably in the city of Fort Wayne. Mother liked working for her because she not only assigned tasks but explained what they meant.
Mother was constantly raving about her VP boss so I assumed she must have an excellent wardrobe. When I finally asked about it, she scrunched up her face and said, “her clothes are terrible.” Then in one sentence she wiped out the importance of all the fashion stuff I learned the past couple of years. “It doesn’t matter, she’s intelligent.”
Her fashionista friendships were waining as it became clear style was their only bond. These were conservative, unimaginative women. Mother complained they were prejudiced and closed-minded. It being the late 60’s I made the logical leap, “oh, you mean civil rights.”
She protested, “No! Homosexuals. They have so much fun getting their hair done by these guys who make them look good, then they make fun of them behind their backs.”
Although I admired her sense of fairness it was not a subject I wanted to engage in. It involved the great unknown that I knew would probably include me someday. But I hadn’t a clue what it was or how I was supposed to get from “A” to B.
It may have been her way to ease me along. Because it was about the same time she plopped a paperback in my lap suggesting it was a good read.
I loved Myra Breckenridge but it only confused me more.