Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fifties - Episodes four and five - The Suburbs and The Good Life

I didn't experience the suburb thing, being a farm brat, but a decade later I was prepared to view them as sterile soulless environments. There was even a song, which I liked, mocking the suburbs: Little Boxes

I hadn't yet experienced life as a grown-up when I first heard that song. I rushed headlong into a marriage before I tried living on my own, and that only delayed my brush with reality and maturity. But that was the seventies and times were very different.  In the fifties, marriage was still for life, and most people married someone whose outlook on life and cultural baggage was pretty much the same as theirs. As often as not, it was the high school sweetheart that you were hitched with. If a girl got pregnant, she and her lover got married, no single moms allowed, or, in some cases, she would be sent away to some mythical relative's place until the baby was born and given up for adoption.

Ya, and if you did get married you stuck it out "for the children". The husband was the boss and women knew their place. Conformity was the rule.

In The Suburbs episode, a number of things spoke to me.  Among those were the housing boom that was more or less created by the federal government's intervention, via the CMHC, an institution that is still with us, although, much altered since the fifties. Without it, in the fifties, young couples with two or three kids lived with their parents. I can imagine that arrangement would have been very stressful for all involved, but especially for the person who was living with the in-laws.

I'm not especially opposed to the CMHC, but on the other hand, its continued existence illustrates well that once a government bureaucracy is created, it's darned near impossible to dismantle it. It's also an example of government playing the "big brother" role long before the Trudeau era.

But to go on.  This bit about The Good Life, with everyone wanting and getting a TV, a dishwasher and a mortage? Well none of that happened in the home where I grew up. We lived in an old partially unfinished brick house. The upstairs was absolutely frigid in the winter. There was a coal fired furnace in the basement that wasn't strong enough to heat the whole house. Stepping out of bed in the morning onto a frigid floor was enough to make you want to stay in bed. I think that's where I acquired the habit of piling the blankets on and sleeping soundly breathing in cold air in a cold room.  I do not sleep well in a warm room. The house was cool even in the summer time, when temperatures outside were sometimes north of 100 degrees fahrenheit. That was before Trudeau introduced the metric system, some of which I still haven't mastered. All the old recipes I like still use the British system of measurements and translating into metric measurements is a pain in the butt. It was also before AGW fanatics got to explain extreme temperature variations as evidence of human induced climate fluctuations. But ya, we had some scorching summers and both wicked and mild winters, even in the 50s.

The house and the farm belonged to an old millionaire miser uncle of mine. My folks were renting it, and he wouldn't have any of this newfangled technology like electricity installed. It wasn't until he died that the property was willed to the family and not until then, the late 1950s or early 1960s, that we got power and running water. Prior to that, my mom used to have to wash piles of clothes, including never ending piles of cloth diapers, using an old gas powered wringer washing machine and water boiled on the stove top. Clothes were dried on the line outside, winter and summer.  In winter, of course, the clothes were hung out to freeze, not to dry. I remember mom  bringing in jeans hung on the line until they were frozen stiff and then hanging them up inside until they dried.  There was a cistern in the basement and a pump in the kitchen to bring the water up. Hot and cold running water was a luxury she had to wait until the sixties for.

Those were not the good old days for farm women. She slaved away in a huge garden in the summer, canning most of the vegetables, and buying case lots of fruit which she also canned.  The old hens, after they passed their egg laying stage, were butchered and canned, too.  Ever had to take the guts out of a chicken? Stinks to high heaven!!

The woman worked herself to the bone with little to no help from her four daughters. We were much more interested in helping dad out in the barn or pitching hay bales.  What a life my mother had!! Our one and only brother, on the other hand, rarely visited the barn.  There's a picture of him all dressed up in winter clothes heading across the yard in the direction of the barn. His sisters used to laugh that that was the only time he was ever seen heading to the barn. On another occasion, he convinced the teacher in the one-room country school that we attended that he was sick and needed to go home, which was just a short jaunt away. So home he went. And as soon as got home he told mom he wanted to go out to the barn to watch dad butcher a steer. Not very sick. Mom sent him back to school. LOL!!

The only opportunity we had to watch TV was on those Sundays when we drove to the next town to visit her parents. So my early exposure to television was watching Lassie on Sunday afternoons. When we finally did get electricity, we got a TV, with rabbit ears, but even then, the reception was really crappy in the summer time. We got to watch the Ed Sullivan Show and Bonanza on Sunday evenings. But, prior to that, winter evenings were spent playing board and card games as a family. So IMHO these new fangled things called electricity and TV actually were detrimental to family life. But believe me, I wouldn't want to go back to those days, even though there was more "quality time" with mom and dad. Coal oil lamps were especially fun. Every once in a while the filigree wick would catch on fire and mom or dad would leap up and run to put the fire out. It's a wonder the house didn't burn down.

Dad, of course, had a much easier life in the winters than mom did, cause there was still all that housework, which was never ending, and that was women's work. Plus, after all the garden produce had been canned, then it was right into the preparations for Christmas. Christmas cakes, cookies, cards, the annual letter to long out of touch friends, etc., had to be prepared. There was even an annual exchange of letters with some folks in The Netherlands who my father had befriended during WWII. The letters we got back had to be taken to a local Dutch family for translation.

I think she must have had some relief in the dead of winter, though. Four of the five children she bore were conceived in the dead of winter. My bother was born exactly nine months after New Year's Day, so we all know how they celebrated New Year's Eve that year.

Annual vacations? Never heard of them.  My parents took their first of only two vacations, other than the honeymoon, when I was in my teens. They took the train out to B.C. to visit my dad's brother. I was left at home in charge of my younger siblings. My older sister was already off at university. (The honeymoon, BTW, was spent in the great metropolis of Winnipeg!! I don't know what was so special about Winnipeg, other than it was a big city, and the home of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, the Wheat Board, another "big brother knows best" agency that existed long before Trudeau, which is the main reason so many prairie farmers today have quit growing wheat, switching instead to crops that are not priced by the WGE, which they could sell to the buyer offering the best price.)

But anyway, imagine buying a house in the suburbs for only $10,500!! A typical bungalow in a moderate neighbourhood costs about $300,000 to $400,000 bucks now. And, ya, the houses do all look the same. I had a friend in Regina that lived in one of those neighbourhoods. Pretty boxes on the hillside. Pretty boxes made of ticky-tacky. They all looked just the same. The small town where my parents did most of their business at least had a range of housing from hovels to graceful old mansions.

And the cars. My mom and dad made a pact with one another when they got married. His part of the deal was that he had to attend church every Sunday.  She had to get a drivers' license. A fair trade off? Well, I can't imagine a farm wife not being able to drive a car and I never got the sense that dad was hostile to attending church every Sunday.  At least they were both Anglicans, which helped, because in those days "other religions" meant other brands of Christianity, and there was still some hostility towards the brands that weren't your own. Just one of those things that made me rather unreligious.

And btw, that little blond kid at the beginning and end of The Suburbs video is the spittin' image of my older sister. The younger one could have been me. And C.D. Howe? I don't remember him, but I remember hearing about him a decade or two later. I didn't know we was an American transplant. Imagine that. Yanks moving north for reasons other than evading war! Must have seen something in the Liberal Party that attracted him. The Liberal "Big Brother knows best" mentality perhaps?

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