I entered this life in the post-war decade best known for the dawn of television, shopping malls, fast-food, and big cars. It's in these years that I learned what it means to be loved.
This is the 1950s overview in a series about 65 women who have shaped my life. For more posts, visit Accidental Mentors, a publication of Marquis Mojo.
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I entered life in a tumultuous time for my family. My mom’s husband died while she was pregnant with me, so for my first five years, Mom raised me and my older brother by herself. We lived in a cozy little white Cape Cod—one with a cherry tree in the backyard and a big, black Chevy in the driveway—in the white picket fence, white flight community of Plymouth, Michigan.
My mom’s husband, Bob Smith, died when Mom was five months pregnant with me. I was told he died of a broken heart having never recovered from the death of his daughter who had been stricken with polio a few years before. I grew up believing that he was my brother’s and my father and learned only as an adult that he was not (but that’s a story for another memoir, which you can read in serialized form here: If You Only Knew: A Memoir of Family Secrets and Their Undoing)
Regardless of the circumstances, Bob’s death meant that my mother was left to parent two infants/toddlers by herself in the 1950s, not a time particularly friendly to single moms. She had no prior work experience, and as far as I know, no job, so I don’t know how she made ends meet. Nevertheless, she persisted… And my brother and I were none the wiser. As far as we knew, life was good.
Home videos from that time show us attending Our Lady of Council Catholic Church, going to the local 4th of July parade (maybe that’s why I love parades to this day), visiting with extended family and friends, and receiving an over-abundance of Christmas presents. As far as we knew we lacked for nothing, especially not love.
Dwight D. Eisenhower served as U.S. President, rock and roll entered the scene with "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets, and Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. By the end of the 1950s, the space race had lifted off with the Russians’ launch of Sputnik, Alaska and Hawaii had joined the Union, and my mom’s favorite police show, Dragnet, became the first TV show to be broadcast in color.
As I grew up, I would eventually learn more about these events in both formal and informal ways. However, I wouldn’t learn the truth of the Rosa Parks story— that she deliberately engaged in civil disobedience when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to white patrons—for another fifty years. The version I learned in school, the one where this poor Black woman was just too tired to get up after working all day for rich white folks, fit the misogynistic, white supremacist culture I was born into. I’m grateful I’ve had women teachers throughout my life, Black and white, who encouraged me to challenge the cultural narrative of the 1950s. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.
What I remember most about those early years is that some incredible women taught me that I was loved. Tomorrow I’ll begin sharing their stories, starting with the one responsible for my life, my mom.
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