During the 1950’s, in the five Burroughs of New York, a considerable segment of the adult population spoke in a kind of automatic curse word mode, which was the norm. This casual spewing of vulgarities was automatic, sort of like breathing or blinking. There was no hesitation or particular forethought. It was a behavior that was often prefaced with the expression, “pardon my French,” which I never understood, but was meant to make the dirty remarks in the rest of the statement, somehow acceptable. The vulgarities were sub-culture slang, just common communication, having no deliberate malice, but distinguishing this particular group of people from any others. Within this sub-culture, they referred to themselves rather specifically as, ‘the majority’, and more broadly known as ‘Yankee’.
The funny thing about this whole language thing was that though considered benign for adults, if I, or any other child, inadvertently mimicked it, suddenly the words became offensive and insolent and automatically provoked an extremely violent reaction from the shocked adults.
This is my first example of the consistent double standard we learned to live with as children in New York during the 1950’s. If you ask any ‘baby-boomer’, at least those from New York, to reminisce, they will undoubtedly testify to this unspoken truth – It was always, “do as I say, not as I do.”
To give you a more intimate understanding of these New Yorkers who claimed to be representative of an entire culture (Yankee), you have to understand a few of the basics about the people and the times. They were proud people. The men took “no crap off anyone” and, right or wrong, the women always supported her man. There often was bitter fighting behind closed doors, but families always put up a united front and stuck together in public. At least that was true for our family and the families of those people that we knew.
I can remember numerous occasions where this particular ethic was taken to ridiculous extremes because no matter what the circumstances were, “hush, don’t tell,” was our family’s motto. There were various times when my mother overdosed on sleeping pills. In truth, those instances were deliberate attempts to end her life. We all knew it. Our stepfather, however, always told us it was accidental. We were to believe that she really couldn’t tell the difference between a dose and a bottle of pills. We were children, not idiots. But, whether we actually believed him was irrelevant. As long as we acted like that’s what we believed, that was good enough.
We were instructed to keep our mouths shut and that was pretty much the end of that discussion. There was absolutely no room for debate here. So, not only did we have to deal with the fact that our mom really wanted to leave us, we had to pretend it never happened. “Don’t tell,” and, “You are not to speak of this again,” were very big in our family.
The hospitals and doctors were different then too because they took you at your word. They didn’t automatically hold an overdose victim for further psychological testing. They pumped the stomach and washed their hands – Literally! So, my mom never really did get any counseling or help for her depression. It just wasn’t acceptable to feel that way. Depression was a big no-no. Only weak, lazy, bad people gave in to that kind of stuff – It was not a legitimate illness. A person suffering with depression was supposed to “shake it off” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. People really did say these clichés! (Our step-father, in particular)
Remember the three ‘speak-see-hear-no-evil’ monkeys? Well, my siblings and I were like those monkeys. It was just the three of us. My older brother, sister and me, each survived our childhood in our own way. One thing we didn’t do, though, was talk about it – We may have been very confused kids, but not one of us was dumb.
My brother, sister and I never had outside interactions. The support of a church family or youth group or school team was not available to us. We were not permitted to join any school or church activities. My mother took us to church on Easter and Christmas. They told us that we were Protestants and weekly church attendance was not mandatory to believe in God or for a good person to go to heaven. There was one prayer offered just prior to thanksgiving dinner and that was it for our family’s religious life.
Also, they never joined things like P.T.A. because it just wasn’t practical for busy people who had better things to do with their time than to get involved in school groups of bickering parents and incompetent teachers, so there was no attending those kind of meetings – “Let the teachers take care of their own problems. That’s what they’re paid for.” We, as children in attendance of a particular class, had to attend the mandatory evening school nights with all our papers laid out on our desks to supposedly show our parents who never showed up on those visiting nights. That was always embarrassing to me. My sister said she didn’t care and my brother just never showed up either, which was against school rules. Tommy did get real familiar with the other side of rules, as he grew up very disrespectful of authority.
As for an occasional visit from the Reverend of the church we attended twice a year, my mother was always too busy to converse, but cordial enough as she showed him to the door. The evangelicals that came to our home intermittently, well, they were not treated very politely. My folks just had no use for practicing their professed Christianity and even less patience for being reminded of that fact.
We were taught to be strong and to stand alone, almost as if having to do that as a kid was normal and just a part of their good parenting that would eventually make us courageous and independent people – But it only served to make us withdrawn and screwed-up. My brother acted out his frustration in the form of criminal behavior and my sister and I got out of that crazy house just as soon as we could. One way or another, we shook the muck off our shoes when we left and then went out into the world totally unprepared to respond to it.