Our lives, before we met, were radically different and uncannily alike. Somehow we came together in the ferment of our talents and our wounds, and that may be commonplace; but looking back through the decades, to the start of it all, it seems like a highly predestined accident. We were like two cars, each on their separate journeys, pushing the speed limit, approaching the unmarked intersection.
I had to admit, even during my teen years when she and I were constantly at war, that my mom had guts. Margaret Pitzer was the middle child in a German-American farm family in Southwestern Iowa. As the only girl she took back seat to the livestock and grew up hating the farm. Right out of high school, she taught in a one-room school for farm kids, some a head taller than she. An old photo shows her astride her horse, grinning across a snowdrift at the schoolhouse door.
In 1929, the nineteen-year-old farm girl and her friend Velma piled into a flivver and drove cross-country for a summer in Los Angeles— as far from the farm as possible. Next year they did it again. Third trip, she sent a wire, “Get my brother to teach. I’m not coming back.”
It was mid-Depression, but she never worried about finding work. She was smart, she was pretty, and she bounced from job to job, finally landing in the front office of a sheet-metal shop. Company policy forbade mingling between the men on the floor and the women in the office, but one afternoon a machinist came in: “Guy had an accident.” He laid a wadded handkerchief on Margaret’s desk. It held a freshly-severed finger.
That got her attention, and the machinist’s wavy red hair and wicked grin . . .
Sunshine. For the first time, in Conrad’s mom, I saw a mother who was nurturer, defender, and front-line cheerleader, and she opened her arms to me. She called us both "her kids," and meant it. My own roots were in very different soil.
I grew up with a wrathful clown. The mother I knew had been a vaudeville comedienne who swore never to marry. Her childhood was agony, with scant money, a rigid older father, and a young, unstable mother who would lock herself in her room and scream to her children that she was killing herself. Boarding school was a relief, even with having to wash out her only pair of socks each night. She spent a couple of years in college, then went to New York and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
The next years brought small acting roles, the flu pandemic that nearly killed her, and a teaching job in Philadelphia. Vaudeville acts came through all the time, she got hired and hit the road as a comic’s second banana. She was good— a big, handsome, heavy blonde with a gift for funny lines. She spent ten years on a major circuit, made good money, even dated Jack Benny briefly. She gave up the idea of marriage, not that her parents’ example was any inducement. The men she knew were either gay or cheating, so she stubbornly defended herself until becoming a wife at thirty-six.
A hearty guffaw at a trade show changed her life. He was a trade association executive, several years younger, and enchanted with the Chicago demimonde. The businessman met the comedienne, persistent courtship overcame her misgivings, and they married. He had a downtown job but his roots were in Southern Illinois. They lived a while in the Loop, but soon he found a house and land in nearby Indiana. She retired from the stage, and they moved to the countryside— for him a fifty-mile commute to his office and for her a very long distance from the days of greasepaint, applause, bars, and crazy friends. She took up oil painting, piano, French, and gin.