Excerpted from I Don’t Have a Happy Place: Cheerful Stories of Despondency and Gloom
Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission
© Kim Korson 2015
Excerpt from Chapter 2: Latchkey
It was happening all over the neighborhood. Street by street, mothers appeared in kitchens wearing slimming slacks, announcing their news over the crunch and smack of Melba toast and cottage cheese. I like to imagine the mothers decided upon the changes at hand conspiratorially at an outdoor meeting that took place shortly after The Joker’s Wild. Weather permitting, they’d each show up wearing special garb, like zip-up jumpsuits or, even better, long black hooded robes. Sadly, we lived in a suburb heavily populated with Jews, not witches. There were no summits or secret convocations, but there was a leader. He spoke in dulcet tones and had a Muppety face. He called them to action and they got off the sofa. If I saw their captain today, I’d look him straight in the eye and say: Fuck You, Phil Donahue.
I was nine when it went down at my house. Up until then, I thought we were doing just fine with The Mike Douglas Show. The theme music was groovy, Mike was avuncular and sang to us daily, plus he didn’t boss his viewers around. But Phil Donahue was positioning himself as the latest craze and my mother liked to keep up with the times. Back when it was customary for women to stay home and keep house, you might find my mother perched on the chesterfield holding my brother as an infant, wearing a pencil skirt and a whipped-up lacquered beehive. As bras began to go up in flames, she made sure to have bell-bottom denims and long middle-parted hair the color of vanilla Jell-O instant pudding. And when Phil Donahue infiltrated our den, she remodeled her look once more. The hair shortened and pantsuits began filling the closet.
Women fought for shared equal rights and economic justice, and my mother joined NOW to get a lapel pin. Feminism was spreading through every ‘ville, town, and hamlet and there was nothing we could do about it. Phil Donahue murmured into his sticklike mic and women all over North America heard him.
Well, my mother mostly heard him. It’s quite possible she stepped out for a handful of Bugles during part of his tutorial. But these were the fundamental tenets of feminism, as presented in my house:
- Wear pants.
- Do not let a man open the door for you (and if he does, make throaty sounds of outrage and disgust).
- Veto the kitchen.
- Have other people watch your children, or better, have them watch themselves.
- Barbie: You are not welcome here.
Now, Tenets #1 and #2 were my mother’s own business. If she wanted to practically knock my father over en route to the door, or dress like a fellow, fine with me. I think it was fine with my father, too. Actually, it was a boon for my father. All this business about my mother’s slacks afforded my father undivided freedom to become the Cher of the household.
My father enjoyed a costume change more than any lady I knew, plus he had an outfit for every occasion. I wasn’t exactly sure what occasion called for constricting banana yellow jeans with matching shirt separated by a brown leather Gucci belt, but he had one at the ready, should the need arise. His closet was lined with deluxe cowboy boots he claimed he had to wear, something about high arches, which was in line with those girls at camp who were forced to get nose jobs due to their pesky deviated septums. The ultimate accessory in his wardrobe was a full-length raccoon fur coat he insisted was really in right now. My father’s 1970s look fell somewhere between European porn director and Jewish buckaroo.
Veto the kitchen, Tenet #3, worked in my favor. Here, women everywhere relinquished their grandmother’s recipes and jilted the avocado green Amana Radar Ranges they would have once been pleased to win on Let’s Make a Deal. This was dynamite news for my mother, and frankly for the rest of us, seeing as her two specialties were meatloaf with hard-boiled eggs squished inside, and liver.
When my mother vetoed the kitchen, we traded our plates for compartmentalized aluminum trays. Out went homemade gray meats, in came the superstar Salisbury steak (with the apple cobbler, which was the best dessert they had). If my mother was too tired to heat something up, heaping bowls of Technicolor cereals were filled. Suburban nutrition in the seventies was a free for all. Health nuts existed, sure, but they were usually to the tune of your great uncle grinding his own peanut butter or your weirdo art teacher trying to share the squares of carob she brought to school in wax paper baggies. Most of the homes I went to considered SpaghettiO’s to be a respectable dinner so long as you had your Flintstones chewables that morning.
Cooking was not the only thing my mother was tickled to give up; forsaking the supermarket was a golden side effect of feminism as well. Since fresh carrot and pea pieces were lumped together in the Swanson TV dinner tray, she didn’t see the need to suffer all those aisles and push a cart in the name of fresh produce. Somehow, she found a tiny little deli-style market that delivered. Every Monday, a call would be made. We’d walk by and shout Fruity Pebbles at her, then she’d nod and bark it to the grocery guy. “Uch, no,” she’d say while placing the order, “that’s two bags of Doritos and one box of powdered donuts.” And our groceries would show up a few hours later in a small cardboard box.
Things started to go sour for me at Tenet #4. Here, mothers threaded keys onto brightly colored lanyards, then scattered out the door like the marbles from Hungry Hungry Hippos. If we’re being honest, I didn’t know where my mother ran off to in those beginning days and I didn’t ask. No kid did—we were kids—all we cared about were popsicles and our bikes. (Well, you cared about your bike. I was terrified of mine, convinced I’d fall off and get run over by a speeding truck.) While most kids spent their free time roaming the hinterlands of suburbia returning home only at the ding of the dinner bell, the kinds of outdoor pursuits I preferred involved attaching a long string to my oversized plastic yellow Slinky and taking a leisurely walk around the block.
If you loved tag or kickball, if you liked roller skates or Frisbee or fresh air, I imagine it was a pretty breezy time to be a kid. If you preferred watching Hee Haw, listening to Bobby Vinton albums, and pretending your Clue pieces were performers in your bedroom’s production of Mame, well, childhood might just have been wasted on you. But, no matter what kind of kid you were, chances are you spent a decent portion of your afterschool hours with a house key noosed around your neck and a TV Guide in your hands.
My mother broke the news about my latchkey kid status on a Sunday night, during a commercial break of The Wonderful World of Disney.
“When you get off the bus tomorrow, you can use the key to let yourself in,” she said, the lanyard pinched by her spikey nails.
“Where will you be?” I asked.
“I’ll be back by dinner.”
My older brother, Ace, apparently would not be home either. I suspect there were batches of nine year olds who were fine with this arrangement, thrilled even. I, on the other hand, had questions. Mostly about fire and emergency appendectomies and robbers and exploding furnaces and: It’s coming from inside the house!
“Uch, don’t be crazy,” my mother said. “Anyway, bad things don’t happen during the day.”
“What if I get sick?”
“What if the power goes out?”
“Pffft. It’s still light out.”
“What if the doorbell rings?”
“Then don’t answer it,” my mother said. “Just stay in your room if you have to.”
“What if they keep ringing? What if they look normal?”
“Do not answer the door. Remember,” my mother said, handing over her best advice along with the house key, “Ted Bundy was good looking.”
The red Plymouth Duster sat outside my house, a solid four feet from the curb. Wearing his usual navy sport coat and tie, Grandpa Solly’s eyes focused on nothing ahead. My mother must have made the call last night sometime between her Ted Bundy comment and the 11 o’clock news. I’m sure my pointing out all the potential dangers knocked some sense into her, so she enlisted my grandfather to be waiting outside our house with strict instructions that the bus would deposit me at 3:15 p.m., and to not be late which would never be a problem because Grandpa Solly showed up two hours early for everything. His crispy, flaked hands positioned at ten and two even though the car was in park summoned both comfort and dread in my empty after-school belly.
“How do you do?” he asked, hoisting himself out of the car.
“Okay,” I said. “You?”
“Fine and dandy,” he said. “Fine and dandy.”
How do you do and fine and dandy were pretty much the only sentences my grandfather uttered in those days. He stood silent, hands in his pockets jangling keys, dimes, and a handful of those no-name mints with the liquid chocolate centers he always had. It bothered me the way he bit into those mints. You were supposed to suck on them until the chocolate seeped out, collecting under your tongue and around your teeth.
I struggled to get the key into the front door lock without strangling myself as Grandpa Solly stood behind me, unruffled. We were sausaged in the tiny vestibule and I stepped over the mail littering the floor, making a mental note to go back and collect both the TV Guide and Publisher’s Clearinghouse packet. Was I supposed to play with Grandpa Solly? Recite something? Give him a snack? Thankfully, he made his way onto the sofa in the living room no one used, settling in with an A&P circular by his side. I knew he’d be at that post, staring at our orange walls, until 5:30 when my parents released him.