Mom was a housewife and a factory worker who wore a bikini in broad daylight in our back yard. This was 1961. Working class western Massachusetts had a dress code. Skimpy bathing suits fell outside of that code. Perhaps my maternal grandparents, who were Quebecois, failed to impart full knowledge of American mores.
Maybe it’s because both his parents were Quebecois that my jealous father never seemed to mind that his wife would occasionally step into her tiger-striped suit and out into the yard where she was surrounded by the picket fence he had built with his own hands.
In 1962, Canadian men’s and women’s swimwear featured less fabric and more skin than suits in the US. But, despite his heritage, Dad never wore one of those skimpy bathing suits, not at the beach and not in the yard. The family sometimes spent vacations in a tent on the northern shore of Maine. There, we learned the term “banana hammock.” In Maine, we girls were always on the lookout for a Canadian man in a skimpy suit. No man in a Speedo was exempt from being exposed to a giggling fit, followed by “Bonjour” or an obscure “dormez vous?” Anyway, Dad wore bathing trunks like everyone else’s Dad form Chicopee.
Neither of my parents was hysterical about nudity the way some of our friends’ parents were. If one of us kids, say, opened the bathroom door as Mom or Dad happened to be stepping out of the tub, it was no big deal, rating only an irritated, “How many times do I have to tell you to knock?”
This reaction was nothing compared to the overwrought embarrassment I witnessed when Mrs. Gilmartin’s boob fell out of her sensible one piece bathing suit while she was hoisting herself out of the public pool. There was downright drama when Mrs. Kallowitz found out that Susie Kallowitz and I had witnessed drunken Mr. Kallowitz peeing on a rhododendron. His wife berated him up one side and down the other. This didn’t seem fair. How was he to know we had snuck out of the house at ten o’clock at night? All three of us would have gotten away without a word of reprimand if Suzie and I had been able to contain our eight-year-old glee. Until his wife started screaming, I thought peeing on a bush was funnier than a banana hammock.
Anyway, one day, Mom was working second shift at National Blank Book, a paper mill by the Holyoke canals that was known to turn a nice girl into a rough woman if she didn’t watch out. Mom had the morning off. She only swore in extreme circumstances, certainly never the F word, and she raised poodles, the big standard kind not the dainty little miniatures, but still a refined breed, so I don’t think she was a rough woman. Like every woman in the neighborhood, Mom didn’t aspire to be any rougher than she already was. She wanted to be middle class, which meant a bigger house, better clothes, saying ”not” instead of “aint’” and behaving like a lady.
So why did she wear a bikini? A Hollywood star like Bridgette Bardot could get away with it. But Bridgette Bardot had exaggerated womanhood, fame, wealth, and an agent to protect her. She could flaunt her body, not with immunity exactly, but she didn’t need to be a lady the way regular women did. How Mom got up the nerve in the summer of 1962 to carry a glass of Tab with such nonchalance across the yard while wearing next to nothing, is to this day a mystery to me. We lived in a neighborhood of two story houses with small back yards. Anyone who happened to be looking out a second story window in any of the four houses adjacent to ours could peer down and see every inch of her skin except the part covered by the scanty tiger-stripe bra and panties as she plopped herself down on the chaise lounge.
We girls were thirteen, eleven, and eight. We were all home for summer vacation and never knew when we might walk out into our back yard to find Mom unveiled. Any one of our neighbors could gain access to a one dollar pair of opera glasses at LeVignes corner store and peer luridly down at her. We knew because we had three pairs ourselves and kept vigil from our own second story windows. When one sister was posted in the bedroom, one in the hall, and one in the bathroom, we had the immediate neighborhood covered. The view, we figured, was roughly the same from any of the neighbors’ second floors.
We worried a lot more about men than women. Mr. LesPerance, Young Mr. Kallowitz, or Mr. Gilmartin might be out of work with the flu or on vacation, never mind the myriad male offspring hanging around in the mostly Catholic neighborhood. Our brother didn’t count. He was family. He was 16. If he had been paying attention maybe he would have been scandalized by Mom’s display, but he was off working in the tobacco fields and much too interested in himself to get caught up in the mundane lives of his sisters and parents. Mom never seemed to be in her bikini when he was around.
The sister surveillance was not 100% of the time of course. It was a summer of grasshopper funerals (the corpses in match boxes) for Janie, my younger sister. She seemed to find a lot of dead grasshoppers. I suspected foul play. My older sister spent a fair amount of time walking back and forth to the library because the 17 year old boy she had vowed to die for lived on the route. Then, of course, Mom was not the only show on the bill. Every kid in the neighborhood found a spot between the hedges when word got out that Old Lady Kallowitz was about to take a hammer to a snapper for turtle soup. You knew it was about to happen because Old Man Kallowitz would shoo his own grandchildren out of his yard and bring out the stained army blanket that the poor turtle got wrapped in before the deed was done. Where did that old lady and that old man get the turtles and where they really snappers like the Kallowitz kids claimed? The old man held the turtle. The old woman held the hammer.
Even with all these distractions, more than once that summer, one of us caught our mother walking serenely out the back door, cleavage, belly button and all. We caught her, but we didn’t know what to do with her. She and Dad were the people you told if you wanted to snitch on someone, and neither of them seemed to think Mom’s bikini was a snitch worthy offense.
All any of us could do was to alert the other sisters and gather to kneel with our chins on the window sill and gaze down at her. Sunbathing she called it.
My older sister, Kathy stressed the bathing part. “Why doesn’t she just take a bath on the back lawn?”
“The men are all at work,” I cautiously defended Mom.
Kathy was thirteen and too outraged to suffer any justification of Mom’s behavior. She made a face to indicate what a dolt I was. “Old Man Kallowitz is always home. You think men don’t take days off? How about Old Lady Kallowitz? Wouldn’t she love to get a load of Mom sunbathing.”
It was true Old Lady Kallowitz, the turtle killer, roamed the neighborhood with bad intent. It wasn’t scandalous for women to see each other’s skin. Still the fact of Mom out there like that put her reputation in peril, no matter who saw her. And our mother was in extra jeopardy because even though she was only five feet tall, inch for inch, she was the prettiest woman in the neighborhood.
On this particular hot morning, all the stars aligned and the pay-off for our surveillance arrived. It was too early for spying, but I happened to be seated in the upstairs bathroom. More out of habit than curiosity, I peeked under the shade. There she was, cleavage greatly exaggerated from this angle, cup of Sanka and the morning paper in hand. My brother had already boarded the van for the tobacco fields. My sisters hadn’t even rolled out of bed yet. I pulled up my baby doll pajama bottoms and flew back to our shared bedroom. My sisters refused to get up. I took up my post at the bedroom window. Soon, I saw a mailman who was not our mailman coming down the street carrying an over-sized sack.
“A man,” I said into Kathy’s ear, not loud enough to be heard through the open windows. “Mom’s out in the bikini.”
She gave me a filthy look and sat up in bed. All three of us peered at the man through our opera glasses as he took a big book out of his sack and stuffed it in the LesPerence’s mailbox.
“Phone books,” Kathy said knowingly.
“How’s he going to get that big book in our mailbox?” Janie asked. It was a good question. The LesPerence’s had a mailbox big enough to accommodate Mr. LesPerence’s mail order model airplane hobby. We had a normal mailbox. The fat phone book would never fit.
My older sister dropped her opera glasses. “Stay put,” she commanded. “Don’t take your eyes off him.” She bounded down the stairs.
I didn’t want to stay put. I left Janie with the same order Kathy had just barked at us and ran to the hall window to watch Kathy warn Mom that a strange man with a phone book was on the loose. I could see from way up there that Mom was not impressed with this information.
Kathy’s mouth tightened and her hands went to her hips. Mom laughed. More than anything Kathy hated to be laughed at. I laughed, too. Mom turned toward the window. “Quit spying and come out here.”
Since I’d been caught red-handed, I waved at them. Mom waved back. Kathy stared at Mom’s bust line and scowled.
Mom rolled her eyes. “I am in my own back yard.” She pointed to the towel draped over the back of the chaise. “I have a towel.” It was true she always had a towel with her even though she never got wet. “How did you girls get this way?” But what if she wasn’t quick enough with the towel?
I thought I heard a faint knock at the front door. I definitely heard the back door slam. It was Janie running out into the yard, gesturing toward the front of the house. I bolted down the stairs. There was no one at the front door. I grabbed the afghan off Dad’s Lazy Boy as I ran through the living room on my way to the back yard.
I almost crossed paths with the guy as he came through the side gate saying, “Good morning. Glad I didn’t wake you folks.” The disgrace of it, the danger, the adrenaline. I rushed to join my two sisters who were already standing at her side. We created a screen of daughters to block his view. He was looking down at his bag, pulling out the phone book, saying, “Got your new telephone directory.”
Mom had already twisted around and was smiling. Thankfully, she stayed seated in the chaise lounge. “Oh, thank you. Would you just leave it there on the picnic table?”
We held our breath. Was the threat avoided or did he see? Would he tell the tale all up and down the street? He left the book and turned away without making eye contact with any of us. I collapsed crossed legged to the ground next to Mom who was now frowning with her arms crossed, still firmly seated.
Mom stared at his back as the gate squeaked shut. Finally, she looked embarrassed.
Kathy glared at her.
Mom didn’t notice. She was still staring at the gate. “Oh, shit,” she said. Mom, who never said, “shit.”
Janie sat tentatively on the end of the chaise. When she was not shoo’d off, my little sister put her head on Mom’s thigh. Mom stroked her hair absentmindedly. “I hope he didn’t realize I recognized him.”
Kathy’s mouth relaxed a bit. She squinted as if this would help her hear what Mom was about to say.
Janie lifted her head off Mom’s thigh. “Who is he, Mom?”
“He used to work with your father.” She seemed so sad. “He got let go.”
“Fired,” Kathy corrected.
Mom shook her head in sympathy. “Poor man. Two kids in diapers. How much can he be making delivering phone books? He must be so embarrassed.” She looked seriously from daughter to daughter to daughter. “Don’t marry heavy drinkers, girls. No matter how charming or good looking, do not marry a man who drinks too much.” Her eyes landed on Janie, who sat up and looked back at her earnestly. Mom stroked Janie’s hair one more time. Then shook off the phone guy with a forced smile. “You girls are up early.”
Kathy’s eyes drifted to the afghan on the ground next to me. I pulled the blanket to my lap so that Mom wouldn’t notice that it had been touching the dirt. Kathy locked eyes with me and nodded at the afghan. I knew what she wanted. I wanted it too. I never would have had the guts to do it without my older sister’s silent instruction.
Suddenly, with great dexterity, Kathy grabbed the afghan and threw it over Mom. Then with perfect timing, like a female tag team on world wide wrestling, we were on her. We wrapped the blanket around and under her. We would have stopped if Mom had ordered us to, but she squealed, laughing like a teenager getting thrown in a pool.
“What are you doing?” She could hardly get it out, she was laughing so hard. When it was absolutely clear that Mom was not angry, Janie joined in. The three of us carried our mother, who was fighting like a banshee and screaming with laughter, into the house.
I can’t exaggerate how much fun this was; Mom allowing us to pretend we are saving her from herself. Mom laughing at us and herself and her own flesh, laughing wrapped in an afghan crocheted by our Memere before she died, laughing as if some things that are usually not allowed, are sometimes not only allowed, but allowed to be laughed at. It was maybe the most fun I’d had in my career as a kid up to that point. Between orders of, “Watch her head,” and “Open the door,” even Kathy was laughing.
Bikini, Wisdom of Our Mothers, Familia Books, 2010