Revisiting a Life Well Lived: Estelle Ballinger (1919-2020)
My mother loved the village and town in Westchester County, N.Y., where she and my father moved in 1953. He died in 1992, and she stayed until 1995 when she decided suburban life as a widow was too lonely for her.
The village and town in Westchester County, N.Y
Also, the challenge of putting on a new roof was too much, she said, so she picked up and moved to New York City—25 miles away. There she remained until she died a year ago at almost 101 years. However, those years in a bucolic suburb were among her happiest, along with her childhood in the Midwest.
As I debated how to honor the one-year anniversary of her passing, my writing partner Margaret, who knew my mother well, hit upon an idea. “Why don’t you have an ‘Estelle’ day where you revisit many of her favorite spots in New York City?”
I thought good idea, but while she enjoyed the city and all its cultural offerings, it was in the suburbs where she thrived. So, I spent a day celebrating my mother’s life by visiting her favorite places and checking out how they now are. It was a bit of a selfish adventure since I would get to revisit where I grew up.
As I think about her life back then versus what it might be like now, it seems that it was far simpler. Life in the 1950s and early ‘60s was more prescriptive: women who were married and had children, like my mother, focused on their family. They accepted their roles as helpmates to their husbands, available to carpool their children, become excellent at golf or tennis and superstar volunteers. Children, for the most part, did what their parents expected—attended and walked, bicycled or rode a bus to public school and minded their manners.
For men, jobs were readily available in the workforce in that era. Many stayed with the same company, hospital, law, accounting or real estate firm throughout their careers. Some started their own businesses that grew into such behemoths today as Walmart, Holiday Inn or Trader Joe’s.
By the mid-‘50s, the economy was booming (the rise of the middle class), and jobs were aplenty. People made good salaries and began to travel, taking family car trips or boarding planes to fly cross-country or across the ocean. Television sets were fast becoming the centerpieces of the living or family room offering programming “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzy and Harriet,” that mythologized the ‘50s lifestyle.
At the same time, as life improved, seemed safe and comfortable for most Americans, I know there were challenges such as living through the Cold War and threats of World War III. My mother kept any fear to herself. I remember some of their friends constructed bomb shelters. My parents never did, but my mother stocked a large basement closet with canned goods to get us through months if the world blew up. And in grade school, we were taught to drop and roll under our desks or crouch in the hall and cover our heads if there was an atomic bomb attack.
One of the main reasons the specific village and town my parents chose appealed was for its small size—fewer than 20,000 residents within less than 7 square miles. It also was known for its good public-school system—said to be its main “industry,” cute independent shops, a choice of houses of worship and a nonpartisan system of government. My parents also felt it would be an easy community to make friends since they knew nobody when they moved.
Suburban home today
Besides being within their budget, though at their top range at $40,500, their house appealed for its Colonial-inspired façade with clapboard and stone, big picture window and classic 1950s layout—separate living and dining rooms, eat-in kitchen, den, screened porch, four bedrooms, 3 ½ bathrooms, and a basement where kids might play. It sat across from a large estate, then owned by toy manufacturer Louis Marx.
The house, built by one of the area’s premier builders in 1946, sat on one-third acre and was nicely landscaped by the prior owners with apple, cherry, and dogwood trees and a front rock garden. It sat amid an array of similarly tidy Colonials, ranches and English Tudors—plus a few much grander homes where we assumed much more affluent families lived—all on streets named for Pennsylvania colleges—Haverford, Penn, Swarthmore and Franklin.
My mother stayed home, the tradition among most of the neighborhood wives, though she went back for a master’s degree so she could periodically teach nutrition at a community college. Her main job was to manage the house, and she took her position seriously as any CEO might. She felt lucky that they could afford such a home and community despite their Depression-era roots.
She loved her garden, and she and my dad planted rhododendrons and azaleas in their front yard that grew so robust that they always had a party each May to show off the blossoms. In back, she planted tomatoes. They thrived to the point that we joked, “We should pay her not to plant” for she was serving us tomatoes three times a day.
Decorating her home with antiques and artworks from their travels was a passion. My mother did all the arranging and made the color choices. She even wallpapered the ceiling of my childhood bedroom in a floral print, a trend more now in vogue. Like her, few of her friends hired a decorator, and it would seem, I now assume, an extravagant and pretentious step to take. Instead, they depended on their own taste. Hers was good and practical—sturdy brown wood pieces, fine china, silver and their prized possession—a 1936 Steinway baby grand with two small seats she needlepointed.
It was the kitchen she loved most and where she was in charge, so much so that she discouraged help. Meals were simple based on recipes from her family members (Aunt Jennie’s Spanish spaghetti) or her own versions of the era’s favorite meat loaf, salmon croquettes, macaroni and cheese, chicken in many iterations, and the baked goods she excelled at and kept in tins for anybody who dropped by.
Many of the houses have been added onto or torn down and replaced with far larger ones with more elaborate landscapes, some with terraces and pools. I can hear her say, “That’s so much house and yard to take care of. Who would want to do so?”
As I drive by my childhood home on that recent October day, I notice that it gained a bigger garage facing the front where it once was in back. The house and landscape had lost much of their charm. I imagine my mother aghast that the rock garden is gone, the screened porch has been converted into a year-round room and the trees in front of the picture window are so large and gangly that they block the view. At least the railed porch off my parents’ bedroom still stands where many sunny afternoons my mother lounged and read books or magazines of the era—Life, McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal. I glance across the street and see that what was once the Marx estate with its horse barn has now been carved up into many homes.
Village elementary school
My next stop is my childhood elementary and middle school where my mother made several good friends. She worked on the school PTA, annual art show and spring picnic. The brick building, which gained a modern cafeteria addition, reached by a breezeway while I attended it, now looks so different without its breezeway and a much larger front entrance. A friend of my mother’s from those early days and who still has a good memory at age 97, offered thoughts that I think my mom would share: “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was a small community where as a parent one truly had input in school activities.”
New village library. The old building that was torn down was one of Estelle's favorite hangouts.
The village’s library was one of my mother’s favorite haunts where she volunteered to deliver books for years, and it’s where we often hung out since the village lacked a teen center. A beautiful stone building with a one-level layout that gave it a modern touch, it was recently closed and renovated to update its technology, add more stacks and give it space. It has dedicated areas for teens, children, working on a computer in large or smaller spaces, sitting by big new windows and even a snack bar. The huge open footprint lacks any feeling of intimacy. I know my mother would miss her favorite reading room with comfortable sofa and bookshelves filled with architecture and art books, a victim of what is considered progress.
As I wend my way through area streets, I see more examples of change. Though most of our meals were at home since my mother used to say, “Dad likes my home cooking,” we ate out mostly for special occasions at a white-tablecloth restaurant in a neighboring town overlooking Long Island Sound. There a shrimp cocktail appetizer and dessert of pie or cake a la mode were included in the fixed price. The restaurant had a fire years ago and, in its place now is a nursery school.
Deli that replaced her mother's favorite deli
I drive by the spot of a local deli, whose predecessor, also a deli, was a family favorite and a benchmark for what a good rare roast beef or all-white meat turkey sandwich (on rye with Russian dressing and coleslaw) should taste like. Often on Sunday evenings, my mom relished bringing in its sandwiches from there, hers piled high with lean pastrami on rye bread.
I slowly inch my way to the village, trying to take in all the changes on streets where friends’ families lived and worshipped. Gone is this friend’s house, a victim of a teardown, and in its place is a two-story mini-mansion. Lifestyles are different now and the houses have to have open floor plans, big windows, bathrooms for every bedroom and doors to big terraces for warm weather living.
My mother loved visiting the downtown where the train station stood. The buildings were styled to resemble an English country village since it had been settled by Englishman Caleb Heathcote who was granted the land by William III of England in 1701.Many of the small shops my mother frequented thrived in a pre-Amazon world, and some have survived, including one jewelry store, a gift shop with handmade smocked dresses and a favorite fancy bakery.
Temple with towering addition
A big part of her life was spent at their temple in a neighboring city, and that building has also been expanded with a towering addition that to me has a modern monolithic feeling. It looks too overbearing for the site, selected in 1947, though the congregation dates back to 1907. Religion was important to my mother since Jews were among the minority when they first relocated to the suburbs, and she wanted to be sure her children grew up knowing the traditions. When my late father had Alzheimer’s, they attended Saturday morning services weekly to give him some regularity.
But the anti-Semitism that was part of her early life in the village never seemed to bother her for several reasons. She had grown up comfortable among mostly non-Jews in her Midwest neighborhoods. And she didn’t seem to care that one area in her new village discouraged Jews from living there (whether there was a covenant I’m not sure.). She also didn’t seem to care that one country club didn’t permit Jewish members and wouldn’t let a young Jewish man escort a young woman to its Christmas debutante party, even though he had converted to the Episcopal faith, The news made both The New York Times and Time magazine.
League of Women Voters, an organization in which Estelle was active
My mother never complained that bright female peers, including herself, did not get to work at corporate jobs, where many of them probably would have been highly successful. Instead, they excelled in organizations like The League of Women Voters. And she was delighted when a friend won the village’s most important annual award for best volunteer citizen. The changes she witnessed as younger women stepped into successful jobs encouraged her to stress the importance of finding and loving a career to her granddaughters and me.
It was a good life for her, even if very sheltered. I think if we had been able to have a conversation about all the changes I witnessed, she would say, "I can’t believe it!” But she might also wonder why some things couldn’t have stayed the same.
We wonder that, too. In our magical thinking, she was very present in all the places I revisited. More important, she remains alive in our collective hearts.