My days were filled with all the tasks required to sustain a family of six—child care, cooking, cleaning and lots of laundry. And since I didn’t drive, unlike mothers of today who spend much of their time in the car taking their kids places, that was all I did.
I had not gotten my license when I was sixteen like most of my friends. A month after my birthday I’d been a passenger in a car driven by a new driver and we’d skidded off the road on a snowy night. No one was hurt but it scared my parents and they asked me to wait until I was older, and I had so many other things going on—earning good grades, singing in the chorus and giving piano lessons—that it wasn’t a big deal.
In my senior year not being able to drive to school might have been a drag, but my cousin, Louie, came to live with us after he was discharged from the Navy. He drove a corvette and liked showing it off, and I liked being chauffeured by a handsome guy with a hot car. When we’d pull up in front of my high school with the top down, everyone would gawk first at the car, then at Louie and finally at me as I nonchalantly untied the scarf around my windblown hair. It was the only time in my life I felt as cool as Annette Funicello.
After high school I went to a small town college and then to a big city university and didn’t need a car to get around either. It wasn’t until I moved back to rural Connecticut, got married and started having babies that not having my license became a problem. Even a routine doctor’s appointment required the assistance of two people—my husband to drive me and my mother to stay with the kids. I rarely got out of the house more than once a week and Bob was getting sick of spending his day off taking me places.
After I had my second child, I started taking driving lessons. I have a vague recollection of being in a driver’s ed car with a balding, middle-aged instructor, and a vivid memory of gripping the wheel so tight my hands ached the next day.
When I’d completed six road sessions, my mom took me to a cemetery for more practice on the empty lanes, and after that I took cautious solo trips up and down the streets of our private community. If I’d been one of the other mothers living on Knollcrest I would have yelled at my kids to go play in the back yard when I was cruising around, but my erratic driving went unnoticed by my neighbors, and more importantly, by the state trooper who conducted my road test, and at last, at the age of 26, I got my license.
It was another year before I got my own car. My Aunt Terri (the one who had planned my wedding) offered me the station wagon she’d been driving her family of six around in, a big red 1958 Pontiac Safari. She had brought it from another large family and by the time my four kids climbed aboard, eleven other children had spit up, spilled milk and tracked mud in it. Yet I wasn’t the least bit deflated by the worn upholstery and rusted-out wheel wells. The Safari might have seen better days, and it may have been a hand-me-down, but it was mine.
There was plenty of room for all of us and the bulky stuff I carted around—a full-size carriage, high chair and playpen. These were the days before compact, lightweight gear, like the umbrella stroller, when baby equipment was as sturdy as furniture and about as portable. Plus, the car had a split tailgate for loading groceries into the “wayback” behind the seats, which was also handy for separating children who were punching each other.
We were very excited to have wheels, but when we started talking about all the places we wanted to go, the kids kept referring to it as “Aunt Terri’s old car,” and that didn’t feel right. So I went to a nearby marina and bought nine large black stick-on letters, the kind people put on a boat, and spelled out the name of the kids’ favorite cartoon character on the back. In an instant our beat-up, elderly wagon became a beloved member of the family and the best known vehicle in town. Other people may have driven newer cars, but they didn’t ride around in one called FAT ALBERT, nor could they all say together, “Hey, hey, hey,” when they pulled into a parking lot.
Now I could drive, not walk, to the bus stop, go grocery shopping anytime I wanted, and get the kids to doctors’ appointments without asking for help. Of course, this also meant I had to manage four children under five by myself.
Usually I was able to manage getting in and out of a store with everyone in tow without too much difficulty, but our trip to buy new shoes for my oldest daughter, Laurie, before she went to kindergarten was a different story.
There was no shoe store in town so we had to go all the way to Danbury. It was only a twenty minute ride, but it felt like a big trip to me so I asked my husband to load our Grow-Rite Buggy Baby Carriage, the one that had been too heavy for me to push up the hill when Laurie was a baby, into Albert before he left for work. This Cadillac of a pram sat on a heavy, four-wheel chassis and I had more than a few wrestling matches with it trying to get to collapse.
With the first problem of the day solved, I dressed the children, packed snacks and followed my standard protocol for loading the gang into the car. First I put Baby Heather in the middle of the front seat in a foam padded fruit basket which I used as an infant carrier because I could lift it with one hand. Next I sat my toddler, Bobby, on a booster seat held in place with one of Daddy’s old belts. Then I resolved the squabble between the five- and four-year old sisters over whose turn it was to sit in front by assigning the coveted spot to Laurie on the way, because she was one going to get new shoes, and to Karen on the way back. Before I put the key in the ignition I checked to make sure I had the baby’s bottle in my pocketbook and we were off.
On the way Bobby got fussy, but his chatty sisters, who remembered earlier shoe-shopping trips, quieted him by telling him the store had balloons and a “horsey” he could ride. A child-friendly shoe department had made Markoff’s the place for back-to-school shopping, and I knew it would be crowded but there was ample parking in the back and it was only a short walk to the rear entrance.
Since I had four little children and only two hands, I set up the carriage and put Laurie on one side and Karen on the other with their hands holding the metal frame, took Bobby out of the booster seat and braced him against my right hip, then pivoted to grab the fruit basket containing the baby and put it in the carriage. I pushed the carriage with my left hand and in this way we moved in tight formation to the door.
I left the carriage there and entered a children’s department bustling with kids, moms and busy salesmen to wait our turn for Laurie to be fitted for shoes.
After about 15 minutes, a salesman lifted Laurie up and sat her down in a child-size chair on a raised platform, crowned her with a pink cardboard tiara and measured her feet.
The first pair he brought for her to try on pinched her toes and he went to get a bigger size. While I was scanning the Buster Brown box to see if I had enough money, Karen, my four-year old, nestled against my side and said in a very soft voice, “Mommy, I feel sick.” I knew what was going to happen next. I grabbed the only thing I had handy, the open-tote handbag slung over my shoulder, and offered it to her just in time to catch most of it and minimize the mess on the floor.
The whirl of movement in the room stopped and all eyes turned toward the little girl getting sick in her mother’s pocketbook. The racket in the room ceased and was replaced by a highly charged silence. There was no place to hide so my mind went blank. I knew I had to do something, but I could even think about thinking about what until the sound of my daughter’s sobbing and the smell of her throwup brought me back. “It’s OK, honey, we’ll get you right home,” I said to comfort her, and myself, although for the life of me I didn’t know how I’d pull that off.
The salesman returned and stared at me as if I’d ruined his day. One of the other mothers handed me a cloth diaper which I used to wipe off Karen’s clothes and stuffed in my handbag to contain the mess. Mr. Markoff, the owner, who had greeted me with his usual ingratiating smile as we’d come in, looked on nervously while I had the two older sisters hold on to my sweater, pulled Bobby away from a pile of blocks on the floor, grabbed the baby in her fruit basket and headed for the door.
Once outside we reformed around the carriage and returned to Fat Albert. I loaded the unhappy crew and went to fold and load the carriage that last thing that needed to be done so we could get out of there. I pulled the lever and applied pressure, but it did not collapse. I pulled harder and leaned on the chassis—again it did not budge. I kicked it in frustration then squeezed the lever as tight as I could and applied all the strength I could muster, but it remained obstinately upright. So I got in the car and drove off and left it in the parking lot.
By this time everyone was crying, Laurie because she hadn’t gotten new shoes, Karen because she felt bad about getting sick, Bobby because he didn’t get to ride the horsey, and Heather because she needed a bottle. But it was such a relief to be out of the store and back in the safety of our beloved Albert. I felt sure peace could be restored by singing a silly song.
To be continued …