This week's Spin Cycle topic is "Picture Essay".
Yesterday I showed you the picture...
And here's the essay...
That is...my Mama. Yep, the one with the bottle of bourbon and the mustache. The place was Chicago. The time: 1945. According to Mama, she and some friends were just having a little party in her apartment. When I asked her why it was all women, she reminded me that "the boys" were all off fighting in WWII, and the girls were left to have fun on their own. That, by the way, was one of her favorite party tricks - the mustache thing. She taught me how to do it when I was just a little girl. The bourbon thing she taught me much later.
Yes, back before my Mama reinvented herself as a church lady and bastion of Southern gentility, she had...a bit of a past. In fact, there were many bits that she never told me about, which I have now come to understand were somewhat nefarious. But out of respect for her privacy, I will only tell y'all the bits she chose to tell me about. She loved to tell a good story, but I'm not entirely sure about the veracity of her tales. There are many things that I have, since her death, come to know weren't exactly 100% true. So keep that in mind.
Mama was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota in 1923, the 5th of 7 children. They lived in a big farm house and her daddy was an attorney, and member of the South Dakota House of Representatives. Her life changed drastically when she was 10. Her mother died (of pneumonia, I think) and her father died a year later (not sure why, but Mama claimed it was from a broken heart). Seven children, the Depression. A hard time. Mama's older sister, Gladys, and her oldest brother, Frank, raised all their younger siblings. Uncle Frank once said that "some days they ate potatoes and water, and other days they ate water and potatoes.)
I don't think that Mama ever got along with her sister, Gladys. Poor Gladys was a young woman of 21 when their parents died, and she was forced to put her life on hold while she took care of all these little kids. And I think Mama was a bit of a handful. While she never really told me this directly, I am in possession of Mama's old high school yearbooks, which are FILLED with inscriptions telling her how much "fun" she was, and how much "personality and pep" she exhibited. She was a yell leader. Her senior yearbook has THREE references to a certain Prom Night, all illustrated by little drawings of bottles with "XXX" written on them, and something about "fun" in the backseat that time they all drove to Sioux Falls. Mama did tell me that Aunt Gladys refused to let her wear lipstick, so she secretly bought some and hid it in her purse, then would stop and put it on while walking to school, using a shop window as a mirror.
According to Mama, after graduating high school in Spring of 1941, she went away to college at the University of Washington, in Seattle. I am not at all sure if this is true, but she does seem to have been in Seattle at this time. I can't imagine how her family was paying for college for her, I don't think she was much of a scholar - pretty busy having all that "fun". Anyway, she claimed that Aunt Gladys had insisted on giving her a home perm before she left for Seattle, but it turned out horribly. In a fit of hysteria, she pulled out her fingernail clippers in the bathroom on her train to Seattle, and cut all her hair off into a short, but stylish bob. I like to believe this was true.
Then, on December 7, 1941, she was snow skiing with some friends, and when she got to the bottom of the mountain for lunch, everybody was screaming and crying and when she got the the lodge, they were all clustered around a radio. Pearl Harbor had been bombed. As all her brothers joined the military, she was forced to leave college.
She said that she then got a job in a factory at a shipyard in Seattle. Rosie the Riveter stuff. I asked her once what she had done exactly, and she said something vague about sorting bolts on a conveyor belt. As you can imagine, a girl with all that "personality and pep" didn't last long in such a tedious job, and she soon headed off for the big city.
Eventually, she made her way to Chicago. By herself, which I think was pretty bold and adventurous at the time. She said that she talked her way into a job as a telephone operator for a big sporting goods company in Chicago. She lied and told them she knew how to run a switchboard. Apparently, on the first day, she created a complete disaster and got all the lines switched. But instead of firing her, they promoted her to Receptionist. I told you she had "personality and pep"! She loved working there because all the young men were away fighting in the war, and the place was populated by older, "fatherly" men who looked after her. Yeah, right.
She had quite a few stories from that time. She claimed that she modeled for Marshall-Fields...
She claimed that she was hit on in nightclubs by both Danny Thomas and Mel Torme, but succumbed to neither of them. Danny Thomas was a married man, and Mel Torme was...short. She also claimed that she had several male friends who were gay, and she liked to go out with them because they'd take her out to a nice dinner and a movie, but didn't try to get any S-E-X.
My favorite Mama-brush-with-greatness story was about a night when she was out with her friends. According to Mama, in those days all the girls wanted to look like they could hold their liquor. So they'd drink and drink, then go into the bathroom and make themselves throw up, then go back out and drink more. Sort of alcoholic bulimia. "All the girls did it!" she claimed. So this one night, she was in a nightclub bathroom vomiting up her Mai Tais and heard the girl in the next stall doing the same. When they both came out to clean up and rinse their mouths, the girl in the next stall turned out to be...Veronica Lake.
Another of her weirder stories was about a time when she and a roommate were painting their apartment. She said she was trying to paint the ceiling, so she balanced a chair on top of the radiator, and stood on it. Of course she took a tumble, and the back of the chair rammed her between the legs. Unfortunately, she had in a tampon, and she got so swollen up that she had to go to the emergency room to have the tampon removed. I have fact checked this crazy story, and tampons were, in fact, being sold by the late 1940s - but most women still used Kotex. Maybe she was a pioneer.
Now I need to explain that these tasty little stories came out of her in drips and drabs. Most of the time, she pretended to be terribly upright and straightlaced, and then suddenly one of these tidbits would come tumbling out. Mama was a puzzle.
Interestingly, it was during this period of her life when she converted to Catholicism. Which in my mind, must have involved some serious thought and a certain amount of spiritual curiosity. But all she really said about it was that she liked being Catholic, because there was a cathedral in Chicago that held masses every hour on the hour all night Saturday night, and she could just leave the nightclubs, hit a mass at 2:00 in the morning, then go home and crash and she had fulfilled her Sunday church obligation and could sleep in.
Her life during the entire second half of the 1940s is a mystery to me. I know her sister, my Aunt Joey moved to Chicago to go to nursing school, and they lived together. But that's about it.
The last Chicago story that Mama shared was that she had been engaged to be married. To a rich boy from Long Island (ha!) named Lawrence Vincent Snyder, III. She claimed that they had even gone so far as to send out the wedding invitations, when she chickened out and ran away. She said she had a good girlfriend, Mary Jane, who had gotten married and moved to Austin, Texas, of all places, and when she ran away from Lawrence Vincent Snyder, III, she got on a train and hightailed it to Austin, because she didn't think anybody would think to look for her in such a place.
The rest, of course, is history. She met my Daddy and became upright and ladylike and a wonderful wife, homemaker and mother.
So there you go, the story of the picture. Myyearwiththemouse blew me away by guessing Chicago! And very close to the right date. But I have to give the prize to Michele, who wrote and entire, brilliant story about these partying ladies. Tell you what, Michele, when you come out to LA for that conference, I'll take you out for a drink.
Please drop by Sprite's Keeper for more spins on "Picture Essay".