There was a girl at my suburban New York Catholic high school who really seemed to have it all. She was a cheerleader (natch) – she may in fact have been captain of the cheerleaders, but this was a very long time ago and I could easily be exaggerating her status in retrospect. But she was definitely on the team. Her boyfriend was a Senior when we were Juniors, and he was the darling both of the basketball coach and the math teacher who were known to hate pretty much everyone. She was blonde and quiet in a snotty sort of way, known to be quite clever, and besides all these god-given riches, she had two more attributes that represented her unattainably, even unthinkably superior lifestyle: firstly her name was the unspeakably elegant, sophisticated and un-Long Island-sounding Cecelia, and secondly, it was rumoured that Cecelia’s mother employed a housekeeper.
Looking back from where I am now, I realise that the two extraordinary traits for which we envied Cecelia the cheerleader are linked in an interesting way that has to do with women, work and immigration. Like many suburbs of Manhattan, the neighbourhood in which I grew up in the 1970s and 80s was peopled for the most part by the descendents of the European diaspora that arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th century via Ellis Island, and you could generally tell how far removed you were from the shackles of the “old country” of your ancestors by your first name. So for instance a middle of the road to Americanisation name like Mary, Margaret, Robert, Maria, John, Walter or Anne would tend to signify that your parents had been born in America, but their parents were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany, etc. while a name like Angelo, Siobhan, Helmut (that poor kid) or Analisa meant that the parents of those kids were what was to us then the most embarrassing of all creatures: relatives with an accent. The way such parents spoke was anxiety- provoking enough, but worse still to our cruel, tribal teenage eyes were their old-fashioned ways of dressing, of decorating their homes and of course of cooking. Shame befell the teen whose mother cooked authentic goulash instead of the hamburger helper kind the more Americanised moms were making, and horror belonged to the kid who brought a friend home after school only to have their mom feed them pirogues instead of twinkies for a snack.(Exceptions to this rule were allowed in the case of Italian families for everyone loves lasagne no matter who makes it or what their accent might be).
But generally speaking in my white working and middle class 1970s suburb, being 100% American (that is, just like the people we saw on television) was where it was at and everything else was cringe-worthy. And while most of our names reflected our links to some distant past in a country we never knew, we Margarets and Marys and Helmuts and Angelos longed for a name that represented our true allegiance to the one country we cared about: The United States of Television. Names like Jennifer and Chad and Marilyn and Greg spoke to an idealised (and non-specific) heritage we wished to be ours, and Cecelia’s name seemed to represent the apotheosis of that form of white-bread Americana for which we had been prepared by the Brady Bunch, Petticoat Junction and the Partridge Family (Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Billie Jo, Bobby Jo and Betty Jo, Keith and Laurie Partridge were not eating cabbage soup or latkes at home, that’s for sure).(And BTW, Blonde haired, blue eyed Barbara Eden on I Dream of Jeannie was meant to be Persian).
What’s funny is how the second of Cecelia’s unattainable attributes (the cleaning lady) haunted us just as much as her television-perfect name. A housekeeper was something we saw on Hazel, on Nanny and the Professor, and of course, on the Brady Bunch (by the way, wtf was Carol Brady doing all day while Alice slaved in her pinafore and longed for a night out with Sam the Butcher? ) Like every kid I knew (except the cheerleader whose name still arouses my ire) in our family we had just as many kids as the Bradys and Partridges but the idea of a housekeeper or cleaner was as distant and unlikely to us as being renamed Pippa . And as a result some kid’s houses (like mine) were a continual source of anxiety, dread, remorse and sticky feet (the kitchen floor was rarely clean). And other kids who tended to be deeply afraid of their mothers had very clean houses, of which they (I figured then) must have been very proud, but which (I now believe) they actually couldn’t wait to get the hell out of. And why is that? I mean why is it that middle-class parents, many of whom were both working and had two or more cars and sometimes swimming pools and paid the fees for private Catholic education would never have dreamed of paying someone to clean their houses for them? I figure it has something to do with the proximity of many of our parents to the poverty of the previous generation, and in particular, to the poverty of many of their mothers, who, having arrived in the New World as children or young adults had to struggle with their accented English often in menial jobs that offered very little pay for seriously hard work, all so that they could the next generation of their families could have the American dream. So while our parents enjoyed the relative luxury of only having to clean their own homes, their children, my generation, longed for the part of the American dream that meant we could make as much mess as we wanted and never, ever have to clean it up. We wanted to be Marcia Brady goddamnit, or at least her cheerleader equivalent in the legendary Cecelia of Long Island. Back when the legal drinking age was eighteen (so half of high school seniors were old enough to go to bars) my boyfriend (who was eighteen) invited me to a party at a bar. I was still seventeen. I waited outside while he went in to borrow someone’s ID to bring back out to me. He came back a few minutes later with – you guessed it – Cecelia’s driver’s license. We were of similar height and coloring, and anyway, in those days the license didn’t have a picture. I was both thrilled at sickened at the chance of pretending to be her and it took several minutes for my boyfriend to convince me to give it a try. I gathered up my nerve and walked brazenly into the bar with my fake id, for a moment inhabiting the Olympic heights of being a housekeeper-employing and television-name-bearing-goddess. But when I handed the id back to the real Cecelia with a thank you and she gave me one of her snotty smiles and I suddenly noticed that she had really bad teeth and her nose was crooked and her hair was actually kind of weird. In other words, Cecelia was really rather a lot like me (apart from my house being dirty and my name being Margaret.) And looking back now the idea that my vision of an ideal life came from Friday nights on ABC is both frightening and kind of funny, particularly as I seem to have spent much of my adult life researching the origins of words, images, and ideas, stripping away the false, the processed, the pre-digested in a variety of forms. Like many women of my generation, I buy organic (sometimes) search out “authentic” ethnic recipes and ingredients that my own mother would not have recognised (but her mother might) and scoured the baby name books for “original” sounding names that reflect the childrens’ cultural heritage. Hell, I don’t even watch television anymore. But lest I try to pretend that the Long Island girl has been entirely left behind, I confess that long ago I changed my name from Margaret to Meg. And recently, I hired a cleaner.