BellaOnline Literary Review
Red Shouldered Hawk by Al Rollins

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Non Fiction

Playing House

Mary J. Breen

Playing House wasn’t just another game little girls played in the 1950s; it was a compulsion. Someone just had to say, “I’ll be the mother, and you be the kids,” and we were off to gather our collection of cast-off dresses, shoes, beads, hats, and gloves, all smelling of talcum powder and mold. We also had make-up: all-but-empty powder compacts, all-but-empty bottles of perfume. Tiny Avon lipstick samples no bigger than the fake bullets in my white fake leather holster where I carried my genuine imitation pearl handled six-shooter in case some of the boys started a game of Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians. Dressed as bedraggled refugees, we made mud pies and stone soups and green grass tea for our mostly invisible children. We set about looking after our baby dolls: dressing, changing, feeding, bundling, and parading them up and down the street in their doll carriages as we walked into our futures.

A few of us had proper dollhouses, but if we didn’t, we made them from cardboard boxes. If we didn’t have a book of paper dolls, we cut doll shapes from the backs of cereal boxes and cut clothes for them from our mothers’ Eaton’s catalogues as we learned what not to wear. We played Bride with bouquets of dandelions, veils of lace curtains, and confetti from petals from spirea blossoms. Our play houses were usually front porches, but in the winter they were snow forts for a pioneer experience, and in the fall huge houses with walls marked out by rows of fallen leaves.

Of course every girl I knew had dolls, several of them: baby dolls, rag dolls, bride dolls, even Barbara Ann Scott skating dolls if you were lucky. I had a special one that I won in a Popsicle contest. Remember those contests? You collect a bunch of sticky wrappers, cut off the little red and white coupons, provide the required skill-testing drawing, and send it all off to some far-away place in the States while your parents tell you not to get your hopes up. That year we had to design a brand for an imaginary cattle ranch. My pencil-smudged entry was The Flying Horseshoe. Many weeks later I learned I’d won third prize when Dy-Dee Doll arrived asleep in her own pink suitcase.

None of us had seen anything like her, not even in the Eaton’s catalogue. She had moulded hair and soft wiggly ears, and a pink bonnet and dress with pockets to hold her tiny bottle, her tiny bar of Cashmere Bouquet soap, and her tiny pink plastic bubble pipe complete with instructions. And what girl doesn’t want a doll that smokes a pipe? Her most remarkable talent, however, was wetting herself. After drinking from her bottle, this wetness leaked out of an opening that looked like the valve on my mother’s pressure cooker. Problem was, this opening was ’way around on the side of her fat pink bum. We knew peeing out of the side of your bum was silly, but we knew better than to point that out.


Four or five years later, all of us girls had to take high school Home Ec so we could be lured with the joys of looking after husband and home. But we didn’t need to be enticed. We were already hooked. I presume they wanted us to learn the way to a man’s heart, but nothing we learned to cook or sew would entice any boy I knew. During my whole first year, I learned to make one thing: white sauce—-thin, medium, or thick. Then, even though I’d become a white sauce expert, my mother wouldn’t let me make any at home because white sauce, she said, was food only English people ate, and she wasn’t having any of that in our Irish-Catholic home. Besides, she said, who’d want vegetables boiled to death and then covered with paste? Our teacher tried to sell white sauce as a lovely topping for Brussels Sprouts—-a vegetable God should never invented in the first place—-instead of telling us how useful it would be for things like scalloped potatoes, and macaroni and cheese—-food our once and future kings might actually enjoy.

The boys, whom we were supposedly learning to feed and whose castles we were learning to decorate, were down the hall learning to make birdhouses and doorstops.

Everyone knew good wives and mothers made their own clothes and curtains, table cloths and tea cozies, so learning to sew was next. Our first project was something no one had the slightest interest in: The Apron made from sturdy lurid green cloth and predestined as Christmas gifts for our mothers complete with her initial embroidered in gold Edwardian script on the pocket. Then came The Blouse. Much was made of the need to iron pattern pieces and put them back properly in their envelopes, and more still was made of the need to mark stitching lines using a little tracing wheel and special transfer paper—-a tedious and mostly useless step. The pattern we were all required to use produced blouses with a very simple over-the-head design to eliminate the need for buttons or zippers, integral as they are for nearly all clothes. Their fronts and backs were giant Ts thereby eliminating the need to set in the sleeves, another skill that would have been very useful to learn. The resulting blouses bunched up so much under the arms that they looked ten sizes too big. And since they were identical as well as ugly, not one of us ever considered wearing hers.

In second year Home Ec, we moved on to another essential womanly delight: shopping. Our task was to draw up the necessary furnishings for an imaginary two-bedroom home within a ridiculously inflated budget; inflated, that is, unless we were betrothed to a prince. Now our job was to use our mother’s catalogues to gather pictures of matching furniture for fantasy rooms for our fantasy home: chesterfield and matching armchairs, matching coffee table, end tables, lamps, tasteful prints for the walls, wall-to-wall broadloom, and—-to tie it all together—-drapes boasting huge tropical flowers. And that was just the living room. Of course we were just Playing House again since we knew we’d never be able to afford houses full of brand new furniture. We knew what lay ahead: a couple of new pieces if we were lucky, and odds and sods handed down from our parents or grandparents for the rest.

Most importantly the curriculum wanted us to understand that grown-up Playing House was even more fun than the childish kind. Like the nuns who had told us that we just needed to duck and cover if the godless communists detonated an atomic bomb, Home Ec was a giant fairy tale telling us that making a man happy would, ipso facto, make us deliriously happy too. No one seemed to think we’d need lessons in the practicalities of having babies or raising babies or living with someone for better or worse for the next fifty-some years, and certainly nothing about affairs of the heart. They pretended we lived in the world of Father Knows Best, a perfect place without unwanted pregnancies or alcohol abuse or battered women or unloved children or people worn down by fatigue or poverty. Armed with the right attitude--that is, knowing our place--and all those cooking, sewing, and shopping skills, we could embrace our roles as obedient servants, welcoming him home to his castle where he was lord of all he surveyed. All we had to do was give no thought to ourselves while we decorated the castle and populated it with little princes to help him with the family business, and little princesses to help us with the washing up.

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Reader Feedback:
This article certainly brought back memories. Although I remember very little about public school, I do remember Miss Marshall, our grade eight home ec teacher, short, heavy and utterly terrifying to a child like me, who had no aptitude for or interest in cooking and sewing. My apron was never finished, a blouse not even begun....the sewing machine and I did not get along. I know that most little girls loved to play dress up and house but my sister and I were not encouraged in those pursuits. We were instructed to read, to play board games, to be quiet and we were constantly sent outside to play. I greatly enjoyed your article because it took me back to the days of my childhood and wonderful memories of my sister. Thank you for sharing. Your writing style captured the life of a girl child in the 50's and reminded me of so many of my long ago friends.

This piece made me laugh out loud to myself...and the long-suffering dog who happened to be lying at my feet. Mary remembers childhood in such specific and precise detail, reminding me of things I thought I'd forgotten about decades ago. But here it is, fresh and vivid once more, delivered with sparkling wit! Why were cooking teachers and sewing teachers always so terrifying? I broke more machine needles, snarled in fishing nets of tangled thread, than one would believe it was possible to do...I don't think my Blouse was ever finished. I can remember its fabric to this day, and also how much I hated it after a year of wrenching it in and out of recalcitrant machines.