When our younger kid turned ten, we gave her a special birthday present: a little wallet filled with department- and specialty-store gift cards. Long the shopaholic of our family, she’d never had “her own money” to spend before. We made a big day of it. She was so happy.
I put together that gift for her with a clear memory of the “grown-up” things I had wanted when I was little. In my family, we all wanted something different. My little brother wanted a record player and his own records to play. My sister wanted tennis lessons. I wanted, for some reason, a long dress. (Little House on the Prairie was big then.)
The wishes of children are important: they show us who those little people want to be when they’re big. When Sally Draper goes out to greet her parents and adult guests in her outfit for the party, it is a special moment for her. It’s her first time out with the grown-ups, and she wants everything to be perfect.
Everything is not.
She has to take off her makeup and boots before she can go. When she gets to the ballroom, it’s not even really a ballroom (“There’s no staircase,” she says, genuinely confused). The dinner is the kind of food she hates. Later, she gets a look at one of the things adults do when they’re attracted to each other, and it shocks her.
We had dinner with some Basketcase friends on Sunday night; before we watched the episode, we talked for a while about our childhood memories. We remembered our kids’-eye view on the news stories about Vietnam, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Manson murders. Our childhood was not just a time of rapid change and frequent violence. It was a time when adults, busy with their own lives, tended to leave the TV on, the lurid magazines sitting out.
At dinner, we talked about how the world looked to us then: out of control, at best confusing, at worst deeply frightening. How it treated us, small people of little import who were nonetheless around all the time. My friend, Basketcase Frank Bullitt, remembers being treated as “less than human. Not a real person.”
I don’t know if every child of the Sixties remembers stories like this, or this. My parents were big news consumers, so I do. I have a vivid memory of this face on my parents’ sofa table. I was not yet in kindergarten.
When I was Sally’s age, these stories landed on that sofa table. I had seen the TV news coverage of Jonestown, and of another violent act in San Francisco. They seemed somehow connected, but I don’t remember caring why either of these things had happened. I did not wonder what I was supposed to learn from them.
Because I knew. I knew, finally, that adults were as helpless as they seemed. Help me? Like hell they could. They couldn’t even help each other.
Sally Draper is not just, in the tender words of her father, a beautiful young lady who will one day wear makeup. She is a young person who has an instinct for helping others, and acts on it. She helps her step-grandmother, a woman she hates, feel better and stay calm after Pauline injures herself at the Francis home. She helps Roger feel like a winner, and look good in the eyes of Marie Calvet, at her father’s awards ceremony. She knows enough to tell her Dad that his birthday present is “from all of us”. Sally Draper is a terrific sidekick.
But she deserves better than “sidekick”. Sally is a reader, of fairytales as much as anything else. She knows that a ballroom should have a staircase. She knows she should wear a pretty dress when she goes to the ball. She’s close to her stepmother, the glamorous Megan, so she even knows how she should do her makeup and hair. She is resourceful enough to do both herself. Sally is good at so many things.
I want to go back in time and make Roger and Marie lock that door. I want to tell Pauline to take better care of those kids, Sally in particular. I want to make sure there is something other than fish on the menu at that stupid dinner. I want this as much as I want to go back forty years and turn off the TV news, turn those magazines face down. Better still, throw them all out.
I can’t. When I watch Mad Men, I am again just a kid: and kids don’t matter.