Episode 2: MOM & DAD

Audio & Transcript

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Episode 2: MOM & DAD by Jessica Harper

Jessica H: (singing)

I'm Jessica Harper and this is episode two of WINNETKA.

As I told you in the last episode, my siblings and I often recall the events of our childhood differently. But until she died in 2016, we always had a fact-checker. If we wanted to know if it was scotch or bourbon that killed our grandfather, or which family in Winnetka had the key swapping parties, or why dad threw the fish sticks at the wall that time our mother was always there to fill us in.

In the three years between my father's death and hers, I asked mom dozens of such questions, and she answered many, but not all of them.

The second for five children born to Charles and Eleanor Emery, mom was named for her mother but she always went by her nickname, which was, "Cooie." How her family ended up in Colorado is a very long story, we'll save that for another episode. But while mom was growing up in Denver, there was a boy growing up in Evanston, Illinois who's name was Paul Harper, and when he was a teenager he left home to board at the Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs.

So, one day he's out on a ski slope and he meets this beautiful young woman in a green snow suit, who's name is Cooie. They'll be married about a decade later. But first, Paul will follow in his father's footsteps. He'll go to Yale, he'll join the Marines, and then he'll get a job in the advertising business in Chicago.

Mom will go east to college too, following in her mother's footsteps. She'll go to Bryn Mawr, where she'll dream of being in the theater.

Eleanor H: I was in love with the theater. I lived in Denver and I had no theater speak of, and I thought about Katharine Cornell and all those heroes of the theater that time. I was a pretty good actress. Starred (laughs) starred at school and then when I went to college I had great success in the very limited program there. It was my destiny. I couldn't think of anything else to do.

Jessica H: After she graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1941, mom wanted to continue study acting, so she decided to go where the action was.

Eleanor H: I went to New York. A friend of my mothers thought I was so talented for the theater that she gave me a complete scholarship to the new school. My, uh, main adventure there was that Marlon Brando was in my class. I was in a play with him and he kissed my hand. What more could you want?

Jessica H: So, there you were, a struggling actress in New York. What did you do to support yourself?

Eleanor H: I had a job at a reducing salon, teaching exercises to people who were already quite thin, and they uh fired me 'cause they said my exercises were so dull. I - I had great intent for these people. What were they doing doing these stupid exercises when they could be doing something much more interesting? From there I went round and round from this job to that job. My mother said that her bridge club could hardly wait for their game so she could tell them again what I was doing for (laughs) a living. A Bryn Mawr graduate that I am.

Jessica H: So then you were singing in nightclubs to support yourself. There is that incredible picture of you wearing (laughs) a glamorous striped gown with your partner, who was a - who played the accordion to accompany you.

Eleanor H: I was a self-supporting singer for um - except for $15 a month my family sent me for a year and a half and then my partner got fed up, decided didn't want to do it anymore, so I began to try to do it on my own.

Jessica H: So dad came to see you singing at the Hourglass Club, right?

Eleanor H: Mm-hmm (affirmative) My future husband came to visit me at - little did I know with - came to see me sing at the Hourglass. He was heading for the Marines so he was having one last drink, but he didn't like to sing.

Jessica H: Why?

(singing)

Eleanor H: These are really third rate clubs, and in fact I found the last one I went to was basically a whore house. One of the men volunteered to taxi me home and I realize in the can that I was in trouble but he seemed realize I was not the type and left me unscathed at my corner.

(singing)

So that was the end of my (clears throat) night club career and I began to think to be an actress you have to be able to sell yourself in a way that I didn't know how to do and so I decided to take up writing. So to support myself I got a job at an advertising agency writing little tags for things and the one that I wrote was for Crispy Crackers. "They're crispy. They're crunchy my dear," he said as he chewed on her ear or something like that - (laughs) anyway, didn't give me a promotion.

Eventually I went home to Denver because my mother would have a hysterectomy and so I went to take care of her and support my father and then Paul Harper who I dated off and on was discharged from the Marines and came by to see me in Denver. He walked in the room. He looked so great in uniform, I said to myself, "Ah, that's the man I'm going to marry."

Jessica H: So, what was it that made you finally decide to live New York to live with dad in Chicago?

Eleanor H: What else? Love.

Jessica H: My parents were married January 3rd, 1947, and they settled into an apartment in Chicago. But they'd been apart for much of their courtship. Dad was getting his career started in Chicago while mom was still in New York, and I wonder sometimes given everything that happened later, how well my mother knew my father when she made her vows. She had come from a family of gentle men . . . Her sweet father, Charles, her three brothers, my uncles, who I adored because they were always so kind and accessible. Did my mother realize that all men were not made that way?

My sister, Diana Phillips Harper, was born on April 9th, 1948. But unlike today, mother's didn't know what to expect when they were expecting.

Eleanor H: You didn't know in those days what's happening and they don't tell you, and you don't have any support. You just go there and lie down and drag out the baby. And then they wouldn't help me with nursing, and they wouldn't - they didn't quite approve of my trying to nurse. Even Paul's grandmother wrote to me and said, "Why don't you get one of those wonderful new formulas, and just feed the baby with a formula?" Wouldn't what I wanted to do.

Jessica H: Nobody had heard of postpartum depression back then, you were just diagnosed with being in a bad mood. In mom's case this was not helped by relatives like Papa Harper.

Eleanor H: When Diana was born, Paul's father wasn't very excited about it, though it was his first grandchild. He had wanted a boy. Preferably a ten year old boy, who he could take out hunting. He didn't want a baby, he wanted a grandson. Everybody wanted their first baby to be a boy, and when mine wasn't I felt a little bit inferior not having produced the right kind of person.

So it took me a while to bond but then there was a moment . . . I was in the park and had Diana with me in her buggy, and suddenly I recognized how beautiful she was and how much I had wanted her, and it was a - kind of an epiphany for me.

Jessica H: After this epiphany, mom's depression lifted and she was able to own motherhood. But her honeymoon with Diana was about to be rudely interrupted.

Eleanor H: Before Diana was born, Paul said, "All babies should come in twos, like Noah's Ark." Be careful what you wish for. Diana was a very good baby and so we had thought, uh, another baby would be nothing but we hadn't counted on twins.

Jessica H: On October 3rd, 1949, my twin brother Billy and I were born. Jessica Randolph Harper and William Hudson Harper made mom's life much more complicated.

(singing)

It's a February morning in Chicago. It's 2 degrees, you're claustrophobic, you've been in the apartment for three days with all these babies. So, you have to put everybody in diapers, put everybody in snow suits, and go down three flights of stairs.

Eleanor H: I took Diana down first, and tied her to the railing at the bottom of the stairs, so she wouldn't run off and be killed. Then, I think it was one-by-one, I took the twins down, put them in a buggy and they weren't ready to run around, and then we set off with the twins in the twin in the twin buggy, Diana on a little platform over the top of the buggy, and went on our ways.

(singing)

Jessica H: Mom got into a rhythm. Handling her children with love and patience. As she always would, even years later when there were six of us under the age of 8. But dad's parenting style was quite different. Billy, my twin brother doesn't remember this, but mom told him about it years after it happened.

Billy H: When I would cry as an infant, I would be very expressive in my crying and I would wake him up or disturb his sleep or whatever, and he would come in and hit me trying to get me to stop crying. And of course that doesn't work on a baby it just makes it worse.

Jessica H: Mom stood by and watched as this went down. Was she stunned into inaction? Terrified by this unfamiliar, angry man? Dad hitting his infant son was the beginning of a pattern of behavior. Mom's non-intervention was too, until years later when another of her babies suffered the same. I'll tell you about that later.

Soon, my parents had other concerns. It was 1950, a decade that brought with it the Korean War.

Eleanor H: Dad was in the Marine Reserves, and if you're in the Reserves you're on call.

Jessica H: Dad has served for three years in the Marines in World War II, now he had a wife and three children and he sure as hell didn't wanna fight again. Like, he could have been called up the next day, or in a couple of months, or in a year.

Eleanor H: Fortunately, they discovered they had too many Captains.

Jessica H: But while they endured the months of suspense waiting for this outcome, dad told mom that if he did have to go he did not want to come home to an apartment. While he was away it would give him great comfort to imagine returning to a real home, as in a house. His own domestic nest. So, we moved from Chicago to a nearby town called Lake Forest and dad became a commuter. Welcome to suburban life in the 50's.

Dad took the train everyday to his copy-writing job at a fast-growing advertisement agency in Chicago, called Needham, Lewis and Brorby. By the time of his retirement, 35 years later, he would be a rockstar. The agency's name would morph to Needham Harper Worldwide. The walls of the offices decorated with award winning iconic ads from McDonalds, and Xerox, and Volkswagen. But that was years away.

In 1946, his first assignment was to come up with a way to sell Swift and Company's Animal Feed. The ads would be placed in journals, like Prairie Farmer and Hoard's Dairy Man. Dad has written that nothing in his Yale education or in his 3 years in the Marine corp prepared him for this.

The closest he'd ever come to feeding livestock was slipping a bone to Papa Harper's black Labrador Retriever. The copy he submitted came back from the boss with things scrolled on it like, "Speak English," and "Who do you think you're talking to? What's this about the romance of feeding? You think feeding is romantic? Go step into that barn over there and smell some cow shit."

Dad got the point. His crabby boss instructed dad to get out and do what they called working the territory. Go where the feed is fed, ask a lot of questions and listen hard. Dad followed orders, but by the time he got back to his desk he'd been out for 2 weeks and visited 35 farms, and his boss was happy with the resulting copy.

"You travel well," he told dad.

After that, dad also traveled often. Saying that working the territory became of a habit of mind for him. Every assignment meant exploring a new set of needs, and attitudes, and even words.

The TV show Mad Men is about the advertising business in the 60's, and supposedly it captures the world my father inhabited. I watched that TV show again recently trying to imagine dad as Don Draper, all sleek and cool, able to bed a female colleague in the afternoon and seamlessly reenter his suburban wife and kids life at night. All the while drinking copious amounts of scotch and dreaming up ads for cigarettes.

Was it like the TV show Mad Men in Chicago, do you think?

Eleanor H: No

Jessica H: What was your …

Eleanor H: He was outraged by that film. He said, they'd never get any work done.

Jessica H: (laughs)

Eleanor H: If they were womanizing and drinking and doing all the things that the Mad Men did.

Jessica H: (laughs)

Eleanor H: He refused to watch it.

Jessica H: Okay, so maybe dad wasn't exactly a Mad Men. I mean, he didn't smoke cigarettes every waking minute of the day, and I don't know how he could of fit in a lot of womanizing when he was touring all those farms in Southern Illinois. Although, what happens in Peoria stays in Peoria. But the drinking, well that was something else.

He did feel some pressure occasionally to have a three martini lunch, didn't he?

Eleanor H: Oh yeah. When he went out with Mr. Needham he had to have at least two drinks, and you know scotch, I think. There was a lot of pressure to drink. Just in general, people drank a lot. It was all so usual, I didn't pay any attention.

Jessica H: There's a scene in the first season of Mad Men where Don Draper is drinking scotch with Roger in the office, it's 4:30, and Roger says, "I bet friendship with that bottle attracts more people to advertising than any salary you could dream up."

And Don says, "That's why I got in."

Roger says, sounding kind of like Earnest Hemingway, "We drink because it's good. It feels better than unbuttoning your collar. We drink because that's what men do."

But then Don says, "Oh, what about the shaky hands? I see a lot of that with you boys."

Dad may have thought the TV show was bogus, but this dialogue resonated.

Eleanor H: Quite a few people … Needham … collapsed from drink.

Jessica H: A lot of alcoholism?

Eleanor H: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Jessica H: Do you think that was because of the culture?

Eleanor H: Part of it yes. The culture and then they got hooked because they got under severe pressure here or there, then they would drink to ease the pain.

Jessica H: As mom said, in that time and place, drinking was all so usual. But years later, after all that happened, I came to think of alcohol as an insidious underground stream of spirits that would kill my grandfather and fuel my father's anger, and irrigate the Harper family-tree.

If you look in the Urban Dictionary under "Lake Forest," you will read that it is one of the most affluent towns in the United States. Situated along Lake Michigan, it is home to some of the wealthiest families in America. And there's this list of names of people who live there, familiar people like the Armor family, the Walgreens, Marshall Field. Although, my personal favorite is Jean Harlow.

Eleanor H: So, he moved us to Lake Forest - Yes, it was very stuffy community. People thought if you moved to Lake Forest you were moving up the scale. Oh well, we hadn't thought in those terms. We had to find a way to conquer that.

Jessica H: Unlike many of their peers, my parents just didn't aspire to be that up-scale. They were more than happy with the middle-class, thank you very much. But that just wasn't the class du jour in Lake Forest, so they were a little uncomfortable with their surroundings, but hey, talk about your first-world problems. There was a good public school right near our modest house, so mom and dad settled in and started building a life.

While dad was off being Don Draper, mom was fulfilling her half of the marital bargain; taking care of the home and the kids. The work was pretty staggering. I mean, as it is for anybody who has three toddlers and no dish-washer, and no Pampers.

Eleanor H: Well, the problem with being a stay-at-home mom was that - not that it would - the work was so hard but it was so not valued. So, you felt like a second class citizen as well as a busy mom. The work of the husband, which was out of the house, was much more valued apparently. So, I always felt kind of conflicted about what I was doing, which was too bad because I was - basically I enjoyed being with my children.

Jessica H: My mother was coming to terms with what it meant to be a suburban mom in the 50's. A job you didn't get any training or much credit for, and that depended so much on instinct. Here she is reading from her memoir.

Eleanor H: No one offered me a map and I couldn't seem to draw one. I wanted to know and understand my little children, but how well does anybody know anybody, let alone a child who grows like a weed and changes overnight. Even if I knew and understood, they would have to live in a world full of accidents and strangers. There seemed to be no answer but hope that love would light up the landscape, and that love was enough.

(singing)

Jessica H: Another routine challenge of parenting three small children was simply keeping them safe. One Sunday morning, my parents got a phone call at an unreasonably early hour. It was the minister at the Episcopal church, which was right next door to us.

Reverend Carper, yes, that was his real name, had called Mr. Harper to notify him that Diana, Billy, and I were dancing on the roof of our house and that we were naked. It was unclear whether the good reverend's concern was for the parishioners who were being exposed to nudity while they filed into their house of worship or for the kids, who might at any moment plummet to earth from the second floor.

Eleanor H: Oh, I remember that because you kept dancing backwards towards the edge of the roof where if you dance too far backwards you'd be lost then to the garden. To get you in without showing how anxious we were was very difficult, and we finally did show how anxious we were, and everybody got a good spanking.

Jessica H: I don't know if there's any such thing as a good spanking. In my memory, my parents were not so much anxious as just livid. We rocketed back through the window that had allowed us access to our rooftop stage. All terrified of dad's rage, we curled up on rumpled beds, we knew what was coming. Our pantless condition made dad's job easy. Waiting for a spanking, I was so scared I peed all over the bed. You would of thought I was facing the guillotine, but I had good reason. This wasn't my first rodeo.

Spanking was one of the trends in 50's parenting that my father fully embraced. In this instance, he used a bedroom slipper that had a leather sole, like street shoe, this was his favorite in his arsenal of what my brother and I now call his "weapons of ass destruction." He sometimes favored a belt, or he go low-tech and use his hand. But all I recall, all these choices were equally, startlingly painful. Dad's spankings were so fierce and often unpredictable, that they led us to a lifetime of fearing him.

My twin brother, Billy, 'cause he was just a trouble magnet, became an expert in the spanking variations.

Billy H: I remember two kinds of spankings that we got. One were the official kind to teach us a lesson. The other kind of spanking, the worst kind, were the kinds that were done in a rage, where he was out of control and was furious for some reason. Those were the scariest.

Jessica H: Billy also suffered another kind of punishment. Definitely in that rage related second category. It dates back to the cradle.

Billy H: I don't remember this, but mom told me about this. Being an infant and crying too much, and him coming up and hitting me, trying to get me to stop crying. If you have no understanding of the world outside you, at which an infant doesn't really, you're basic instinct is that, "Oh, this is a life threatening situation." And that sticks with you throughout your childhood, or throughout your life, that this guy is threatening at that level.

Jessica H: Okay, so here's a man who is by any measure moral, he's civilized and educated. What makes a man like that hit a baby? How does he get so enraged that he forgets what he knows to be true, which is that such a thing is terrible. My brother, Sam, has one explanation.

Sam H: He came straight out of the war, during which he experienced some traumatic things, which we didn't really hear about until later. One of which was that he was in a foxhole with his buddies and he got out to go to the bathroom, and went to the bathroom, and there an attack, and he came back and all of his buddies were killed, dead, in that foxhole. So, there was no time to process that when he got back. He got back, went straight into a job, reconnected with my mother, and you know before he knew it 1947 he was married, 1948 had his first child, you know thrust into Eisenhower suburbia in the 50's. PTSD? Who knew anything about that back then? Psychiatry? No. Only for wackos.

There was a lot of drinking, and there was a lot of partying, and I - there was a lot of pushing all that stuff down. I think that's why we never heard the stories. You know, when you push all that stuff down all you - what you get is rage as far as I can tell.

Eleanor H: They had won a war, and they had that to their credit, and they weren't supposed to whine about anything that might dull the shine of that accomplishment. I think for that reason, many of them hid the fact that they were traumatized in some way. You just marched ahead. So that - that's admirable, but it left people with sometimes quite bad tempers. 'Cause this whole side of him, this angry person.

Sam H: And I gather also, after that, he met with a bunch of other veterans in a group then apparently they talked for hours about their war experiences and it was the first time any of them had ever spoken about it. So, compartmentalization works in a lot of ways, but trying to shove that down for 50 years. I mean, Holy God.

Jessica H: About a decade ago, I visited a Word War II memorial in Washington D.C. with my parents. It's a plaza with many beautiful features, including some bas-relief panels, depicting specific events in the war. With titles like, "Pearl Harbor," and "The Battle of the Bulge."

One panel is called, "Amphibious Landing." It shows Marines disembarking from a landing craft, charging forward into battle, on an island in the South Pacific, likely Iwo Jima. Dad looked at the panel, "Oh," he said, "That's us."

He seemed almost surprised. Delighted by it, and proud of the recognition. He stood quietly, looking for a few minutes, and then tears came to his eyes, and the rolled down his cheeks.

(singing)

While there's no doubt, the war was a transformative experience for him, I've recently learned about other things in dad's history that would make a grown man cry.

WINNETKA is produced and edited by me, with digital editing and mixing by Andrew Schwartz, additional help from Jeff Fox and Tom Weir. Original songs and music production are by me, with the exception of O Vos Omnis, by William Harper. Special thanks to Oren Rosenbaum, Matt Cutair, and Ryan Rose, Jeff Umbro, Connie Fisher, Timothy McPees and Susan Bolotin. Thanks and love always to Tom, Elizabeth, and Nora, and to my siblings: Diana, William, Lindsay, Sam, and Charlie, and especially thanks to mom.

Next: Episode 3: WISHING transcript