My mom’s world
During Fun A Day Reseda 2019, I’ll take breaks from writing my new novel, Snow in Los Angeles, to share with you themes and other insights from writing this book.
My mom would have turned 90 on Thursday. She was a teenager during World War II. She told me stories about what it was like to grow up in the Fairfax District during that time.
Those stories inspired me to write Snow in Los Angeles. As I write, I need to reconnect with her world and figure out how to share it with a 21st century audience. Here are some things that stood out to me.
First was the idea of community. Fairfax was a distinctive part of Los Angeles. It was a predominately Jewish community with Jewish businesses. Life for children centered around synagogue and community schools. She grew up around the same people and had friendships that lasted for years. She had many fond memories of Fairfax High School. She instilled in me the same feelings about Reseda, and I sought to build the same connections with the community where we live today.
When you live in a community for a long time, its values become deeply ingrained in you. And when the community is somewhat insular and homogeneous as Fairfax was in the 1940s, you don’t even consider the possibility that there are other types of people with other points of view.
When I was preparing for my bar mitzvah in 1975, I asked my mom if she had a bat mitzvah. She was committed to her faith and active in B’nai B’rith, and the way she encouraged me to have this ceremony made me think she had one of her own. But no. Although a bat mitzvah ceremony was first performed in the United States in 1922, they weren’t performed in her community when she turned 12 in 1941. And how could she ask for something when she didn’t know it exists?
And while women took jobs and served in the military in World War II, they were still expected to be homemakers. One of the artifacts I have from the era is a pamphlet called “Victory Meat Extenders.” It extolled women as “soldiers of the home front” whose contributions to the war effort were to make the most of rationed products and avoid waste. As a sample, enjoy this recipe for creamed brains on toast.
My mom went along with the idea that her primary role should be a homemaker. Although she went to college for two years and worked as a bookkeeper, this was just a temporary phase for her until she could start her “real career” of being a housewife and mother.
Even when she went back to work after her divorce in 1973, women still had limited and subservient roles in the workplace. She wanted to be promoted to office manager, but a man was chosen instead. She thought about going back to school and getting her CPA before she had her stroke. By the time she could consider something greater for her career, it was too late.
I’ve talked a lot about the limitations of the world of 1948, but there are aspects of my mom’s world I admire. Manners, for example. She instilled in us the lessons she was taught about “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.” Holding open doors, forming orderly lines, and waiting your turn. Writing thank you notes by hand.
Along with manners was the idea of dressing up. Putting on a nice suit or dress to go to church or synagogue, a dinner out, or a baseball game. Families even dressed up to have a family meal at home.
Manners and dress were a part of showing respect for others and yourself. Putting your best foot forward. Treating people the way you want to be treated. Valuing yourself enough to put the time and effort into how you look and present yourself. With things as divided and hostile as they are today, respect and manners would help.
In learning and writing about Los Angeles in 1948, I’m reconnecting with the world my mom grew up in. For us in 2019, we can learn from their mistakes and rediscover values that can help us today.
Originally published at Matthew Arnold Stern.