The Still Room of Quiet

I like to think of the 1950s and early 60s as some kind of wonderful “Pleasantville” experience. I imagine I’d wear my letterman’s jacket, do well in school, and come home in time for cookies, milk, and an early bedtime. It would all be so well ordered and clear. Recently, I found a box of slides at my grandparents’ house. I sent it out to be digitized and was rather alarmed when I looked at them on screen. They must have been taken around 1963. There is an image of President Kennedy’s funeral on the television. Some of the photos are at my great grandparents’ anniversary party. Others are at an unknown social event.

The upside is the television tray usage. I still have those TV trays. I use them at home with family, but didn’t realize they were appropriate for a party. Now I see how handy they can be. The downside is the subtext in every image of restrained frustration. Nobody looks comfortable. Everyone looks like they could use a stiff martini. I imagine the polite chatter, “Bob, how’s your golf game these days,” “Betty, I loved the coffee cake,” “Could you be more proud of Sherman, valedictorian?” But I’ve seen enough movies to know that everyone goes home drinks too much, cries, and screams. I hope. Otherwise there’s a whole lot o’ suppressed issues here.

This is a glimpse into the reality of the late 1950s. There was no room for differences or individuality. God forbid someone was African-American, Asian, gay, or just a little odd. Somehow this seems obvious on an episode of American Experience, but these slides made it real for me. It clarified why, several years later, my parents dropped out and moved to the Haight. And why there was so much tension between my parents and my grandparents, and I was somewhere in the middle.