What Happened to My Ladies’ Mags? (Laments the Old Lady)

I read all the time when I was a kid. Well, not ALL the time, of course. But I would have if I could have. I read in bed–read until I fell asleep and again when I woke up, and I brought books to the table, although that was forbidden on certain days and at certain meals. I carried a book with me to games and parties and anywhere there might be a wait time. I took books to the grocery store. When I was big enough for a purse, my purse was generally big enough for a book.

I was not allowed to read while walking to school (some rules just seemed so random to me, but I shrugged and figured my mother must have her secret reasons.) When company came over, I at least had to surface long enough to make pleasant conversation before diving back into a sea of words.

And the words could come from anywhere: cereal boxes, model car packages, Ayds diet candy true testimonials…I was not, as a child, a discerning reader. I just read everything that strayed into my line of vision.

Here’s an Ayds ad I found on tedium.com. As a chubby, chocoholic child, I though a diet based on eating candy was probably the right kind of magic.

Our sterling-quality public library was within walking distance, and, as soon as I turned seven and got my first library card, I made that trek at least once a week. And we had books at home—Dr. Seuss books with pages worn soft as cloth (I would read through Yertle the Turtle, whose power-crazed ambition always put me off,–and I felt so SORRY for poor little Mack!–to get to the story about Lolla-Lee-Lou, who traded her ability to fly for a flashy set of tail feathers. I don’t know why I loved that story so), dog-eared Little Golden Books, cheap kids’ books from the grocery store. There was a book about a boy who yearned, growing up out West, for a ten-gallon hat. There was one about a boy growing up in Africa who did everything wrong. At the end of the book, he stepped splat in the middle of all six (I think) chocolate pies his long-suffering mother had made for him. I wanted badly to defend that boy, feeling, as I often did, that I, too, got just about everything wrong.

My mother brought home classic kid reads from rummage sales—Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins books.

And there were newspapers, twice a day—the first city paper, the Courier-Express, in the morning; the second city paper, The Evening News, in the afternoon. The local paper arrived after school, too. The newspapers all ran interesting things—they had comics, of course; human interest stories that were sometimes very interesting; horoscopes; police blotters; and daily puzzles.

And, every once in a while, my mother would give in to a frivolous impulse and subscribe to a ladies’ magazine. How I wanted her to subscribe to McCall’s, which featured a Betsy McCall paper doll each month. There was a story about Betsy, too, and she always had exactly the right clothes to wear.

Vintage Betsy McCall page from etsy.com

One of my friends had a mother who subscribed to McCall’s; that friend cut the paper dolls out and brought them to school along with their clothes and allowed us to look, but not touch.

“They’re VERY fragile,” she would say, haughtily. Filled with longing for those dolls, I wanted so much to grab them away from sour Miss Stingy and dress Betsy in her perfect yellow rain slicker. Looking was not much fun.

The other place Betsy turned up was in the doctor’s office, where old, old copies of the magazine moldered on formica-topped end tables. I would open to the Betsy section and dream that I could take a scissors and clip and snip, making Betsy mine. (Maybe I would paste her onto an empty cereal box and cut her out; maybe I would reinforce her clothes with scrap paper. Maybe then, they wouldn’t be so fragile.)

But there was a rule about doctor’s office magazines—a commandment really, invented late because magazines didn’t exist when Moses was climbing up that mountain. The commandment was this: Thou shalt not deface magazines in waiting rooms.

Sometimes, during a long wait, my mother would take out a pen and copy down a recipe from a magazine. She might sigh over a really good coupon, but she’d close the magazine and leave it intact. She hated getting deeply engrossed in a magazine article and then flipping to page 182 for the finale, only to find some fiend had used a fingernail to carve out a 25-cent coupon for Crest or Heinz beans, carving out the end of the story, as well.

“LOOK at that,” she’d say, in disgust. “What kind of worm does such a thing?”

When my mother called someone a worm, things were pretty dire. I swallowed my suggestion that maybe we could ask the receptionist if I could take the Betsy pages from a really old magazine. And I learned to live with the disappointment of knowing Mom would never order McCalls to be delivered to our home.

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My mother DID, however, subscribe to Redbook. Redbook was a thick magazine with interesting articles—there was always a true-life story, kind of a ‘how I solved this dilemma’ kind of thing. I remember reading a mother’s story about her tiny ill child, a child who had been perfectly healthy but then began wasting away. The child grew thin and lethargic, and the mother was frantic to feed him. She would squeeze oranges and serve the baby that healthy juice, pouring it into a fun glass from a brightly-colored pottery pitcher.

They had bought the pitcher in another country; the glaze was lead-based. Finally, a doctor recognized the child’s desperate dilemma as lead-poisoning, and finally the mother identified the pitcher as the source of the lead.

The moral of the story was not to use pottery unless you were sure it contained no lead.

Redbook was known for its controversial, thoughtful articles on civil rights, which was unusual for a ladies’ magazine in the 1960’s, and it ran more fiction than any other magazine in its genre. At the back of the issue, printed on rough, newsprint-y type paper, there was always the condensed Redbook novel. I read Anne Tyler’s A Slipping Down Kind of Life (I was struck by Casey’s song at the end, when he queried plaintively, “But the letters were carved backwards. Weren’t they?”) in Redbook, and then I followed her writing as I grew older. Judith Guest’s Ordinary People was a Redbook novel. And every year, in July, I think—just in time for summer reading,–they would have a special fiction issue, jam-packed with short stories.

I LOVED Redbook. Of course, it was my mother’s magazine, so I had to wait, not very patiently, while she worked her way through it in the nooks and crannies that life allotted her for reading. (Woe to me if I snuck peeks early and moved or lost her bookmark. I would be the worm, then.) But when she was done, I could take the magazine to my room and devour it. I met writers like Gail Godwin in those pages, writers who have remained favorite authors for forty years.

Redbook changed hands, I think, and changed format, and the fiction disappeared; the magazine became more glossy and more focused on the challenges of modern married women. But I left Redbook before it left me, anyway; I left it for a glossy, glitzy periodical aimed right at young, independent, free-spirited women in the 1970’s: Cosmopolitan.

I worked at a supermarket during late high school and for many of my college years, and one of the real perks of being there was knowing when the new Cosmo came out. My monthly treat was the thick new issue, and a giant Nestle’s Crunch bar, and a block of time long enough to completely digest both.

I came to Cosmo AFTER Burt Reynolds posed his famous pose, and I really did read the magazine for its articles. Many of those dealt with risqué topics that addressed young independent women who washed ashore on the second wave of feminism. And those articles were interesting, of course, but the one that sticks with me was one by a single professional woman whose apartment was a mess. It was such a mess, she wrote, that her dates left in horror and never once called her back.

She railed for a time, raging that in these days of liberation, women—smart, professional, busy women!!!—should not be judged by their slovenly homes. But gradually she came to see that cleanliness could co-exist with independence, and her habits changed. As they did, her apartment morphed into a place of comfort and beauty and sanctuary for HER.

She learned self-care.

She learned to be house proud.

It probably says something about me that the article I most remember from racy, scandalous Cosmo was the one about learning to keep your house clean.

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Later, after college, I discovered Country Living, a magazine all about home and creativity and life in the not-so-urban areas, just like places where I lived. That, I think, was the first magazine I ever subscribed to, and its arrival day carried the same charge as those days when I had discovered the new Cosmo on the supermarket displays.

I still enjoy paging through Country Living, although, like all ladies’ mags, it’s had its own evolution. And today I look forward to regional magazines—Midwest Living, Ohio Magazine—sliding through the mail slot. Some of my favorite recipes have come from the pages of those two publications. We’ve discovered fascinating places to visit, too,–places we would not have found without reading those magazines.

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But I fear for paper magazines, just as I fear for local papers. Because I don’t HAVE to wait for a periodical to arrive for inspiration; I can hop online and read commentary, find a recipe, research paint colors. There are, alas, as far as I can tell, no longer any women’s magazines that carry the kind of rich, new fiction that Redbook used to feature.

But I think there’s still a place for the monthly magazine, a slow, delighted, reflective kind of place, where we step off the conveyor belt and settle down in the reading chair. It’s a place where we can let ourselves be inspired, shocked, challenged, or validated by what we read and encounter—essays and articles, great photography (Scavullo, by the way, shot Burt Reynolds, whose arm was very discreetly positioned in that famous photo. Or so I heard, anyway, back in the day), unbiased reactions, and yes, really good recipes, accompanied by photos and stories.

I’m exploring, these days, OTHER magazines, not just-for-women magazines, that offer that fresh, smart, relevant content. I know I will find the one that clicks, that tells me, “Yes! Here I am! I am YOUR magazine!’ And then I will subscribe, and I’ll wait, excited, for each monthly issue to arrive.

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In the meantime, I’ll keep reading, of course. I have a tottering stack of to-be-read books. We still get a paper copy of the local paper, every day. I have a file in my email called ‘Interesting Stuff’ where I archive articles and essays and links family and friends send; once a week I try to clear time to feed my soul on what’s in there.

And even if I should someday run out of that kind of reading material, I’m not worried.  I still have plenty of cereal.