By Judi Markowitz
My mother, Marian Foster was a stay-at-home mom and everything concerning the house was her job– and she took it seriously. She was a meticulous housekeeper. My dad didn’t want her to work outside of the home, so she happily immersed herself in joyful domestic bliss. From the moment I woke up in the morning for school, breakfast was on the table for me and my siblings. It was always served hot, and cereal was never an option — that was beneath her. My mom was like June Cleaver from the 1950’s sitcom Leave It to Beaver —minus wearing the fancy dress, high heels, and pearl necklace around the house.
In elementary school, I walked home for lunch and my mom was always there to greet me. A delicious meal would be waiting for me to devour, and then I’d head back to school. Dinner was served promptly at 5:00 p.m. since my dad woke up very early for work and he was ready to eat when he returned home for the evening. We always had family dinners and, once again, my mom spent the day preparing the meal while attending to the various responsibilities in the house. Laundry, ironing, scrubbing floors and shopping were part of her daily routine. My mom never complained about her role. She stuck to it like Super Glue.
My mother was born in Moises Ville, Argentina in 1913. Her family was turned away from Ellis Island because my grandfather had some sort of scalp disease — it could have been lice, ring worm, who knows? My grandmother was pregnant with my mom, and so they stayed put in this foreign land for a brief stint. Months later their family of four sojourned back to New York for a second try — it worked.
Their family put down roots in Akron, Ohio. My grandmother worked at the Jewish Community Center and cooked for the crowd of hungry members. My grandfather wasn’t around much. He was a painter and jobs took him to other cities. He had “the walking blues” — a term used in the 1900s for a man who was miserable staying in one location.
My grandfather rarely worked in the city, didn’t give the family enough money, and this forced my grandmother to be the sole supporter of her four children. She even worked a second job cleaning houses — a very unhappy woman. My grandmother wanted to divorce my wandering grandfather, but her brothers insisted it would be a shanda (Yiddish for a disgrace). She acquiesced.
Due to this dysfunctional family situation, my mother told me that she felt unloved and that her parents did not care for her. She recalled having to wear hand-me-down clothing and relied on an aunt to buy her dresses when the opportunity arose. My mother also thought her sister, Lee, was favored. She made a vow and repeated this story to me many times; that when she got married and had children, she would shower love upon them every day. She lived up to this promise. “I love you” was always heard when leaving the house or ending a phone call.
College was a dream that never materialized for my mother. Upon graduating from high school, she wanted to become a gym teacher. With few resources available, my mom had no choice but to work in a local department store. She gave her paycheck to my grandmother. Her sister had other ideas and did not partake in the same arrangement — she kept the money for herself. My mom pledged that her children would obtain a college education and she instilled this in us from a young age. We were first-generation Americans, and we received a higher education —several times over.
As a dedicated housewife, my mother took the word tidy to a new level. The adage “a place for everything and everything in its place” could be witnessed in our home. My mother’s closet was a work of art. Shoe boxes were perfectly lined up on the top shelf and labeled, by color and style, so she would know exactly where to find the ideal match to an outfit. Clothing was hung according to the season, and all was in order — skirts, blouses, pant suits — nothing was amiss. My mom was a fashionista and inspired solid clothing sense in her children. Her drawers were neat to a fault and all items were folded precisely. Even the linen closet looked like a professional had a hand in the organization.
But the items I remember the most were my mother’s housecoats — a ’50s tradition she carried forward for decades. My mom had every imaginable color and floral pattern. Hers were knee-length, which made it comfortable to relax or do chores around the house. The housecoat was like a dress, but it snapped up the front and was worn in lieu of putting on clothing before she left the house. Her closet was adorned with them. But the most important detail was that she had matching slippers for many of her housecoats.
No woman of this generation would ever step outside their home without putting on their makeup. My mother was no exception. When getting ready for an outing she would say “I have to put on my face.” I always found this quite amusing since I rarely wore any makeup. I flirted with the idea as a teenager and then decided that lipstick would be my mainstay. But my mom did the full routine — foundation, eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, rouge (blush) and lipstick. Going to the market or simply heading to the post office without makeup would have been a monumental crime for my mom.
And then women’s lib came on the scene with a vengeance and the notion of being the ideal homemaker flew out the window. The mother image from Leave it to Beaver disappeared and was replaced with working moms who juggled their professions with home life. But my mom did not depart from her routine.
Mother Knows Best
When I had a family, my house was very neat, but I had a housekeeper who helped with laundry and cleaning. Working outside of the home demanded aid in these situations. My mother could not fathom the disorganization of my kitchen drawers or the pantry. Items were not perfectly lined up to my mother’s satisfaction and I even had a junk drawer. It was filled with tape, screw drivers, glue, string — you name it, I had it in the drawer. My mother couldn’t believe it.
I did, however, follow my mother’s path with shoe boxes. They were not labeled, and I generally had to rummage through most of them to find the desired pair. On school days I only served cold cereal for breakfast, along with orange juice and an occasional donut. We were too busy getting out the door and driving carpool. With four children in all different schools, it was rush time. Their bedrooms were not neat — clothing was strewn on the floors and beds unmade. Clean-up time was relegated to the weekends. My mother would not have tolerated such blatant disregard for organization. But the tradition of family dinners in my house continued even with the multitude of sporting events, play dates, and athletic practices that lined our busy schedule.
I also prepared lunches daily—a brown bag was the rage or a lunch box. There were no fancy containers on the scene when my children attended school. Sandwiches were the mainstay, along with a variety of chips, and dessert. Lunchables became a hot ticket, and everyone had to partake. I would write a short note on their lunch bag or place it inside. It was brief and I told them to have a nice day, do well in class, or on a test, and “I love you” was always placed at the end of the note. Looking back, I’m sure they appreciated the sentiment, but it could have embarrassed them if their friends saw the comments.
My mother instilled in me a passion for athletics. She would exercise daily and learned the routines of Jack LaLanne, a fitness guru who became popular in the 1950s. She taught me how to do the splits, cartwheels, and stand on my head. Later I carried these skills to become a cheerleader, gymnast, tennis, and softball player.
During this time period jogging suits became my mom’s mainstay. These nylon athletic outfits were very popular, and my mom adored them — but the housecoats still had their place in her closet. She walked five miles a day until she was 92. My mom would walk to our house, which was a two-mile jaunt, and then take the grandchildren for a wagon ride around the neighborhood, pulling her cargo of kids. Neighboring children would follow along — she was the Pied Piper.
I do believe that I became an English teacher because of my mother’s love of books — she was a voracious reader and it definitely rubbed off. She instilled in us that academics were a necessity and pounded the idea home. I still have an image of my mom sitting at the kitchen table reading a good novel, or the newspaper from cover to the last page while eating a sweet potato and sipping on a cup of tea. Who knew that she was ahead of her time with nutrition?
Following in my mother’s footsteps was not on my agenda as a child. But as I matured, I realized the beauty of her traditions. Many things I left behind and others I hold dearly. We all must forge our own paths. Saying “I love you” is a mainstay in my house too, and I shower my children and grandchildren with affection. Just like my mother, I never miss an occasion to say those three, all-important words.
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.