Ladies in Waiting

Before two-career households and two-car garages, a mobile grocer was the big man on the block.

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Let me sing you the song of Art’s Rolling Food Store. It was a refashioned bus that came through our neighborhood when I was a kid, a sort of convenience store on wheels. My siblings and I thought it was a miraculous feat of ingenuity and engineering. “I loved Art’s—one of the high points, along with Tommy the milk man and the Mr. Softee guy,” says my brother, Gary.

“Mr. Softee only came twice,” insists my sister Mary Ann, who theorizes that our neighborhood was so behind the baby boom times that “not enough kids knew what the ice cream music meant.” Maybe they just connected mobile retailers with Art, and creamed corn.

This was in the 1950s, when the veterans of World War II had come home, married, reproduced rapid-fire, and scraped up enough cash to buy their own homes in the suburbs. When I look back on our neighborhood in Green Township, I see it as a world where everything was new. Block after block of just-constructed houses with saplings in the front yard, all the parents in their late 20s or early 30s, and all the kids 10 or younger.

It was also, during weekdays, a place with no transportation. Our neighborhood was way too remote to merit a bus line, and the young families weren’t flush enough for a second car. So every morning the dads went off to work, leaving the wives and kids stranded in a vast sea of houses. Working wives were regarded as low status back then, but even if every woman in the neighborhood had been nursing a deep inner craving to pursue a career, I can’t imagine how they could have managed it. There was nothing within walking distance  except the church and its school, St. Antoninus Elementary, where employment opportunities were limited to nuns.

In the early years that I went there, the school was packed with kids; at one point, we went half-days and the nuns worked the equivalent of two full-time jobs, grading papers for 70 or 80 students apiece. Yet by the time they were done with us, we were not only capable of reading, we could diagram sentences the size of a short story. Language arts were the nuns’ strong suit. Geography, I suspect, was their weakness. On our map of the world, the countries were colored red (Communist), pink (Free For Now), and white, if a nation was deemed to be out of the immediate grasp of the Soviet Union and its minions. Only the United States and Ireland were white.

It was a world of women—nuns, moms—where the only male figures we saw in daylight hours were Art, Tommy the milkman, and occasionally Father Goeckler, the pastor, a remote figure of awesome stature and authority. Once, when Gary was little, he toddled off and wound up sitting in the middle of Julmar Drive, where he blocked the progress of Father Goeckler’s large Buick. When the priest appeared at our front door and thrust Gary into the arms of our utterly humiliated mother, it was one of the worst moments of her life. Also one of the few times in our family’s history when anyone used the front door.

The women who I remember sitting in our kitchen, talking about kids and chores and life in general, are all in their 80s now. When I was writing When Everything Changed, a book about what happened to women over the last 50 or 60 years, I tried to imagine what it had been like for them in those early, wheel-deprived years. It must have been anything from heaven on earth to the seventh circle of hell, depending on the woman in question. The men all went to work around 8 and when they had driven away, the moms opened the kitchen doors and released their oldest offspring like so many hyperactive spaniels. Then they would wrestle with the little ones, fold laundry, make plans for the weekend with each other over the phone, and wait for the big moment of the afternoon, when Art came rolling down the road.

Gail Collins grew up in Green Township. In 2001, she became the first woman appointed editor of The New York Times’s editorial page, where she remains an op-ed columnist.

 Originally published in the October 2011 issue.

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