How my parents managed to create a nurturing and stable environment for us is a mystery to me. Both Marie and Paul were hard workers and took their parenting responsibilities seriously. It helped that they liked each other and worked together. Neither had experienced ideal parenting as children. Both seemed committed to creating family life that benefited each family member.
“Time is the miracle solution for most dilemmas of parenthood. Taken in minutes or hours, the time you spend with your kids gives you the opportunity to provide your kids all their essential needs — and much more.”1 This contemporary opinion suggests that all the time Marie and Paul spent with each of us was an enormous gift. I’m quick to add that all the time we kids had to spend, as we wished, in the safe outdoor environment of our neighborhood was another luxury we took for granted at the time. In addition to our parents, our Aunt Rosemary brought her own sense of humor and engaging mind to the family mix.
We, Neilsons, were an active family. We went to the beach occasionally, we picked strawberries, sometimes visited the zoo, explored the Tamiami Trail area of the Everglades where we saw Seminole Indians in their beautiful patchwork clothes and learned about their elevated living quarters called chickees. Later we took extended family camping trips. My dad had a single-lens reflex camera (SLR) which he used to take slide photos of our family adventures. Once in awhile we’d plan a slide show to review our activities. This “movie night” was accompanied by a huge bowl of hot buttered popcorn to share.
I’ve included all these candid photos of real 1949 and 1950s life for a white family in a sunny southern town because there is much misinformation about that time period. All the details seen in the backgrounds of the photos add detailed visuals when carefully studied. These two young adults, Paul and Marie, were adapting to life together, living in a new house, and caring for two infants. Our family of four soon became six! As a result, Dad then planned to build an addition to the house.
Marie had four pregnancies within five years. Only after her death did I learn that she had a miscarriage between the birth of Karl, born in September 1947 and Marsha, born in October 1950. This miscarriage is one of many things “that were not discussed” in our household. Decades later my father told my youngest sister that mother had some kind of “breakdown” after her third child, Marsha, was born. He said she went and stayed with women friends and played bridge for a full week. This too was a revelation to me.
Back story: at Marsha’s birth in 1950, Marie had approached her male doctor about obtaining a tubal ligation to prevent further pregnancies. That doctor, in a condescending and dismissive manner common in the 1950s, refused her request. One year later she found herself expecting another child. After our sister Lea was born in June 1952, Marie had the major responsibility for four children under the age of seven. After that birth she did have a tubal ligation which would prevent any further pregnancies–another piece of information unknown to me until recently.
Prior to that action, the concern about additional births must have been on their minds. Given the limited birth control options of the time period, I assume this concern about more births also affected their sexual intimacy which could easily affect other parts of their relationship.
Paul was a helpful parent, but was absent for most of the waking hours. It’s not surprising that I became “mother’s little helper”. Lea became known as Baby Lea by everyone in the neighborhood, until Mother finally said, “no, this has to stop–she can’t be Baby Lea all her life”. Perhaps she was thinking of her Aunt Anne who was known as Duckie all of her life. It took all of us awhile to change our habit of using Lea’s nickname.
When mother had been pregnant with me in 1944, her sexist Army doctor had decided mother’s breasts were too small for her to consider nursing her child. Denigration of breastfeeding was not unusual. “Breastfeeding in the Western world declined significantly from the late 1800s to the 1960s. By the 1950s, the predominant attitude to breastfeeding was that it was something practiced by the uneducated and those of lower classes. The practice was considered old-fashioned and “a little disgusting” for those who could not afford infant formula and was discouraged by medical practitioners and media of the time.”2
Marie had little time to recover from pregnancy, the birthing, and adjusting to life with a new baby, before she was again “with child”! In addition to coping with all the physical and emotional challenges, every week she had a hundred or so bottles to sterilize, and hundreds of diapers to wash and hang out to dry. This was Marie’s daily reality for about ten years.
Telling this story is a tribute to my mother. Her fortitude and endurance amaze me. Her personal situation was a direct result of the social, medical and legal attitudes of her time, that is, the political climate women inhabit in this male-dominated society.
My life story is rooted in my mother’s life story and to a lesser extent my father’s life story. As the oldest daughter of a large family, I believe I had a taste of what the multiple responsibilities of a mother would include. Few of my life choices have sent me in that direction.
A Wedding to Plan!
Aunt Rosemary, Paul’s youngest sister, was a vital part of our Neilson “clan”. She was the one relative involved continually with us for many years, as you can see in those photos of Marie and Rosemary hosing down the two toddlers on a hot Miami day. She spent holidays and fun times with us. Later I would spend weekends with her at her new house–fun for me and one less child at home. Paul seemed glad to have his youngest sister nearby and included in our family life. Both were transplants to the Miami area, and shared memories and experiences from their youth in Upstate New York. Both were glad to have escaped the long, cold winters!
In the mid 1950s Rosemary married Darryl Harrison in a simple wedding with the reception held at our house in Miami Springs. Her wedding was a family affair, not a catered event. Mother used her silver forks and bone china plates (from Duckie) carefully arranged on crisp white linens to honor the couple and their guests. The delicate green ferns surrounding the cake grew in our yard. Step back in time….
1 from Dr. Rotbart at https://www.childrenscolorado.org/conditions-and-advice/parenting/parenting-articles/what-children-need/