I transcribed my mother’s autobiography thirty years after she wrote it, and nearly twenty years after she died. She says she didn’t start out to write about “her whole damn life” but I guess it just spilled out; she was never shy about expressing herself or her opinions. She presented it to me in 1980, a bulky, typed manuscript that she had written and re-written over the two previous years. It was my decision to include photographs from the dense scrapbooks she kept (more than a dozen from 1937 through the 1970s), and I used the modern marvel of the computer to help me accomplish the final product. I was inspired by the thought of giving it to my sister, Cynnie; Mom had dedicated the book to us, after all, and I knew it would mean a lot to her. It took me almost three years.
It was very important to me to keep my mom’s voice alive; that was a promise I made to myself from the beginning. I didn’t want to edit her story in any way whatsoever. That was quite a task. There were many choices about titles and fonts and spacing, paragraphs, and punctuation; I became obsessed with spell checking and fact checking. I read every word so many times I knew them by heart. I used the Internet to look up places and people she talked about, songs and big bands and movies she loved; it became a timeless project for me. I thought her thoughts, lived her memories. I was both the child she wrote about, and the adult daughter who was swimming in her mother’s inner life. I admit I was often suffocated as well as uplifted by her stories; how could I not be? Emotionally it was hard for me. Sometimes I got lost in the process, but it also touched me deeply and tenderly.
In the book she writes the way she spoke: animated, passionate, and in many directions at once. This is not a year-by-year chronicle; far from it. This is a conversation with all the interruptions and insights that make it satisfying and fun. There are times she goes into great detail and times she skips ahead to wherever she wants to go.
It was interesting to read the chapters about myself—through my mother’s eyes. When she first gave us the book, I was thirty-five years old, married, and a new mom. We had been through a lot together, and I felt closer to her than I ever had. I recognized the dedication she had shown in writing the book and was happy to be able to share it with her. I hardly noticed what she wrote about me. But this time, thirty years later, I did. I was struck by the love she expressed about me in so many different ways, from the very beginning of my life. I recognized my mother as myself, in the way I feel about my own daughters. I never tire of reading her book; it reaffirms one of the deepest and closest bonds we shared.
My mother was just sixty years old in 1977 when her leg was amputated and when she became a grandmother for the first time. The book was born from the impact of those two events in her life. She writes: “I vaguely remember mumbling to the attendant who was steering me into the operating room, ‘Well, you lose a little, you gain a little. What the hell, I’m going to lose a leg, but I’ve gained a granddaughter.’”
Cynthia Hare, daughter of Laura Conrad Hare, was born in 1917. She grew up in the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, known as the Main Line. The name comes from the old railroad line that went through sprawling country estates that lined the route in the 19th century. She had an older brother, Alfie, and lived close to her beloved Aunt Ethel, and three first cousins, whom she adored. She was energetic and rebellious. She went to the best schools, took ballet, loved to read, ice skate, and do cartwheels. She describes her growing up with humor and a joy that I remember was present within her all her life.
Many winter afternoons Mother took me right from school to the outdoor skating pond at the Merion Golf course. I skated until my feet became numb. I’d have to go in the little shack they had by the pond and put my feet up on the big black pot-bellied stove to get them warm again. I was pretty good at figure skating (I’d taken lessons) but I got bored just doing figure eights. Playing tag with the boys was much more fun. I had a crush on a boy named Jerry and always chased him. I wore big red wool mittens whenever I went skating. ‘Let’s go catch Red Mittens,’ the boys yelled as they raced after me (my first experience being chased by boys). I want you to know that I still have those red mittens tucked away in my sweater drawer. The label is still inside them (Abercrombie and Fitch, N.Y.) with my nametape, Bunny Hare.
I remember those mittens; of course I do. I remember how they felt, how soft and worn they were, and I pictured myself skating outdoors the way she had. I loved going through her drawers and I remember how grown up I felt when she told me the stories behind the things she had. There was a gold beaded evening purse, a fox stole that wrapped around the shoulders and clipped together with the little fox’s mouth (was that real I wonder?), her mink coat with the silky lining that was so cool against my skin, a small gold pin inscribed with love from my dad.
She had trouble with her leg from the time she was eleven years old. She had an infection that attacks the bones of the body called osteomyelitis. They didn’t know why or how she got it. Over the years she had twenty major surgeries and tried every antibiotic that came on the market. She always called it her “bad leg.” I remember her saying how she never thought she would be able to dance, get married, or have children because of it, but of course she did all those things.
I can’t remember every operation I had. There were too damn many. But I do know the two worst surgeries I had were the very first one, and the very last. (I can say the ‘last’ now because there’s no leg left to operate on anymore.) With the first operation I knew they were going to cut my leg open but I don’t remember my arm giving me any trouble beforehand. All I know is, when I woke up after the operation, my leg was wrapped in enormous bandages and so was my left arm. They’d scraped the bone in four different places. I had a wire cage put over my leg because it was agony just to feel even the weight of the bed sheet on my bandaged leg. I was in the hospital for two months. I was at home in a wheelchair and then crutches for at least a year after that first operation. I used to delight in scaring Mother by wheeling fast through our long hallways and coming to a quick stop so the chair would practically tip over. Wheelchairs then were made of heavy wood, with a cane seat and back. Mother used to reassure me by saying, ‘If you have all this trouble now when you are young, you won’t have to go through it when you’re older.’ Little did either of us realize just how much ‘trouble’ there was ahead for me.
As it says in the title of the book, my mom was a debutante; the term is defined as a “young lady from the upper classes who is introduced to society” in a formal “debut” presentation. Originally the term meant the girls were now eligible to marry, and they were being displayed to eligible bachelors and their families who belonged to a select social circle.
What it meant to Cynthia was extravagant parties, and lots of dancing.
Mother didn’t have enough money for me to have a coming-out party. I didn’t care. Because of my family name I was on the guest list for all the debutante parties. The big bands were just becoming popular and if I had two or more invitations for the same night, I always picked the one that had the best band. One girl had Benny Goodman and another had Ray Noble. I asked Al Bowlly, the vocalist with Noble’s band, for his autograph. He wrote, ‘With love, Al’ across my white linen dress. It was ages before I let Mother send it to the cleaners. Most of the parties were dinner dances. I seldom ate, and danced from the first number played to the last. I regularly picked my spot on the dance floor (usually right in front of the band) and stayed there all night. I wanted to make sure the boys could easily find me.
She also writes, and this always made me smile when she told it, “When my date gave me a corsage, I’d take it apart and wear the flowers in my hair. I never wore anything but a white or black evening dress, and when a boy cut in on me I thought I was really hot stuff when I’d tell him, ‘I’m only wearing three things and two of them are my shoes.’”
The wonderful thing about growing up with her was her ability to tell stories and make them come alive. I remember so many of her stories; I’m sure my sister does too. They were all told with such detail and delight that somehow a little girl from California could imagine dancing with a flower in her hair at a debutante ball, even though she had no idea what that was.
She talks about her first, and secret, marriage that made headlines in all the newspapers when it was announced. How her mother took her to the HF Bar Ranch in Wyoming to distract her, and how she had a romance with a cowboy named Dean. I remember the Christmas cards he sent every year, pictures of her with her favorite horse, and the red cowboy boots in the back of her closet.
She reveals the young Bobby Troup, who became the love of her life, from her dancing partner to the father of her children. He became famous much later in his life; she was there at the beginning, from his first hit song, Daddy, which was recorded by Sammy Kaye and remained number one on the hit parade for over four months.
Mom was a featured dancer at the Embassy nightclub in Philadelphia when she met my dad. She loved it, especially the nightlife and the musicians. She had dreams of becoming a professional dancer, but found herself falling in love instead. He was in business school at the University of Pennsylvania when he came in the club. It was 1940. She writes that although she “was getting a little too old to be dating college boys,” when he asked her to dance, she accepted. Their love story began with that first jitterbug.
My parents not only had a romantic story, a bit of magic in my opinion, but an enduring relationship that lasted throughout their lives. She writes about all of it in the book, from their engagement through his deployment overseas and return home after the war, and then moving to California to pursue his career as a songwriter and make a home. She writes about their separation with brutal honesty. There is no doubt he was the most important person in her life.
There are also celebrity moments she writes about. She tells the story of how she and my dad drove out to California, on Route 66, and how the song was born. She talks about meeting Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, and Frank Sinatra, who recorded one of my dad’s songs, Snootie Little Cutie. She tells how she had a brief affair with Jack Kennedy, and how they met. She dated Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. She talks about the excitement of going to see the launch of Apollo 12, in 1969, when her first cousin, Astronaut Pete Conrad, was going to the moon.
She also talks about alcoholism, A.A., her divorce, and being a parent; she describes her wedding day, her pregnancies, and her two daughters, me and Cynnie, in much detail.
The story of her amputation, and her struggle to walk and feel whole again, is probably the most compelling part of the book, although there is a lot of pain in those pages. It is not always easy to read, especially because I remember so much of it. I was a new mom then, but I was a daughter too. I was pulled in two directions, inside and out. But I loved how my little daughter Bridget made her happy, and it was wonderful to witness the two of them getting to know each other. The passages she wrote in the book about her granddaughter are snapshots that I will always treasure.
There is a paragraph near the end of the book where she pretty much sums up her attitude about life; I couldn’t find a better way to express it than she did, so I’m just going to quote her.
I’m sitting here in my kitchen, dressed in a long velvet robe, wearing a pearl necklace and earrings, and making like I know how to write a book. Dr. Stern told me I would die if he didn’t cut my leg off. I think I’m more apt to die if I don’t become more aware of myself, and the purpose of my life.
Jamie, my second daughter, the baby I was pregnant with at the end of the book, wrote something in a high school writing class about her grandmother in 1996. My mom died in 1992, when Jamie was thirteen years old. She had spent many days at her grandmother’s house; we practically lived there in the summertime. That house was, and still is, the embodiment of her spirit. She put her heart and soul into the home she called “the house that Route 66 built.” She and my dad had bought the house in 1946, just two months after they motored to California. My sister and I grew up there, and my mother lived there all her life: “I started in the City of Brotherly Love, and here I am in the City of Angels. A lot of water has gone under the bridge in these years—plus booze and tears. It’s been a long time from being a dancing debutante to an unemployed cleaning lady. I have many regrets, but I do believe that life is a banquet and I have no intention of starving myself to death, as Auntie Mame said.”
Jamie’s words are a glimpse into the years that aren’t included in the book—the twelve years that passed after she stopped writing. The years she lived without dancing. The years of watching her granddaughters grow up.
When we would visit her, I could hear the clock tick quietly through the house, pouncing out around the room, on the stained glass lamp, and the scrumptious purple and green bunches of plastic grapes sitting on the stove. I loved that house, it was all her. She was her pale blue pool, the red stone sculptured dog, the little metal woodpecker on the tree, and the hot, dirty bronze bull figurines tramping motionless on the cobblestone tables by the pool.
She never told me many stories from the past, but I was too shy to ask anyway. I never realized that the old garage by the pool held countless memories and photos, which I sift through as I write. To me it only held the pool toys and the wonderfully old, brown pool mats for lying in the sun. I loved the bathroom, too; quiet, small and soap smelling, it was covered with pictures of my mom and aunt, but not many of her. I could even hear the clock tick in there.
She had old antique games in her cabinets, red, yellow and green miniature glass balloons, wooden figurines in the kitchen, and a cat named Peter. He probably knew more about her than I did, because she was like him when I didn’t know her. She was smooth and elegant, and did what she wanted. She was wise like a cat, and all the more attractive and mysterious. I never really thought of her life before I knew her. I had pictured my mom’s past in that house, but never dove my imagination into hers. But she suited me just fine as “Namuk” I guess, because I have never regretted not asking her; she would’ve probably been too modest to tell me much anyway. Like how she used to dance and twirl wildly in her living room with a particular song on, just like I do.
What else can I say? I am the daughter of an incredible woman, a storyteller and a writer. I admire her courage and her joy in life. I think of her all the time, and I know she looks over my shoulder and keeps an eye on all of us. It is an honor to share her story.