The first Peterson offspring to inhabit this tale of family life is Cary, born in Syracuse, New York, in 1952, the middle of the baby boomer epidemic. As the initial Noble grandchild, she was the recipient of numerous hand-knitted sweaters, bonnets, booties, and quilted blankets from doting relatives who had no idea at the time that she would be sharing the honors with thirteen other grandchildren, nine of whom belonged to my two sisters. We were a prolific bunch. I don’t know if it was because of the fashionable line of maternity clothes, or the postwar belief that we were wonder women, or the general optimism sweeping the country.
Raising children in the 50’s and 60’s was not expensive and the gadgets required these days would have seemed like unnecessary luxuries, except for the microwave, which I would have given a king’s ransom to have possessed! Our lives were very simple, almost barebones. Our income dictated this, regardless of choice. I made my own baby wipes from sterile cotton, and used plain water put into a squeeze bottle to moisten them. The top of a bureau served as a changing table, and an ancient baby carriage with newly painted wheels sufficed for outings. Even my own grandmother, on seeing the rickety contraption with its garish silver wheels, was taken aback.
“You’re not going to put that beautiful little baby in that monstrosity, are you, Margaret?”
“Well, actually, yes, Grandma. I doubt she’ll even notice.”
An old crib from a distant cousin arrived in the nick of time after the initial bassinet became too small. Car seats were unheard of as were seat belts, and nobody had yet invented those marvelous baby backpacks.
I used a “boodle buggy” to carry infants in the car (the top half of a small fabric baby carriage placed in the front seat beside me), which, horror of horrors, was not even strapped in, and a bouncy chair to keep year-olds entertained while I vacuumed or was otherwise occupied. The only extravagance we indulged in was the purchase of a Baby Butler feeding table sold to us by a safety-conscious salesman, who came to our house and talked as if he were pushing the Holy Grail. Even after we said we wanted it, he wouldn’t stop selling. Glen told him that if he didn’t shut up and tell us the price, he could leave immediately. That table is still in the attic at our summer cottage, having served five children and numerous nieces and nephews.
We used countless numbers of flannel receiving blankets and dozens of cloth diapers. We even sprang for a diaper service for those first few exhausting weeks (The count was 90 per week. Can you imagine?). There was no such thing as a disposable diaper, which was probably much better for both the baby and the environment, so long as you were careful manipulating those large diaper pins! Unless you had a washer or dryer, however, diapers made for a lot of physical labor. Even if you could use the washing machine of a relative or friend down the street, you still had to hang them up…somewhere. Fortunately, there were still a few clotheslines around by number five. I actually introduced each child, in turn, to the joys of hanging up clothes and they loved it. The results were sometimes messy, but oh, that feeling of accomplishment!
Glen and I were two young, clueless parents, who adored this tiny creature and read everything available on child development, discipline, and care, which, at the time, was Dr. Benjamin Spock. We were determined to be exemplary parents. As a result, Cary had all the earmarks of a first child and pushed herself as much as we pushed her. Her father nicknamed her, “Little Lady Try Hard,” a characteristic she exhibits even today, although at six feet tall we have eliminated the “Little.”
Family planning was big in the 1950’s along with far too much discussion of what the optimum spacing should be between siblings. There always was the possibility that you might wait too long to start the process, thus causing too big a gap between babies. And heaven knows where that might lead. So we started early. It soon became evident that we had no problem with conception. In fact, we erred in the other direction. In 1954, Christopher arrived in Richmond, Virginia. Oh, my God, I can’t believe it…a boy! Boys were scarce as hen’s teeth in the Noble family, and now my elder sister and I had each produced one within a year. Little did we know it was just the beginning. Chris arrived so quickly that Dr. Vitsky (a New York transplant with a soft southern accent) hardly had time to wash his hands and turn off Drew Pearson. I would rather have heard Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony for its soothing effect, but in 1954 women were not in charge. And it was Richmond, By God, Virginia—still the unspoken Capitol of the Confederacy—in a hospital named The Retreat for the Sick, an appellation to conjure with, especially when “birthing a baby.” These were the days when Childhood Without Fear, by Grantley Dick Read, was being adopted by many women who wanted “natural childbirth” with a minimum of drugs. They participated, as I did, in a series of classes to prepare them for their delivery. It also advocated for “rooming in,” where the baby was placed in a crib near the mother during the day, thus allowing her to care for and nurse on demand. Times…they were definitely a’changin’.
Chris absorbed all the maternal affection I could dish out, much to Cary’s relief. After all, how much can one child take? She needed help. He was sunny and almost ethereal, which belied his ability to get into a lot of mischief, the most egregious being to run into the middle of the street (thank God it wasn’t the main drag), sit down and take off his diaper. Fastidious fellow! Thank heaven for Cary, who saved his life on several occasions. He was the only doll she ever played with.
Our third child, Martha, arrived in 1956, in Clarksburg, W. Virginia, where Glen was the city manager. On the night of her arrival, we were at a party at the Wonder Bar outside of town, and as I was headed back to my table from the dance floor I bumped into my obstetrician.
“Hi, Mrs. Peterson,” he said. “Please take it easy on the rock ‘n roll. I want to enjoy the evening!” Well, that didn’t go so well, because in half-an-hour I was being rushed down the hall to the delivery room at St. Mary’s Hospital.
When Martha was in-utero I spent hours dancing around the living room to the latest musicals. After all, 1956 was the year Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews lit up Broadway with My Fair Lady, and I knew the lyrics to every song. I have a feeling that so did Martha. The same went for Guys and Dolls, the smash hit that arrived the year I was married and has been with us ever since. I reverted to a more subdued classical milieu, however, when I nursed her. Tschaikovsky, Vivaldi, Bach. As a result, her musical education was eclectic from the very beginning. I thought about this when watching her play the violin in the school orchestra or hold forth as the lead in Brigadoon at the High School as a teenager. She was terrific!
Martha was the epitome of the feminine little girl—tutus, crinolines, and whatever fancy shoe she could get past me. As a teenager she became more sophisticated and moved into the uniform of choice—jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt. The only fight we ever had while buying apparel occurred at a shoe store when she insisted on getting the latest-style clunky shoe, the closest thing I’d seen to a hiking boot for evening wear. On her size 10 feet they looked dreadful! And they cost $40, a small fortune in 1971. Needless to say they were worn once and a friend or two must have looked askance and clued her in to their “grossness.” That was the last I saw of them until we cleaned out her closet after she went to college.
Next came Tom, born in Miami, Florida, in 1958, just as Fidel Castro took over Cuba. Tom was an observer, which I’ve heard is true of fourth children, but I never read a scientific treatise on the subject. He would watch the passing parade and not say much, but when he opened his mouth it was usually to make a rather wise observation. It was as if he were born middle-aged. He also was obsessed with fairness. This wasn’t fair or that wasn’t fair. I didn’t want to tread on his idealism by telling him that, indeed, life is not fair a good deal of the time. I figured he could find that out on his own. Or maybe he’d become a lawyer, which would convince him for sure! On second thought, his lifelong love of politics may have stemmed from his desire to level the playing field and give everyone a fair shake.
There were times when I thought of Tom as an anomaly. He was the kind of kid who would tell everyone to be quiet because his mother was sleeping (on the rare occasions that I took a nap, I might add), or help me dust the banister and straighten up around the house, saying that if he didn’t help, who would? He seemed sure that I couldn’t finish the work on my own. Can you believe this?
As helpful and agreeable as he was most of the time, his temper was legendary in the family. He would be happy and easy-going up to a point and then something would trigger him and all hell would break loose. Fortunately, he took his anger out on his own possessions…most of the time. And after the storm was over, he managed the clean-up.
But Tom’s real passion to this day remains growing and collecting all kinds of exotic plants. This started with a very special baby sitter from Sweden, Mrs. Hagstrom, who encouraged him to experiment and to take over the care of our solarium and its myriad inhabitants. One time I bumped into him as he was walking out, carrying several houseplants. When I asked what he was doing he answered, “Getting rid of all the plants you killed last winter.” Fair enough.
For all Tom’s savvy, however, he was perplexed when we tried to convince him early on that he was born in Miami, not Your-ami. He failed to see the logic.
As if four wasn’t enough, Robert arrived in 1959, in Summit, New Jersey, the only child born in an odd year. He was an unexpected blessing, and he came so fast that I had my contractions after the fact. Glen, overjoyed at being allowed for the first time in the delivery room (these were the Middle Ages, remember?), leaned over to get a closer look at his newest son, whereupon his face was immediately covered in a fine spray of baby urine. This led to his famous fatherly remark, “And he’s been pissing on me ever since.” This did not deter my husband, however, from bringing me a large toy stork as a thank you gift, which stood on my bedside stand for the next week, and was admired by all who happened by, most of whom remarked, “Oh, it must be your first baby. How nice.” Little did they know! Those were the days when it was rumored that we had babies just so we could get a week’s vacation in the hospital, and were treated to “peri-care” (you can figure that one out) and massages and a chance to write our baby announcements before going back into the jaws of household hell and sleep deprivation.
Rob was our most expensive baby, possibly as much as $250, which seemed a lot, considering that the fee for Cary in 1952, which included all obstetrical services, was $75.00. Granted, that was the student rate.
He was adorable, with curly blond hair that I allowed to grow down to his shoulders. Shocking in those days! But I always had a little of the pace-setter in me, and envy the present-day moms, who don’t have to run to the barber every few months to make sure their offspring isn’t mistaken for a girl. Forsooth!
I can honestly say that I did not notice jealousy or upset on the part of my children whenever a new offspring entered the stage. They seemed rather happy to have received another “toy” they could show off to their friends in the neighborhood. There was always experimentation, of course, like how hard can I press on my baby sister’s eyes before she objects and Mother comes running, or would the same comb work on the little one as on me? Yowls of discomfort answered that one.
One instance I remember very clearly with mixed feelings. Glen and I were making the rounds and checking on the children late one night. We entered Tom’s room and he wasn’t in his bed. We looked everywhere and even checked the windows to make certain no kidnapping had occurred. On the verge of panic, we went to Robert’s room and there, cuddled up in the crib with his brother and sound asleep, was Tom. This sort of protectiveness was evident in their relationship for years to come. It became the hallmark of their true feelings for one another.
In fourth grade Rob was labeled hyperactive, but nobody in the family realized it, because there was so much confusion in our household that standing still was not an option. The neurologist, who made the diagnosis, recommended drugs and earned my undying enmity by suggesting to Glen that when he gave Robert the pills, he might also give some to me (as if fathers ever dispensed pills in the first place). Neither of us took them, but managed to control our ADD. For me, as someone who had to do ten things at once, it came in handy. Hyperactivity as a diagnosis was becoming the latest malady of choice, and, in my opinion, the labeling of every bouncy, active child as hyperactive had gone too far.
When you get to number five, you’re not upset when he tries to flush a roll of toilet paper down the loo, and you’re overjoyed if he can read Run, Spot, Run by the time he hits second grade. He doesn’t go through the same hell that number one endured, for expectations have been massively curtailed, and “potential” de-tyrannized. For whatever reason, Robert was happy-go-lucky, the family clown, danced for anybody who’d watch, and was a magnet for parental attention. But on the flip side, he did get more advice and more bossing around from his siblings than the others. And I’m sure his therapist along the way has heard about how awful it is to have four mothers, besides the main one, who allowed him to be teased and harassed. Unfortunately, the main mother was unable to be present in every corner of a rambling three-story house at all times. And therein lies the rub.
Robert also suffered from a form of the old-fashioned lazy eye (exotropia), where the eye turns out, the opposite of his brother Tom’s malady (esotropia), where the eye turns in. Tom’s was much easier to correct, with one operation, but Robert needed two operations and subsequent tutoring. This made his first few years in school very difficult and entailed weekly trips to NYU in New York City for special classes. It was on one of these trips that I chanced to meet Dr. Haim Ginott, the popular child psychologist, and author of Between Parent and Child. I didn’t think anybody could tell me how to raise children or even point out some of my weak spots, but taking classes with him changed our family forever. It was his un-common sense that kept me sane during those years when I was dealing with five teenagers.
So, let’s get the show on the road. I have left out many favorite stories about each child, because I think it will be more fun to weave them in and out of the upcoming narrative as family adventures unfold. I do hope that those of you who were raised in those far-off days when cell phones, computers, and advanced technology were a distant light on the horizon, will relate to and remember, fondly, the “good old days!”