Sunday, May 14, 2006

MOTHER'S DAY when the country was in the city

The church that prepared me for the Browning Methodist Church, so that I felt perfectly at home there, was Vernon Presbyterian Church a few blocks from our house in Portland. My mother had transferred her membership up from Roseburg to Westminster Presbyterian Church, but it was too far to walk and my dad was on the road with the car, so she changed again to Vernon. Many of the people who attended had children in Vernon Elementary School so my graduating class -- 1953, the one that has reconvened and is meeting once a month for supper together -- were also represented in my Sunday School class and confirmation as good Presbyterians. (John Webber didn’t go to our church but this afternoon T.J. Star is playing the Stan Freeburg parodies that he used to pantomime, which is what got me thinking about Vernon. You remember the Dragnet officer arresting the dragon for overacting?)

In general, the Vernon neighborhood was not unlike Valier -- mostly European immigrants but more of them were probably British in origin. Certainly that was true at the Presbyterian Church. Almost everyone had grown up in the country or a small town, because that was true of everyone in those days. It was important to be healthy and reliable and most everyone was.

So I’m remembering the Mothers’ Day dinner. (The Methodists here sponsored a pancake breakfast and the Catholic man across the street took his wife.) Ours was pretty much ladies only -- oh, yes, “pretty” ladies who wore flowered dresses and nylons and permed their hair at home. Few ladies had jobs. Not all of them owned suits. Heels were not high. The food must have been chicken with potluck side-dishes. That’s nearly always what was served for group meals in those days -- probably chicken a la king or with mashed potatoes rather than fried. And Jello stuff, though there was no Tupperware yet.

I was small and the main impression I got was of the symbolism of the little corsages everyone wore: a red carnation if your mother was living and a white carnation if your mother was dead. I asked about pink carnations and was shushed, so I thought they must be for mothers who were very ill, which my mother’s mother was at that point. (“Shhh. Don’t talk about it. She’s just resting now.”) I pondered flower language for a long time and wondered whether there were such a thing as yellow carnations and what they might mean, which shows that symbolism can be kind of dangerous. Mothers with a liver problem? Chinese mothers? (The Chinese family to which my Chinese friend and classmate belonged was next door to the church, but she was Baptist.)

The atmosphere was a kind of pleased flurry of femininity, a solidarity among women who were competent and married. Strength in ruffles. The folding chairs were the old wooden kind, not the clashing metal ones or stackables we use now, but hard on hose. (A woman downtown in Meier & Frank sat in a tiny booth and mended “runs” in hose.) In Portland this time of year the weather is fragrant with blossoming and mown lawns. A lady down the street raised bantam hens in her back yard and sold us eggs. Another one had a fig tree of which she was very proud. (I didn’t like figs, I decided, but my mother made a great fuss about them.)

It was after WWII and Korea didn’t seem so pressing yet. People felt that the future was bright -- most of all in America, where we were so lucky to live. We didn’t know anything about ghettoes and not much about crime. The world was a garden. We knew there were snakes, but we also knew how to handle a hoe or a spade, which were not anything metaphorical but only garden implements.

I can’t decide whether that was an excellent foundation for a life or whether it was a handicap. Anyway, I smiled through Stan Freeberg’s 1951 compilation of funny business. Remember the one where the guy is conducting a choir signing “On Top of Old Smokey” and can’t remember the words and says so -- but the choir thinks he’s telling them lyrics and sings everything he says?

No comments: