Behind the Bedroom Door

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When my map of the world expanded across the Cooper River from downtown Charleston, South Carolina, to the tiny hamlet of Mount Pleasant (was there even a hill in the place?), my mother was building us a bungalow. She bought the blue prints from a contractor’s book and with the help of a Citadel engineering professor, altered them with small expansions. A side porch became a narrow study for my Citadel-professor father’s paper grading and lesson preparation. The upstairs dormer bedrooms for my sister and me acquired a tiny full bath where eventually I’d soak away teenage angst in solitary bubbles. And downstairs, a tiny back stoop was enfolded by a modest-sized kitchen to make a breakfast nook, so tight that only my sister and I could fit at the ends of the red formica table. (Years later, I looked up the etymology of “formica” and found it related to ants, curious source of the squiggly, red-topped brightness of the table.)

Thus, in one year-long stroke, for that is how long it took us to clear the half-acre of its brambles and small trees, and the contractor to erect the bungalow, we left behind the rental world of my parents’ early marriage and joined the home-owning, American middle-class. To most born after the 1950s, it’s hard to imagine the intense yearning for suburban homesteads that swept the nation after the war. As a kid, then a teen, I had no perception of this larger change, only its immediate effect on our family. At one stroke, we acquired a huge front lawn, three towering magnolia trees and a large back garden, tended almost exclusively by my mother. After the cobblestone courtyards of The Old Citadel, this green privacy, this shade and private sun, filled us for a while with bemused splendor. Swinging from a magnolia branch, I sang “Carolina moon, keep shining” to the huge globe that spread its sheen over our dark lawn. Other times our family with spades and hoes, paused from “breaking sod” for my mother’s bachelor buttons and summer squash. Whether “sod” accurately describes the soft loam of decayed acorns and leaves which we dug up, it certainly fits my mother’s North Dakota spirit that pushed us outside to get our hands dirty. Part recreation, part tonic for my father’s nervous stomach, such yard work kept us all busy until, with teenage flounces, I peeled off to mail scented letters and drink cherry cokes “downtown” with my friends.

Mount Pleasant in the 1950s with sidewalks only on Main Street, and almost exclusively single-family bungalows was truly a suburban dreamscape for post-war America. We had left behind Old Citadel families crowded against other other in what was essentially a tenement, though my mother would never have allowed herself to call it so. She did her best to turn the huge echoing rooms where Citadel cadets once bunked or attended classes. These she made into frilly, upholstered settings for family life. But she couldn’t ease our crowding, both inside and out. She couldn’t rid the place of spying older children, nor give herself and my father a bedroom sufficiently removed from their two girls. At the Old Citadel our family enjoyed neither of the “two types of privacy” that social historian Tamara Hareven (1991) defines as essential to American middle-class domesticity: “privacy of the family from the community, and privacy of family members from each other within the home.” By moving to Mount Pleasant, we acquired both.

This coincided with my budding teen obsessions. In my own room, I closed the door my prying younger sister and swooned to Elvis singing “Just love me.” Around my four-poster bed, I tacked up movie-star photos of Tab Hunter and Victor Mature. (Really? Victor Mature? Wasn’t he simply a roustabout Roman gladiator? The actor who really made me swoon played Chopin and coughed drops of red blood on the rhapsodic piano keys. Did I write away for his photo from some movie studio? Will I ever remember his name?) One summer I took a sewing course, riding the bus over the roller-coaster bridge into Charleston, staring over the sparkling water of the Cooper River as it flowed into Charleston harbor. That double solitude of traveling alone and taking flight into dazzling possibilities could never have happened had we stayed at The Old Citadel. My mother was right to remove us; it was time for us girls to have the second kind of privacy Hareven identifies. I like to believe this possibility of developing one’s unique interests and talents lies at the heart of American feminism and ingenuity. And it goes back at least as far as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) when the four March sisters enjoy Jo’s suggestion for spending their Christmas pittance: “Let’s each buy what we want and have some fun.” Though Mama March will bestow a different colored copy of the same religious tract on each daughter, it’s clear that pursuing their separate passions gives joy to the girls’ hard existence: Jo her books, Amy her drawing pencils, Beth her music, and Meg some pretty collar to set off her curls. They may not actually spend their dollars on themselves, but the fact that they can thrill to the idea of doing so tells how fully their private selves were developing in Civil War America.

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