In a house full of toys and games, what more could three boys want?
Longing for something out of reach was a familiar feeling in our house. Not that you would notice from the outside. We lived in a comfortable middle class home, with mom and dad, three sons, and grandparents next door. My folks talked about money a lot but we never seemed to lack. Quite the contrary, if there was one thing that we could count on, it was plenty of toys when our birthdays and Christmas rolled around. The basement playroom was stuffed with building sets, art supplies, board games and toy trucks.
But for all of that, something was missing. When you’re ten years old, maybe it’s another new toy?
Mom took the lead on buying presents. She seemed to enjoy the shopping, and getting exactly the thing that we wanted. Once we unwrapped the gift, she confirmed that she had, indeed, “got the right one.” Of course we were excited to show her the amazingly intricate designs that we could make with the Spirograph; or the creepy, crawly rubber lizards and spiders that we concocted from Plasti-Goop in the ThingMaker. At that point her interest waned. “That’s nice Joseph. Take your stuff downstairs.”
Somehow the toys didn’t soothe the longing. Not that we didn’t try. In late October every year, the Sears Roebuck Wish Book would arrive, a bountiful Christmas catalog featuring a hundred pages dedicated to every conceivable toy available. Arriving home from school, we’d gasp at the sight of the phone-book sized tome on the kitchen table. Before we could tear it open, Mom would say “Not now. Do your homework.” As the house filled with the aroma of beef-a-roni or pork chops, we would struggle to keep our minds on our phonics assignment.
And the longing would return.
Many hours would be spent elbow-to-elbow with my younger brothers going over each page of wonders. In the mid-sixties Bond mania was in full force, and we swooned over the prospect of every imaginable action figure, racing cars, replica guns and super-spy gadgetry. That was followed by all manner of TV show tie-ins: Bat-Men, Cowboys, Robots, Soldiers… the offerings were prodigious, and we’d spend days drafting our hand-written lists to match.
Mom would scan these single-spaced, two-sided extravaganzas and tell us: “ You can’t have all that. Pick the two or three things you want the most.” An impossible task, it would seem, but somehow we’d whittle down our expectations. Lessons learned from Catholic school and Depression-era family members showed us how to rein in our desires.
And on Christmas day, we were rarely disappointed. Mom made sure we got “the right ones” and she watched as we tore open the packages and careened around the room demonstrating our “pump-compressor air-blaster” and “ejector-seat action” as she sat back and sighed. Our longing was satisfied for the moment. But what about hers?
It would never occur to us that our mother was experiencing her own unfulfilled longing. Eleanor Barbara Kaschak had grown up in the very house that she now lived in with her husband and three boys. After two years in college and a couple more in a house down the street, she found herself back where she had started.
Ellie had dreams of her own, to work in criminal investigation, perhaps in the FBI. Those dreams were quashed by her parents, simple folk born of immigrant coal miners and factory workers. While still living at home, they allowed her a stint at Rider Business College, where she made lifelong friends with her “sorority sisters.” Even those women, all born in the 1930s, had limited expectations about what a woman could achieve. A job in the secretarial pool of the nearby Army depot followed, where she met a young lieutenant from New York City.
Ellie was charmed by this roguish fellow from the lower east side of Manhattan. He had traveled to Alabama for university and was eligible for transfer to Europe in the Quartermaster Corps. When he proposed marriage, she said “yes.” To her surprise, he liked her family and her hometown, and didn’t want to return to the big city or move away. Instead, he decided that they would stay in her small town, live near her parents, and ultimately, move into the very house that her father had built when she was a child. This was not what Ellie had in mind.
After all of that, she still had one wish. Her relationship with her mother was fraught, full of restrictions, judgments and criticisms. Ellie wanted to experience something different as a mom. To have a daughter of her own. Over the course of seven years and three pregnancies, she longed for a little girl, and each time she faced her disappointment when the doctor announced “Congratulations Mrs. Sikoryak — it’s a boy.”
After the youngest was born, Ellie took to dressing him in bows and frilly things for a few weeks, “just for fun.” His older brothers thought it was silly, and his father asked Ellie to knock it off. But looking back, it doesn’t seem like it was fun. Looking back, I see a woman who longed for something more, something different, and who realized that now the die was cast.
Instead of a daughter, Ellie had to contend with three rambunctious sons. We were certainly a handful—precocious, talkative, full of creative ideas and impulses. One way that she could channel that energy, manage the furious flow of testosterone, was to occupy us with the right toys. Not just idle pastimes, but carefully selected playthings that engaged our nascent talent and skill sets.
Ellie showed that she loved her boys, in her way, by catering to them and encouraging them. She took pride in our achievements and pushed us to do more. There was satisfaction in raising well-behaved, self-possessed children. And she made her contributions outside her maternal role, working as secretary in the Church rectory for a decade, and managing the family business for several more. But her longing was never resolved.
And of course, in a home where Mr. Machine and Hot Wheels were alternatives for hugs and kisses, she was not the only one who felt that... something was missing.
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