Friday, August 21, 2009


yourdictionary photo

During my Hot-South childhood, the Summertime meant that I could stay day after day at Mammaw’s house.    Mammaw’s House. I had a Grandfather until I was grown and married, but still their dwellings (two---one the original small shotgun house with three rooms, two beds, a sofa and I-can’t-imagine-where-Mother-and-her-brother-slept-growing-up, and the larger, bright new house that Daddy built for them when I was in High School) were always referred to as Mammaw’s.

And Summers also meant that we would have visits from her two sisters, both from “OFF”---one who’d married and moved to Mobile, and the one whose far-traveling husband settled their family WAY up here in the Heartland. Aunt Bessie, the Mobile one, would spend a week or two lounging around the house, sending me for cold drinks and to the store for this and that.

The other Aunt was WAY more fun, and I know she must have grown tired of an eager child monopolizing her every free moment. I loved to see her get off that bus; she’d step down with a great sigh, breeze her face a bit with her Last Supper fan, and pop up her big black umbrella (parasol, to all the ladies of the family) for the walk to the house, and start talking.

She regaled us with tales of all the city doings, the streetcars and the taxicabs and all the stores. I always tried to steer her to stories of “Ellis Airs”---the biggest, nicest department store in town. And she always obliged, telling of beautiful dresses and shoes and handbags which her daughters brought home from a day of shopping. And they ate their lunch in the store. There was an actual restaurant right there inside the building, and you could just take your shopping bags in, set them beside your chair, and order your lunch.

We always had our noon-dinner at home, and my experience with store-purchased lunches was limited to an occasional stop in a Mom & Pop diner for a burger on the way to or from Memphis, or closer to home, seeing great truckfuls of fieldworkers brought into town for a quick lunch at Aunt Lou's grocery store. Their meals were limited to whatever the farm owner would pay, and quite a few of them came back to the butcher counter for “Nickel worfa bloney and nickel worfa crackers” which they ate directly off the square of butcher paper, out on the picnic tables in the shade, or squatted out back beneath the big old sycamores.

Auntie's stories went into delicious detail about the ladies’ hats, and of their gloves (removed for eating, of course--- a lady never ate with her gloves on---that was TACKY. And those movie stars with the long gloves with diamond bracelets and rings OVER their gloves in the movies, lifting those champagne glasses or caviar-on-toasts to their bright-red lips---a confirmation of their hussyhood right there).

The world of aspics and toast points and tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad seemed to be a preview of Heaven. I longed to sit at that dainty table just once, to see beautifully-dressed patrons with the demure bearing of a religeuse in its dainty topknot---the ankles-crossed, mouth-corner napkin-dab ladies who breezed in with the auras of Shalimar and Chanel and Pall Malls, and exited in a fluff of air-kisses and shrugged-on mink.

And I've been to Ayres for lunch, for the incomparable chicken salad and the aura of gently-fading sophistication, in the days before the Tearoom was relegated to a museum, where the lunches are treated somewhat like the other exhibits---relics of another time, another kind of life, to be sampled as would be a sip of Elizabethan mead.

But now beginning a return to the gentility of Chicken a la King on toast points are the Women Who Work outside their homes, whose morning-packed celery sticks and hastily-picked-up "wraps" sometimes give way to a more relaxed, more refreshing hour amongst the ferns and shining real glasses of iced tea and pots of Earl Grey, with the click of silver-on-china and someone to extend gracious service and clear the dishes.

The choice between crinkling open a smushed burger at a paper-strewn desk, and opening a crisp menu featuring sole almondine and petit pois, with congenial conversation and soft music playing unobtrusively---no contest.

I have seen the groups of women gathered in various restaurants at lunchtime, their lovely clothes and bearing, with expensive purses on their arms, and exquisitely-wrapped gifts in hand. And I always enjoy seeing the cheery bevy of purple punctuated with bright red hats---those ladies seem to have the most wonderful time of all.

They’d have made a perfect tale to hold me rapt with admiration and envy during Aunt’s story-telling down South.


Nail said...

So the question? Is it more fascinating from the telling or from the doing?

Southern Lady said...

I loved this story, Rachel ... it reminded me of our small-town version of a luncheon "tearoom," which was on the "mezzanine" of our one and only "department store."

Indy Cookie said...

I finally got to enjoy a lunch at the Ellis Airs (LOVE that spelling) Tea Run only to have it close so soon after that the one lunch is all I enjoyed. I have fond memories of that Last Supper fan as well :)

Alice said...

Wonderfully evocative story, Rachel. Brings to mind a time that seemed more relaxed and genteel, yet I guess it had its hassles and certainly its hardships too.

I often think of having morning tea with my mother in a tearoom in town - lovely cups of tea with dainty freshly-cut sandwiches. My mind can taste them now sixty years later.