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Friday Takeaway: Naomi Shulman

  • Naomi Shulman. GAZETTE/SARAH CROSBY


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

There are lots of great magazines for children, some of which go back to my own childhood. But the first magazine I ever really dove into — reading it cover to cover, then going back to read it again — wasn’t for kids. It was my mother’s ’70s-era Woman’s Day. 

I’ve been writing for magazines for quite some time now, and reading them for far longer. But at a certain point in my life, my magazine consumption was less like leisurely reading and more like studying. Magazines have never been about just articles; not for me, anyway. In my case, they’ve offered blueprints. In the early ’80s, I pored over Seventeen, hoping to unlock some mystery of how to feel like I belonged in teen culture, not to mention my own skin. In the mid-’90s, I carried rolled-up copies of Harper’s in my over-packed shoulder bag as subway reading — bracingly grownup content that also guarded against unwanted conversation. And in the early 2000s, I landed a job at Wondertime, based in Northampton, a platform where, as the research chief, I helped offer guidance and wisdom to young parents at the same time that I was figuring out how to be a young parent myself. 

Despite the reported death of print, I’m still a magazine junkie. A different, plastic-wrapped magazine still lands in my mailbox several times a week: The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Take. And over the years, my byline has appeared in numerous other titles; some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t; some that still grace newsstands and some that have departed for that big publishing house in the sky. But I haven’t read any of them more closely than I did my mom’s old Woman’s Day. 

My family had household subscriptions to titles like National Geographic, Tikkun (a lefty Jewish magazine) and The New Yorker. But Woman’s Day didn’t arrive by mail. My mom picked it up in the grocery checkout in Lyndonville, Vermont, along with a pack of Doublemint gum or a box of orange Tic-Tacs. And I don’t remember her actually reading it; I just recall it sitting on top of the piano in our living room. I’d swipe it early Saturday mornings and leaf through while I waited for the good TV cartoons to begin at 8 a.m.

The world I encountered  in Woman’s Day was both recognizable and foreign. Who were these women, and what day was this? It was the world of Mom, but not my mom. This was Ideal Mom, whose home was upscale and stylish but with just enough clutter to make her roll her eyes knowingly at the sky; whose table was set with piping-hot meals that were somehow both low-calorie and temptingly delicious; whose rascally kids made her cock her head and smile with rueful indulgence; whose husband adored her and seemed to be hot for her all the time, despite her apparent lack of interest in him. 

The ads helped flesh out just who Ideal Mom was. In fact, the ads were more integral to my understanding of her than the actual articles were. Peppered among Irma Bombeck and tips for handling the morning rush were ads for polyester pants that allowed women to bend all the way over (thinking back I wonder if they were more suggestive than I realized?) and hair dye that paradoxically made Ideal Mom more herself than she was without it. And then there were the cleaning products that foamed, bubbled and sprayed; products ostensibly intended for the house, but somehow they made Ideal Mom herself fresher, happier and also more rested. 

My mother never wore polyester pants, and I can’t recall her making Tuesday-night tacos ever, not even once. And the cleaning products? Let’s just say my mom wasn’t interested in what might be called the homemaking arts. I’ll never know why she bought Woman’s Day when she clearly didn’t buy into it. Maybe on some level she wanted to know exactly what was expected of her before she decided not to comply. Just as Seventeen promised a pathway toward the kind of teenager I thought I was supposed to be, Woman’s Day offered something similar to my mom. Suffice to say she turned down their offer. 

To this day, I wonder why she bought it. And you know what else I wonder?

I wonder which of my magazines my daughters are reading. 

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.