Updated: Jun 16, 2020
I’ve started an informal study of the writer Shirley Jackson. You might not remember the name, but you probably remember the surprise ending of the widely anthologized and commonly assigned short story “The Lottery.” Best known as a gothic fiction novelist, Jackson also wrote what might be considered the forerunner of “Mommy Blogs” in her chronicles of family life, which include Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.
Life Among the Savages recounts a year in the mid-1940s when she and husband Stanley Edgar Hyman had three kids under age 7. Reading Jackson’s funny, sweet stories is a lovely walk down memory lane for this mom of two (who are now 29 and 33).
One of the many striking aspects of life during this time, which my own childhood corroborates, is the prevalence of hourly cigarette and nightly booze consumption for both parents. My points here are not ones of judgement or derision; in contrast, I’m astonished that this generation was able to function so well and accomplish so much while under the regular influence of substances that would have crippled me. I get a headache if I smell cigarette smoke wafting over from my two-doors-down neighbor, and two fingers of wine put me right to sleep. How did they do it?
As becomes evident early in Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley smoke almost constantly and drink heavily and regularly. Reading this 1948 book took me back to my own parents in the early 1960s whose practices were similar to the Hymans. We had a blue 1965 Rambler sedan in which our family of four would drive around, windows closed, both parents chain smoking with two little girls loose in the back seat. Jackson recounts how one daughter liked to lie on the back seat shelf, filling up the rear window with her little body. We did that too until Daddy would snarl “Get down; I can’t see.” The getting down had nothing to do with child safety but rather with general, high-handed, 60s-dad-style irritation.
Like my own home in Pennsylvania, the Hyman house at 12 Prospect Street in North Bennington, VT would have had the windows closed through much of the winter with both parents smoking continually around three little kids. In 2020, it seems inconceivable, but until I begged my own parents to stop smoking after school “propaganda” programs prompted 7-year-old me to do so, that’s how it went inside 859 W. 2nd Street in Hatfield, PA.
One story in Life Among the Savages shows the vital place that smoking and drinking held in the family through the narration of a night where Mom, Dad, and all three kids are sick with the flu. Anyone with children, or who remembers their own youth, knows how that goes. No one feels good in their own beds, so everyone moves around in a macabre game of musical beds. Shirley and hubby move beds all night to accommodate the kids’ and their own misery. The attendant liquor and cigarettes amaze me in this funny story as Jackson uses the refrain of what each family member totes along with them when going from bed to bed. Each kid has a pillow and a glass of fruit juice; the “baby” also brings with her “half a dozen cloth books, an armless doll, and a small cardboard suitcase which holds the remnants of a half a dozen decks of cards” (p. 130).
Of even more interest to me is what the adults lug around. Shirley writes: “I put my cigarettes and matches and my brandy and my ashtray on the end of the table next to his cigarettes and matches and ashtray and tumbler of water and put my pillow on the bed and fell asleep. Shortly after this he woke me and asked me to let him get out of the bed, since it was too hot in that room to sleep and he was going back to his own bed. He took his pillow and his cigarettes and matches and his ashtray and his aluminum glass of water and went padding off down the hall” (Life Among the Savages, p. 132-133). Everyone moves beds several times in the story, and in each move, the cigarettes, matches, ashtray, and booze go along.
How did these parents – and my parents – manage to consume all those cigarettes and alcohol every night, even on nights they were sick, and still manage to get up the next morning, cook breakfast, get to work where they worked hard all day (my dad ran a commuter airport and my mom was a nurse), come home, cook dinner, and do it all again the next day? I couldn’t! My stomach is upset all night if there are five pieces of raw onion in the salad; my head hurts from fumes in a freshly painted room on another floor. Frankly, my hat goes off to them. What a tough bunch of folks. And then, once they figured out it really wasn’t good for them, many of that generation stopped doing it. My own parents quit smoking cold turkey in the 1970s and never smoked again, although my mom said she craved a cigarette for a decade. They also reduced and eventually stopped drinking every night in the 1980s when they felt they needed to lose weight. That’s some kind of willpower.
Shirley Jackson only made it to age 48; her husband to age 51. Their habits likely contributed to the heart attacks both died from. In their cases, they didn’t make the health changes that might have let them live longer. I’m glad my parents were able to!
Kathryn Hauer, a Certified Financial Planner ™, adjunct professor, and financial literacy educator has written numerous articles and several books including the “11-Step, DIY, Comprehensive Financial Plan Workbook” and “Financial Advice for Blue Collar America.” She works to help clients and readers understand and act on complex financial information to keep them and their money safe. She functions as a strong advocate and guiding light for her clients as they move through murky and unfamiliar financial and career worlds. Read more at her website.