My mother was a stay-at-home housewife, except in her day the adjective was unnecessary, for to be a housewife in the Fifties meant you never ventured outside farther than, say, the clothesline. You cooked three meals a day and every day you dusted and swept and vacuumed. As you did so, you listened to “Queen For A Day” on the radio. Because I was a stay-at-home kid at the time, I, too, listened.
The master of ceremonies was a man named Jack Bailey who had such a big voice I imagined he must stand seven feet tall. In 1954, when we got our first television set, I was disappointed to see that Jack Bailey was just a short guy with a pencil moustache.
Each day Jack would interview a quartet of housewives, each with a sad story to tell. “Life would be so much better if ONLY I had a new Frigidaire refrigerator or a Twin Tub Dexter washing machine.” At the end of the confessionals, Jack would ask the audience to applaud each contestant in turn. The contestant whose sob story elicited the loudest applause would be crowned Queen For A Day.
In addition to the life-changing appliance, said queen would collect other wonderful prizes, such as a second housedress. Once, I remember a woman shrieked in glee when awarded what to my ears sounded like “a mink stove.” How wonderful! I thought.
I tried to imagine my mother slaving over a hot mink stove. It was hard! However, it wasn’t hard picturing her as a queen, which in fact she was for one night of every month. Club night!
The Club, as it was known, consisted of maybe a dozen married women, all of whom—except Dorothy Brown and Bertha Sanders, who both held jobs outside the home—were homebound. Which isn’t to say Dorothy and Bertha were “liberated,” because both were still saddled with athe cooking and cleaning, laundering and child rearing. Men? They all went off to work in the morning and came home in the evening hungry and too tired to do much of anything domestically. The only time men folk had to fend for themselves was on the one day a month known as Club Night.
On Club Nights Mom would get all gussied up and go to a club mate’s house, leaving Dad and us kids to fend for ourselves. We’d rummage like bears in the kitchen in search of something to eat. Finding nothing, we might go to bed hungry. That was rough, but not nearly as rough as those nights when Mom hosted Club Night.
You knew it was coming when you awoke to the smell of sudsy ammonia in the morning. Mom was already at it, deep cleaning the bathroom and scrubbing down walls—including even the walls above the basement stairs that could only be reached by precariously balancing atop a ladder. By afternoon the disinfectant odors had given way to enticing kitchen aromas. Mom was cooking, baking, slicing, dicing, icing. But it was no use getting hungry, because none of what she was preparing was for us. No, it was all for the “girls” in The Club.
“Ding-dong.” Guests were arriving. Dad was banished to the garage, we kids to the basement. There we’d huddle like mice in the furnace room, as overhead teacups tinkled, floorboards creaked and my mother squeaked. That’s right: Mom’s girlhood nickname had been Squeaky, and it was always hers that stood out above the tittering crowd. Obviously, they were all having a grand old time up there, laughing and gossiping and sharing and pretending for one bright, shining moment that there was more to life than just tending kids, cooking meals, washing clothes and cleaning house.
Here’s a picture of my Mom being Queen for a Day. She’s the pretty one, seated third from left.