Posted on November 21, 2011 - by MG
I’m enjoying the current TV series ‘Pan Am’ – not so much for it’s alleged similarity to ‘Mad Men’ but for its personal nostalgia value. My mother worked as a stewardess during the same period – the late 1960s – first for Aeronaves de Mexico (now AeroMexico) and then for Lufthansa. She’s pictured here modelling, I think for Lufthansa. Then after being ‘grounded’ by the twin miseries of marriage and children, she worked in reservations for Lufthansa, in Manchester. When her marriage to our stepfather broke up, she returned to the airlines to keep her three children fed and sheltered, this time working for Pan Am.
I choose to write ‘twin miseries of marriage and children’ because I noticed that the Pan Am TV series uses themes that would have been very familiar to my mother, and therefore strike me as accurate. ‘Pan Am’ presents the life of an airline stewardess as one of the few glamorous, exotic escape possibilities for intelligent, attractive women, usually from ‘respectable’ families. One of the main characters actually runs out on her own wedding in order to escape and work for Pan Am. The leading man, a dashing blond pilot named Dean, even warns his lecherous co-pilot not to ‘ground’ the stewardesses when they are admiringly talking about the women as evidence of natural selection in action – beautiful women who achieve flight. The implication was that marriage and children were traps to be avoided – unless you snagged a rich, successful bachelor; another good reason to become a stewardess.
My mother had her offers of marriage – they were more or less a staple of the job, my mother said. She’d started working for Aeronaves de Mexico after divorcing my father, and left my sister Pili and I with our grandmother while she worked short haul flights mainly to South America and the USA. There was a pilot named Hans who showed up with what I remember as increasing regularity, but she was never willing to divulge too many details.
When she was more or less forced to stop flying for Lufthansa, I remember she was rather depressed. We’d moved to Manchester then and lived in a freezing cold flat in a Victorian house in Stockport. The walls were unpainted, the floors were bare boards (and not polished or anything). Mummy dressed up in knee-length leather boots and fashionable A-line skirts and silk scarves, then rode the bus to Manchester city centre, to the sleek offices of Lufthansa in St Anne’s Square. Often, she told me, she would cry all the way there, mascara running down her cheeks, tears for her lost, globe-trotting life which had been replaced with a desk-based existence. I couldn’t blame her. Those years in Stockport were sometimes pretty drab, living through the 3-day week, her husband away on tour with the Halle Orchestra for days and weeks at a time, as well as many evenings. It could have been a very happy time, on reflection; she was in love, she had two healthy little girls who were pretty happy in school, her job relieved her of domestic tedium and brought her in contact with some lovely women, Lufthansa employees who remained lifelong friends; Annie, Ann Samy, Marijke, Maya the dancer.
But for a woman in her twenties, how could that compare to the excitement of flying to a new city, every day, of being responsible for the safety and well-being of airplane loads of well-heeled passengers?
Poor old ‘Pan Am’ – even back in the 1980s the writing was on the wall for that company. Poor service, an ageing stock and the dread entry into the market of Freddie Laker and frill-free flying; things began to get very difficult. When we were enjoying (?) our family right to free travel on Pan Am (standby-only – it could take days to get to Mexico City, with long waits in airport lounges), my mother used to despair of the low standards of customer service, compared to what she’d been used to provide. The passing years had made her stop pining for the job, too. ‘Hours on your feet and being polite to passengers who are rude to you? You can stand it when you’re young…’
By then she was studying and researching Spanish and German 18th century Romanticism. Not quite her true vocation either – that would have been singing. But it did seem, finally, to have cured her wanderlust.
My own memories are slight but definitely and powerfully glamorous;living in a stylish apartment in Frankfurt, my mother playing the Getz/Gilberto album that her cellist boyfriend had given her, looking sharp in a navy-blue, fitted uniform before a flight to the Middle East during which some handsome German or Arab would doubtless ask her out for a drink, or propose marriage. I found it impossible ever to begrudge our mother any sadness she felt for losing that.