I always wanted to have Donna Reed for my mom. I think most people wanted to have Donna Reed for their moms. A lot of demand for the late Ms. Reed, no doubt.
I mean, she was ideal. She was pretty, she dressed really nicely (you wouldn’t have her shuffling around the kitchen in jeans and stained sweatshirt, or worse yet, sweatpants), she had a sweet voice and never yelled – spoke firmly when the occasion called for it, but didn’t yell.
Donna was admirably suited to be Mrs. George Bailey in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but she was at her best in The Donna Reed Show, which ran on ABC from 1958 to 1966. There she was married to pediatrician Dr. Alex Stone, lived in a fine neighborhood, and had two super fine kids, the lovely Mary, played by Shelley Fabares (Johnny Angel vocalist), and Jeff, a bit of a smartmouth but lovable, played by Paul Petersen. I could have easily had a big crush on very cute Mary, but my major crush was on her mom.
Of course, Donna Stone wanted for nothing. She never had to work, and also had help around the house in her idealized world. There were never any major issues. Jeff didn’t experiment with drugs and Mary (true to her good Catholic name) certainly never slutted around. Hubby Alex, meanwhile, didn’t get into the booze, and wasn’t carrying on an affair with his trampy and man-hungry (especially ‘doctor’ man-hungry) nurse/receptionist.
It was a perfect world all around. No need for Donna to get heavily into Valium, because she had no stresses. It might be argued that her life was a bit unfulfilled, since she was obviously an intelligent woman. But hey, this was the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Women didn’t worry about that sort of thing back then – did they?
Anyway, I did not have Donna Reed for a mom. Actually, the woman up the street, who was in fact a doctor’s wife, looked remarkably like Donna Reed. But, she didn’t act like her. Indeed, I could write a book on even the little I know about her misbehavior, including such naughtiness as flashing her panties before an adolescent boy (OK, me) and then laughing at how much she caught his attention. But, that is another story entirely.
But, as I said, my mother was not Donna Reed. I don’t think anybody’s mom was, and that is why she was so idealized. My mother was a troubled person, always. I realize in retrospect how little I understood her. She was highly intelligent yet, in the mode of her day, being married to a relatively successful man, she was like Donna in having no need to turn her hand to anything other than domestic stuff. Domestic stuff that gave this young woman, who graduated high school at 15 full of promise, no excitement at all. She perfunctorily fulfilled her obligations by feeding and clothing us, and tending to our wounds and scrapes, but returned virtually no affection. I think I mentioned before I have no recall of ever hugging my mother, or her hugging me. Maybe she did, but I don’t remember it.
She attempted to do a few things when we got older and out of her hair a little. She took some nightschool art classes, and she wasn’t a bad painter. Yet, she never followed through enough to become good at it.
She was very well-read and certainly encouraged my love of reading. And we would have some good conversations about literature and other matters cultural. I mean, she was an interesting conversationalist, but our conversations were, in my recall, no warmer than the ones I might have had with a good teacher.
And, she drank. And the drinking increased down all the years until her demise in 1992. I suppose it was a reflection of her frustration with life, and it was also a reflection of her possession of a black belt in denial right to the end, so that she never accepted she was a chronic alcoholic. Alcoholics were, to her, people who lived on a park bench or under a bridge, sucking back cheap booze still in its brown paper bag. Not her. Never her.
And then she died. Of cirrhosis. She died in my mind at least a decade earlier. So, when it finally happened it was a matter of, “Oh, really. Not actually a surprise.” So, I didn’t mourn much.
But, at the same time, I have often striven to understand what motivated this woman whom I didn’t really know at all, despite the fact she gave birth to my brothers and me. They have been no more successful than I in reaching any conclusions other than the fact she definitely wasn’t Donna Reed.
Maybe Donna Reed wasn’t, either.