Mary Ellen and Herb’s dream house

Chapter 21: Dreams Come True

By the time scientists had found a combination of drugs that would cure TB, Mary Ellen didn’t need them. Was it her naps? Her vitamins? Ever since she came back from the hospital, she had been taking several kinds of vitamins every day before dinner, and she made her children (but not her husband) take them, too. Or was it her faith? Sometimes beliefs affect the body in spectacular ways.

Herb’s belief that he would become president of the American Sash and Door Company took a little longer to come true. But the company was prospering. He had been appointed one of its three vice presidents, and he and Mary Ellen began building their dream house in the Country Club District. They built it in an area where similar houses were already taking shape. Soon the area became a neighborhood, but not until the newly planted trees along the curbs began to mature did it achieve the silent, dreamy atmosphere that soothed the suburban soul. Most of the time there were no signs of life there, except for a bird, a squirrel, or a delivery van. The trees were pruned; the shrubs, trimmed; the lawns, always evenly cut. No brown spots, dandelions, or crabgrass marred their velvety smoothness. It was something like a superior cemetery. In the presence of stable property values even the air was almost motionless, though a whiff of insecticide could occasionally be detected—the odor of suburban sanctity.

Herb threw away a lot of old files when he was packing to move to the dream house—also the animal traps he’d brought with him when he came to the city. For three decades those traps had been rusting on the pegboard behind his workbench in the basement—relics of a vanished world. At his new house, he put his papers in order and discovered, to his dismay, that his father’s memoir—the memoir Harry had written while laid up with a strained back in Mound Valley—was missing.

Mary Ellen lost part of her history, as well: two of the three pewter trophies her grandfather said he won back in England in the 1870s while competing in athletic contests at local fairs. She had the one remaining trophy silver plated, obliterating the words scratched on its side. She had always believed her beloved grand­father deserved more than a pewter trophy.

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Though triumphantly established in his suburban utopia, Herb was still not ready to take Mary Ellen on those trips she’d made him promise to take her on before they were married. He had to stay in town to keep an eye on those other vice presidents. They, too, were after the top job.

He hadn’t gone to work at “the American” with the idea of becoming its president, but always at the back of his mind was the erroneous but potent belief that he was the grandson of a colonel of the Colorado Volunteers. He was eager for promotions and for opportunities to take charge of events—too eager sometimes. I once overheard him telling Mary Ellen that he was afraid he had ruined his chance to become president.

An “American” lumber truck had lost its brakes and had gone rocketing through a small town in Idaho. I didn’t hear the details, but there was property damage, and people were injured. Immediate decisions were called for. While Herb was on the phone, the president of the company walked by his desk, listened to the conversation for a moment, realized what had happened, and tried to take over. Herb said he didn’t actually tell him to stay out of it but might as well have. The president, however, understood the situation and didn’t take offense. Finally, in 1951, Herb became the president of the American Sash and Door Company.

On July 27, 1959, The Wall Street Journal mentioned Herb’s promotion—two lines in a column called “Who’s News.” A friend sent him the clipping. He knew Herb wouldn’t have seen it. Herb didn’t read the Journal. It was about other people’s business. He minded his own. But he kept the clipping.

Mary Ellen was proud of him—and of the two of them, and of their three children. Her children weren’t quite the people she had planned for them to be, but she was more than satisfied. She read her Bible and Unity pamphlets daily and prayed for the people on her prayer list. She had a cleaning lady, and a standing weekly appointment at the beauty parlor to have her hair set and occasionally permed. She had become an expert on every one of the household arts. She made her own clothes, and there was no form of fancy needlework she could not do. She was constantly cooking, baking, frying, roasting, pickling, preserving, and planning family meals and dinner parties. She was a serious and accomplished gardener, a respected rosarian, the president of the Kansas City Rose society, and a life member of the Johnson County Rose society, the Kansas City Garden Club, and the Overland Park Garden Club. She took great pride in her home which she decorated according to contemporary taste—hooking rugs, making slipcovers, refinishing furniture. Larcenia, her cleaning lady, took care of the drudge work.

Hannah’s house (where Bessie and Nettie still lived) was dim and cluttered; Mary Ellen’s was light and airy; Hannah’s was filled with dark, claw-footed chairs; Mary Ellen’s, with boxy, forties furniture slipcovered with splashy floral prints. She liked to think her whole life had become radically different from her mother’s and grandmother’s. At last, the past was behind her. But here and there in her spacious suburban ranch were cabinets filled with her collections of colored vases that were visual echoes of Bessie and Hannah’s collections of tiny glass horses and Victorian teacups.

And in 1957, when my sister announced her engagement to a Catholic and her intention of “going over to Rome,” Mary Ellen revealed that she also “echoed” her mother and her grandmother’s aversion to Catholics. She phoned me and demanded that I talk my sister out of “it.” She said she and Herb would not pay for the wedding.

“If you won’t pay for the wedding, I will,” I said.

Mary rolled her eyes. It was an empty threat. We didn’t have enough disposable income to buy an unbudgeted ice cream cone. But I wasn’t worried. My parents would never embarrass themselves before their friends by not giving their daughter a big wedding. My father was less upset by my sister’s decision than my mother. He actually knew some Catholics. But Catholic incense, “idols,” and private confessions gave Mary Ellen the creeps, and she was convinced that Catholics drank too much, had more children than they could take care of, and were too clannish to be trusted. Where did this prejudice come from? From Gram and Hannah, of course, but it went back, back through generations of unsentimental, unforgiving Aspatrians, all the way back to Henry VIII.

But then Mary Ellen discovered that, unlike her sons, her new son-in-law was a businessman, like her husband, and had grown up dirt-poor in a rural community, like her husband, and had come to the big city to make his fortune, like her husband, and was “on his way” to doing just that. This did not cause her to change her mind about Catholics. (That would have meant admitting she’d been wrong.) She simply realized that she had always regarded Catholics as just another Christian outfit, stranger than some, of course, but nothing for sensible people to get excited about.

Years later, as she was telling me about the christening of one of her Catholic great-grandchildren—“Such a beautiful ceremony”—​I silently recalled how she used to feel about Catholics. She detected something in my expression and, believing, as always, that she could read my mind, interrupted herself to pat my arm and urge me to “catch up,” saying, “Oh, son, nobody cares about that anymore.”

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At one time, though, she seemed to care about that a lot. I say, “seemed,” because actually her prejudice against Catholics veiled something deeper. I know, because she tried to derail my marriage, too, and I married a Methodist. Shortly before I came home from Korea, the army decided a soldier could choose to go to Hong Kong for his R&R instead of to Japan, so that’s what I did. While I was there I bought an engagement ring. Not wanting to carry it around, I sent it home. Unknown to me, my mother phoned Mary and told her not only that she had the ring but that she had had it appraised and that the jeweler told her it was an unfamiliar cut, which led him to believe it was a fake. (It wasn’t.) Later, after I got home, but before I was married, she took Mary aside and said, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Mary was too astonished to reply.

“I really wouldn’t recommend it,” my mother added.

Wisely, Mary kept this from me for many years.

I think what bothered Mary Ellen was that neither my sister nor I had consulted her about our marriages. Of course, she hadn’t consulted her mother or grandmother about her own. But that was all right, because they didn’t love her. She, on the other hand, loved us deeply, so it was wrong for us to leave her out—to treat her as if she didn’t count.

Mary Ellen needed to be recognized as a superior person in the role she had chosen for herself. We invited my parents to dinner to celebrate our daughter’s first birthday. My mother volunteered to make the cake. Mary protested—politely. She thought she ought to make her own daughter’s birthday cake, and she did. But my mother, undeterred, made one, too.

Mary’s cake was the regulation nine-inch square two-layer cake with a candle on top. It had suffered some structural damage coming out of the oven, but she thought that with a judicious application of toothpicks and extra frosting, it was acceptable.

My mother’s cake was a work of art: a three-dimensional stand-alone lamb! It wore a coat of shredded coconut, had blue icing eyes, and a little silver bell tied around its neck with a blue silk ribbon. There could be no doubt who was the superior cake maker.

Mother wasn’t being consciously arrogant. Her need to display her expertise blinded her to everything else. The birthday cakes she made for her own children as we were growing up were supposed to be all about us. She said so. They were shaped and decorated to look like something she thought reflected the birthday child’s current interest. One year my cake was shaped like a teepee; another year, like an airplane. Her cakes were dry and sturdy and not very good to eat, but that was beside the point. She would pose us around her creation, order us to smile, and then “snap us,” as she repeated, “Perfect! Perfect!” After that, the birthday was over. She had her evidence. It showed that she was the perfect mother of three perfect children. In her dream struggle with her mother and grandmother, she could point to those “snaps” and say, “See!”

Birthday cakes weren’t the only symbolic weapons in her struggle to free herself from the influence of those two women. When I was a little boy, she sometimes came outside and played with me and my little friends. I thought this was odd. None of the other mothers played with us. But we went along with her. She invented projects for us and assigned us tasks. One time it was a neighborhood Memorial Day parade. Another time, an imaginary circus. We put stuffed animals into cardboard boxes that were open on one side with strips of paper pasted across the opening to serve as “bars.” Each project ended with her arranging us so that she could take our picture. It would be half a century before I learned that when she was a little girl she had been forbidden to play with the other children on her block. She did, of course, but was always checking to be sure her mother couldn’t see her.

Then there was the “cowboy shirt” she made for me when I was thirteen. It was maroon with a yoke in back outlined in yellow braid and breast pockets with pointy flaps outlined with the same braid. In addition, the whole shirt was speckled with bright, multicolored, embroidered flowers. I had to wear it to school—just the thing for a thirteen-year old boy. (Liberace would have loved it.)

I see now that that shirt had nothing to do with me—except that I had to wear it. It was an “echo” of the time her mother and grandmother had criticized her for sewing extra fringe and beads on her Campfire Girl ceremonial dress. She was still “showing them”!

Even more revealing was my sister’s doll collection. Mary Ellen bought her Nancy Ann Story Book Dolls, which were very popular in the 1930s, and 40s. The first dolls were small, only three and a half inches. But within a year the company was producing five-inch dolls. Their faces were hand-painted, giving each one a special look, and they were dressed like the characters in fairy tales, children’s stories, and nursery rhymes. My sister said that after the first dozen, they lost their charm for her, but Mary Ellen couldn’t stop buying them. Eventually my sister had seventy or eighty of those dolls.

Since Mary Ellen had to “make-do” with charity dolls when she was a little girl, she made sure her own daughter had all the fashionable dolls she could possibly want—all the dolls that Mary Ellen herself had wanted—and still wanted. As soon as she gave those dolls to her daughter, she took them away from her and put them in the trophy cases that Herb built and attached to the walls of my sister’s bedroom. That way she could see “her dolls.”

Mary Ellen said the dolls were “collectibles” and too valuable to play with. But she played with them. (She’d bought them, hadn’t she?) She made them dresses that were “better” than the ones they had on when she purchased them—thereby ruining their value as collectibles, as my sister would discover later.