We all grew up with role models on TV. Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed, Robert Young in Father Knows Best! The question is, were they more than just role models? Were they, in some ways, mentors? Lucille Iscaro was a huge fan of one of them, and not just on her family’s black-and-white screen.
I recently watched something with Donna Reed on Turner Classic Movies. Whenever I see Donna Reed on television, I feel like one of those people who are reunited with long-lost relatives. The difference is, instead of holding an armful of flowers at the airport, I am sitting in my den clutching the remote.
Donna started coming into my life in 1958, when her eponymous sit-com The Donna Reed Show began. I was a very impressionable twelve years old. My parents were artists and our life was uncomfortably bohemian.
I measured everything in my life by the Donna standard. I studied Donna during each episode the way Margaret Mead studied the Samoans. I was not an anthropologist; I was an adolescent looking for another way to live my life, another model for a home and family that made more sense to me.
Each episode began with the theme music and the added counterpoint of a jingling telephone. I knew what would happen. Donna would answer it. Mary, her daughter, would come down the stairs in the shirtwaist dress Donna had ironed for her. Jeff, the son, would almost forget his lunch, but Donna would put a paper sack into his hands and kiss his cheek, sending him off.
In my home of course it was different. When the phone rang, sometimes my own mother would wave at me frantically and duck as if the caller could see into our cluttered home and find her. She’d whisper hoarsely, “I’m not home.” She was sure, judging from past history, that it was someone who wanted a bill paid. She knew that if she spoke she would have to lie and promise payment.
In some episodes, Donna and the family were eating breakfast when the milkman came to the door with the delivery. Donna knew his name and they smiled at each other. He didn’t threaten to stop delivering because she hadn’t paid him.
When all the Stone family left the house each day with clothes ironed and lunches in hand, Donna gave a satisfied little sigh and straightened her apron. The early mornings found my own mother in a housedress, and there was no apron. I don’t believe Mom ever wore an apron. She didn’t need one because she almost never cooked. The housedress was made of a fabric that never needed ironing because ironing was like cooking: Mom didn’t do it.
Some mornings after the family left, Donna would pursue a hobby. She liked to put on her dungarees and putter in the garden. Donna did not go to classes and learn to paint large oils of anonymous nude women. She didn’t hang them up in the living room. When the kids brought friends home from school, they may have commented on the nice flowers from Donna’s garden. They would not have had to avert their eyes, and snicker, because a strange woman’s breasts were hanging over the sofa.
Another difference from my own life: the sofa was different in Donna’s living room. It was covered in a nice upholstery fabric and it did not shine. It didn’t shine because it was not covered in custom-made plastic slipcovers. When the kids, Mary and Jeff, sat on their sofa it didn’t squeak. When they had a sun burn and decided to lie down on the sofa they didn’t have to peel their tender skin off the sofa like a Colorform vinyl cling piece. Donna didn’t clean the sofa with Windex and a paper towel.
Donna always found time to cook dinner. It was not ever potpies warmed in an oven. And that oven was not so splattered that a tiny bit of crust from last week’s pot-pie would flame up and begin to flavor this week’s pot pie with smoky char. Dinner would never be cold gray-rimmed hard boiled eggs and potato chips. Dinner was probably meat and two vegetables. The table would be set with water in a pitcher and bread on a separate plate. Mary and Jeff would talk about their day and Donna would smile her special smile at each of them.
Of course the show was fiction, and of course, Ms. Reed herself was not the person who she portrayed. I know that now; I am not twelve anymore. I found out as I matured that parents who are artists can be interesting, albeit quirky, role models. I also found out that my own children thought their own mother was short of perfection when they were young.
Even so, there are days when I ask myself, “What would Donna do?”
Category: Boomer Lifestyle