[This is the conclusion of a story about my sisters, Justine and Veronica, in the 1950s and early 1960s.]
Upon graduation in 1958, Justine was not expected—make that not allowed—to go to college. Girls in those days and of our class and ethnicity (both the Irish and Italian sides) were not destined for college. They were genetically programmed to get a job right out of high school and work at it until they met their future husband. After the nuptials, they would quit work to take care of household duties and bear children.
Justine did not appreciate this genetic blueprint and made her feelings known. I sat through many essentially one-sided debates on the college issue.
Justine argued something like this:
“I want to go to college and I have a right to go. Dad went to college, why not me? I’m good enough in school that I can get a scholarship. Then I can find a way to pay my other expenses. I’ll pick a college in the city so I can live at home to save money. When I graduate I can get a better job and earn more money with a college degree than with a high school diploma. And I can certainly meet better boys in college than in the neighborhood.”
With this she rested her case. The prosecuting attorney rose in rebuttal.
“College isn’t for girls. While you’re living under my roof, you don’t have a right to do anything that I don’t say you can do.”
My mother was the prosecuting attorney, by the way. Aunt Lucy, Aunt Margie, Aunt Kathryn, and probably every other woman my mother knew except Eleanor Roosevelt (whom she didn’t really know all that well) would have been happy to serve as expert witnesses.
Case closed. Justine’s future was determined.
Justine had no choice but to seek employment right out of high school, except for a short detour to pick up the additional equipment that would make her employable. Aunt Margie suggested a good secretarial school in the area where Justine could pick up skills comparable to those that Roni had already acquired through the curriculum at her commercial high school.
Defeated, Justine did as told, spending a summer learning to type and take shorthand and then gaining employment at a company in Manhattan named Agrico, which dealt in farm equipment and supplies.
She earned decent money but continued to live at home. This meant that she had to turn over her entire paycheck to our mom and live on an allowance. This was ungodly galling, and Justine thought that she might circumvent the policy by using tactics similar to those employed by my dad. On payday, he was sure to make a stop at Ryan’s Bar before coming home; this was his way of getting at least one good evening’s use of his own money. Justine was no drinker, but she did like clothes; her Ryan’s was Macy’s. This led to the incident of the pretty white blouse.
Fed up with my mother’s parsimony, Justine decided after nearly a year of feudal serfdom to seize some of her money for herself. One day she stopped at Macy’s on the way home and bought a plain but pretty white blouse—a fashion update—to wear to work.
My mother sniffed out the Macy’s bag instantly and confronted Justine.
“What’s that in the bag?”
“What? Oh, nothing. Just something I picked up for work.”
“Let’s see it.”
“No. No, mom. It’s just a little something. It will be good for my work.”
“Look, you can see inside. It’s just a blouse. For work. Just a pretty white blouse.”
“You don’t need that. You have plenty of blouses.”
“Yes, but this one’s pretty. You know, for work.”
“Who are you trying to impress? Is it that Mr. McKee? Why do you need a fancy blouse?”
“It’s not fancy. It’s just pretty. And what has Mr. McKee got to do with anything?”
“That’s what I want to know. Take it out of the bag and let me see it.”
“Here. Here it is. See? It’s just a pretty little blouse. It’s white. For work.”
“How much did you pay for it? Give it to me.”
“No. You don’t have any right to take it. It’s mine. I bought it with my own money.”
“You don’t have any money. The money you earn is my money for supporting you in this house. Now give me the blouse and the receipt.”
“No. No, please, mom. It didn’t cost much. And it’s just for work, not to go dancing or anything.”
“So you go dancing with Mr. McKee? He’s married you know. You shouldn’t encourage him.”
“Oh mom. It’s not like that. He just likes me. He’s nice. We don’t go dancing or anything. He just likes to talk to me. And anyway, the blouse is just for me. For work. I paid for it.”
“Give me the bag. With the receipt.”
At this point, my mother grabbed the Macy’s bag. Justine held on tight until she had to give it up. My mother took the blouse out of the bag and held it up for inspection. She looked at the price tag.
“Fifteen dollars? You spent fifteen dollars on a blouse? I could have bought a week’s groceries on that. I’m going to return this blouse as soon as I can get downtown.”
Justine’s face showed fear and, to be sure, loathing. She lunged for the blouse and got a fistful of it. The two of them tussled for possession like the two mothers in Solomon’s court. There was a ripping sound.
My mother reacted first. “There. Now you’ve torn it. How am I supposed to return it now? I’ll have to put it away.”
She took the damaged blouse, bundled it up inside its bag, and stuffed it into the lower drawer of the sideboard in the dining room, with the spare tablecloths and napkins.
Horrified, Justine broke down as thoroughly and miserably as I ever saw her do. I pitied her. I stood silently at the foot of the dining room table, seeing my mother in a new light.
A scene from the long past came to me—the pencil case incident. But now I realized that my mother had switched sides. Instead of being my sister’s fearless protector she had become just another Sister Felicia Jerome. I felt ashamed and sorry for Justine.
Roni had a similar reaction, but I saw that her pity was alloyed with a malevolent force field clearly directed at my mom. I thought of this moment later when I noticed that Roni managed to use her own money to buy a record player, for which she encountered no fallout. That was Roni: She just did things and dared anyone to question her. I got the idea that mom would never tear any of Roni’s clothes in half.
The blouse remained in the sideboard drawer. For all I know, it is there still.
Justine continued to work for Mr. McKee until she met a local boy at the St. Mark’s Tuesday night dances. They hit it off right away and within a couple of years they married and Justine moved as far away as she could.