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My Mother had just moved to New York City from Eau Claire in 1949, when she met Marie Kelso. Marie was four or five years older and lived in the same women's residence on Thirteenth Street, operated by the Salvation Army. She always cut through in the little black-and-white photos they used to take, so sparingly, at parties. There she was, on the arm of the sofa, holding a cigarette and a highball like everybody else, laughing like the others, but as if she were having an inside joke with the viewer of the photo, a little voltage in the eye that spoke of knowing things the other girls didn't. She had been kind of wild -- code for premarital sex -- despite being a Catholic, but maybe because of that she became a sort of den mother to the younger women. She was in her late thirties before she finally got married, to a businessman named Bill. They never had any children.
My mother left the women's residence for her own apartment in 1951 and -- you know how these things go -- saw Marie occasionally, but when she married my father and moved out to Atlanticville, on Long Island, it got harder to maintain the old friendships. A phone call now and then, and then no phone calls for a long while.
Then, out of the blue, a call from Marie Kelso. It was 1962. She and Bill were living in New Jersey. "I wanted to see how the lovebirds were doing," she said. My mom talked to her for almost an hour, and by the end of the conversation, they had made plans for Marie to visit us in Atlanticville. As it turned out, Marie had something on her mind besides auld lang syne. She wanted my parents to join the John Birch Society.
My Mother had come to New York to work in retail, for which she had prepared at Thellinger's department store in Eau Claire. New York -- the great dream, as it still was. Not just a vehicle for making money but a destination, spiritual and material, in itself. She got a job at Saks and, over a year and a half, rose steadily from counter girl to assistant buyer. Her life was dotted with glamorous parties, encounters with movie stars; her clients included Rita Hayworth, and once she even brought clothes to Mae West's apartment. In pictures from that time, her honey-blond hair spills down over the shoulders of a beautiful striped silk blouse or a gray tailored suit, always a cigarette in her hand, laughing ...
She met my father one evening while she was pinch-hitting at one of the sweater counters during the pre-Christmas rush. Winking lights of Rockefeller Plaza, people rushing by on the sidewalks, the chill of December in the folds of their overcoats, smell of pretzels and chestnuts in the blue stove smoke ... He had stopped in to buy a sweater for his mother, and Mom had assisted him. He was still living with his parents on the far edge of Queens, working in the city, and he came back the next week, hunted her up, and they had a date, they began a courtship.
My father was very handsome -- people said he resembled the actor Tyrone Power -- but he had a slightly withered left arm. You had to look for a minute or two to notice it, and then only with his shirt off. He was also, it turned out, epileptic, although he didn't tell my mother about that until after they were engaged. It had kept him out of the war.
My mother had just come off a heartbreak. She was susceptible. Another year or so and she would have been a full buyer, and it would have been a corner to turn. She was at the corner already. In any case her life was rolling, but she was late getting married for those days -- twenty-six! -- and when the previous love withdrew, he left an emptiness that hadn't been there before. Suddenly New York and the life and the glamour were tinged with a hint of rue on the breeze, a rue that she knew could roll in heavier as the shadows grew. This is all speculation, basically, but that's where she was when my father entered the picture.
He wasn't making a lot of money, but he was doing something, electrical engineering, that had the potential for growth, something technical that had required lots of training, and he was smart, he could be funny, he had a good family -- or, let us say, a large extended family with some material comfort. They got married.
Atlanticville. They bought the house for twelve thousand dollars, a decent chunk of money at the time.
Everybody else, it seems, had the same idea. Your own house, your own yard. All those boys and girls who had grown up in the tenements and alleys of Brooklyn and Queens or the Lower East Side and who had shipped out to fight the war, cigarette by cigarette, boot by boot. No particular education, except for those who came back for technical school on the GI Bill at CCNY or NYU. Atlanticville, and all the other towns like it, grew up for them overnight. Land that had been potato farms or marsh before the war was now bought up, filled in, and carved into little squares, like a tray of brownies. The developers named the streets with Indian words peculiar to tribes that had long since been driven off, or they named them for trees or for the developer's own children. My parents moved there because that was what they could afford; I don't think they necessarily planned on staying ...My Cold War