AUNT CILLA AND UNCLE JED
Daddy’s sister AUNT CILLA was a Classy, charming, good-natured woman---a true-life shorter version of Wallis Simpson in appearance, with her smart clothes and center-parted, wing-turned black hair, like the lady in this picture.
(internet photos, to show the hairstyle that I remember)
She smelled pleasantly of Chanel and
, longer-than-Mother-and-Daddy’s Kools, which she cinched into a tiny white holder to keep her immaculately-manicured hands isolated from the dread yellow-finger which afflicted confirmed smokers. Chesterfields
Perhaps it’s all the sepia and black-and-white Kodak moments captured in the big black-paged scrapbooks, but I see
her always in Forties fashions---the twill skirts and neat peplumed jackets, the shoulder-pad dresses of expensive fabrics unsuited to our Southern climate, all purchased at Goldsmith’s and Lowenstein’s in Memphis, or at Marshall Field on one of their frequent trips to Chicago.
Whereas my Mother made most of her own dresses, in cottons and piques and one spectacular dark-brown dotted-Swiss, Aunt Cilla mostly wore suits---slim skirts or neatly-fitted trousers with pale silky blouses, with chunky, striking costume jewelry, and always with a pin or brooch on the jacket lapels. Or sometimes, she'd perch a little jewelly bird or dragon or frog up on her shoulder, looking out at the world. She was the only woman I’d ever known who came to breakfast in a hostessy-gown, with real little mules-with-feathers on her tiny feet. We teased her and another aunt that they must shop in the children’s shoe departments, though all those smart little ankle-strap peeptoes and wedges belied that source.
She was also the only woman I knew who put on stockings in the morning when she wasn’t going anywhere. She’d straighten up, bend, lick her finger, reach for the seam, and give it a perfect tug into alignment several times during the day. She’d bathe and dress in the morning---getting into an outfit we’d save for church or for going shopping in one of the stores you felt you had to DRESS for---just to hang out with all of us, helping cook the noon dinner, or whiling away the afternoon with crochet or crosswords, as we all enjoyed each others’ company for several days.
She was such a sweet woman, small and dark, with a natural tan shade to her skin, black hair and deep brown eyes, like her grandmother, who was part Cherokee-on-her-Mama's side. She had a way of saying “SHHHHHooot!” in a deprecating whisper at any compliment, blowing a wisp of smoke skyward and smiling a bit, when we spoke of her lovely clothes, her ever- shining, intricately coifed hair, her marvelous cooking.
Uncle Jed of the crisp-creased pants, center-parted wings of hair of his own, and slow smile had a shy, diffident air and great kindness to all the nieces and nephews. He wore the same smooth kinds of clothing as made up most of Aunt Cilla’s wardrobe, just as neatly and with equal flair.
There was a certain gesture made by all men in those days, lost somewhere in the succeeding decades of jeans and bell-bottoms and double-knits, in which the gentleman backed up to the sofa or chair, made a small finger-and-thumb pinch of his front trouser crease with each hand just where the waist-pleats met the neat crease down the leg, and gave a gentle upward tug, which brought enough of the fabric up free so that the bend of the knee would not knee-spring the cloth.
They’d drive up in their tiny Studebaker Starlite---a vivid green one, as I remember, almost the exact color of the peridot ring they gave me for my eleventh birthday---alighting in the front drive with the élan of a jet-set couple beneath a
marquee. She'd step out of the car, casually tossing a stole or scarf around her shoulder with a gloved hand, take take hold of her bandbox and purse, and prance her way up that gravel drive in those tiny high-heeled shoes, like Marilyn sashaying through the train-steam. Monaco
Her luggage was beyond covet, for it was a glowing golden-brown leather, all matched, down to the round hatbox into which she circled her three-fox neckpiece around the matching hat in Wintertime. And long before my Samsonite Train Case, her own makeup case emitted an enchanting scent of good perfume, lovely powders and the special soaps scented with lavender and lime, enclosed in elegant wrappers printed in French.
That moment of their arrival created Fairyland for me---for many years, I was an only child, and they, my occasional playmates---they were the most marvelous conversationalists and would sit right down and color or draw or cut out endless paper-dolls (some free-hand, with clothes to color and fit).
Some afternoons, I’d get out my embroidery hoop, as she and Mother got their crochet, and we’d talk the afternoon away with Guiding Light or Helen Trent on the old Stromberg-Carlson.
Their own home was like a magazine spread---perfection in everything from the slender, graceful Chippendale in the living room, to their own bedroom, with the first-I’d-ever-seen-in-person twin beds. Lucy and Ricky and other movie couples might have such an odd arrangement, but no bedroom of a friend’s parents or any other married couple EVER had aught but the double bedroom SUIT, with dresser and chiffarobe to match.And her CLOSET!! It had different levels, with things hanging in compartments just the right size, and dozens-upon-dozens of the padded hangers I’d only dreamt of---pale satins holding suits and dresses and a whole sheaf of “dinner dresses” and evening gowns.
We always ate in their dining room, trying out new recipes she’d found in Redbook or Woman’s Day---such things as pineapple salads with cottage cheese and a cherry on top like a sundae, instead of the clop-of-Blue-Plate, pinch-of-Hoop-Cheese we made at home, or Arabian Pork Chops, with their savory tomato sauce, exotically flavored with bay leaves and served in a chafing dish, and the big combination salad served from a matching set: huge wooden bowl, fork and spoon, and a smaller bowl at each place. It was elegant and gracious, and probably the genesis of my own love of setting a pretty table, though I can remember distributing acorn caps and matching twigs onto a plank of mud-pies long before.
I know I’ve dwelt somehow on the fabric of them, of remembered textures and scents and the atmosphere that they seemed to carry with them. They were not OF our world, mostly, but of a lovely other place, in which ladies dressed for the day, and shopped and lunched before it was a verb. And there, gentlemen did not go out clad in drab khakis or come home sweaty and begrimed from their labors. They lived the only enchanted lives I knew---in a beautiful place of cool green rooms and muted colors and magical music, of an entire windowed room filled with cages holding bright parakeets and lovebirds and canaries, of evenings of quiet conversation and gentle murmurs of content. I loved their presence and their perfection, and remember them always as beautifully dressed, pleasant and eternally kind---they WERE the fabric of my life---or at least the one I longed to live.