After our move, Whitney's television career started to take off. We had a series of housekeepers but she basically abdicated child-rearing responsibilities to Jack. She was busy guest-starring on popular TV dramas like Whirlybirds and Circus Boy. In "The Case of the Restless Redhead," she played a café waitress named Evelyn Bagby, who is wrongly accused of murder and seeks the help of Perry Mason in the hard-boiled legal drama's premiere episode of that series. I don't remember seeing her much in those days, just a few images of her in curlers rushing off to work early.
When I was much younger, I'd get in front of my class at school to tell the kids my mother was going to be on television. I think I was hoping this would earn me some friends or admiration; my subtext was always: Do you like me now? When I was older, in junior high, though, I switched to telling kids my mother was Anne Baxter. No one recognized the name Whitney Blake. Anne Baxter sounded like she actually could be my mother.
And she'd won an Academy Award.
Jack had been an air force colonel during World War II and the Korean War, so, in lieu of any previous experience in bringing up youngsters, he practiced a bullying, military-influenced style of parenting that involved endless lists and schedules. What time we had to get up. What time to brush our teeth. What time to make breakfast. Who was to make breakfast. What time we were supposed to leave for school. What time we were to be home. The chores we had to complete. Whose turn it was to feed our three pet dachshunds, Faust, Tina, and Oedipus.
When I neglected to clean my room properly, I lost it; I forfeited any right to enter it for a period of days or weeks. On those nights Jack had me sleep in the "den," which was really part of the basement, a damp unfinished room built into the side of the hill; there were exposed overhead pipes and a dirt wall. I'd make a bed as close as possible to the door, bring in a lamp and a radio, and pray for daylight.
This, however, was preferable to what happened when my brothers forgot to put out the trash on collection day, which on rare occasions they would. Jack's way of making sure they'd never forget again was to take the garbage cans out of the garage, lug them through the kitchen, then down the stairs and up the hall, and deposit them in my brothers' bedroom. And there, not two feet from where my brothers slept—and these were the days before in-sink disposals and plastic trash bags—the cans of rotting, week-old garbage sat, the sound of writhing larvae and maggots growing louder and the stench worsening. It was Jack's plan to leave the garbage cans there until collection day the following week, but nature intervened. When fastidious Jack saw that maggots were wriggling out of the can and onto the carpet, he had them move the cans out into the hallway. Eventually he gave up and ordered my brothers to return the bins back to the garage where they belonged.