My mother, Josephine Sarah Hall, was a real lady. She had a beautiful smile, which she wore easily and often; and though she was softspoken, she was a dynamo. I came to realize that she was anything but weak. She had enormous inner resources and a powerful will. Despite this, my father had the upper hand.
Mom was a great seamstress. She made all our clothes on her Singer sewing machine. I cannot imagine whipping up some of the things she did. It's like an ancient skill from another century. Gayle and I always had the same Easter dresses, but in different colors. I was very proud of my dresses and have always admired women who could make clothes from scratch. I am missing that gene.
My mother also had a job. She used to get up at the crack of dawn to get ready for work, and I would sit on the edge of the tub and watch her apply makeup in the bathroom mirror. She gave me all my ideas about how a woman should be. She never wore rollers or pin curls around the house, and neither would I. Her wardrobe was always coordinated, and she was smart and articulate. She was a college graduate from the University of Illinois, where she had met my father. She was a hardworking person who put forth a tremendous amount of effort toward cooking, cleaning, laundry, yard work (cutting the hedges and mowing the lawn) and washing our cars. Oh, and she also did the ironing and the baking and chauffeured us kids from here to there. She was really something!
Mom used to read wonderful Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales to us at bedtime. It would be a special treat when she'd linger to scratch my back before tucking me in. She was also a churchgoer who enrolled us all in Daily Vacation Bible School every summer. I went every year until I was thirteen. We weren't particularly religious per se, but Mom attended church every Sunday with all three of us kids in tow . . . dressed up and polished. We attended the Pacific Beach Presbyterian Church. Dad only went on Easter and Christmas.
One thing about church was that people were dressed nicely and on their best behavior. This was, of course, a bit boring for a fidgety child, but it gave me a sense of what decency looked like. My mother, as well, was a perfect example of that. When it came to my father, everyone walked on eggshells. We all avoided him for fear of criticism or a cruel remark about our appearance. We had to watch what we said, what we wore, how we combed our hair . . . everything came under his scrutiny, especially our grades in school. Sometimes he'd demand that I sit next to him on the couch and read aloud from Time magazine or Newsweek without any mistakes. It was hit or miss; he could be quite reasonable, even charming . . . but you never knew when he'd "fly off the handle," as Mom used to put it.
When that happened, we would run to Mother. There was no place else to go. She might try, but she was no match for him. Jo, as she liked to be called, was far too timid around my father. Even as a child I was acutely aware of this dynamic between the two and didn't like it one bit. I could tell that Mom was scared of Dad, which made me feel terribly vulnerable. Who would protect us? Eventually, that someone turned out to be me.
We all had our escape routes planned. Most of the time, whoever "got it" first was cooked, because the other two kids would run for cover, leaving the first victim to bear the brunt of my father's anger. Usually, that was my brother Jim. Dad always went for him first. I guess because he was the boy. That made Gayle and me feel horribly guilty. Boy, was I glad that I didn't have to bear the burden of being a son.