Saturday, January 28, 2012

OTHER SIDE OF THE FOREST, PART I

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 Chesterfields, 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.


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.

  (from internet) 

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 Monaco 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.

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.

16 comments:

Nail said...

Oh, Sis...I do remember them with so much love. My memories are a little later and of playing with a little dog named Bitsy I think...were they in the red brick house in Tennessee in your memory or did they live in Mississippi?

I have the most glorious picture of her on my family wall. She is about 18, and as Daddy would say..."just about the prettiest thang you've ever seen!"

Love you,
Baby Sis

Nail said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mississippi artist said...

What a way you have of describing every little detail. I could just read for days. I have had my nose in the new book Elizabeth The Queen by Sally Bedell Smith. Looking at the older photographs in there, there were beautiful clothes just as you described.

RobinfromCA said...

What a lovely post and tribute! In my mind I was seeing aunts, uncles and my parents friends dressed and behaving he same way back in my childhood. One close friend of our family came vividly to my mind when you mentioned how your uncle used to pinch the pleats of his pants when sitting down because I could see our friend doing exactly the same thing. Thanks for sharing your memories that evoked many of my own!
Robin

steelersandstartrek said...

You have the unique ability of making me change my background music when reading some of your posts. (That is high tribute, by the way -- my life is set to the background music either playing around me or in my mind, and it truly is a part of me. This post made me stop halfway, change the mood, and return eagerly.) Just for you to reach out and grab such a person from memory so completely not only makes me want to sit you down and ask for more stories about her, but to grab your Baby Sis and ask her for comparitives!

Dear dear Rachel. What a rich and colorful thread you are tied to in this world. So many wonderful and delicate and important and subtle in passing things have occured with you to witness them. Like the perfect moment of sunlight through an autumn leaf, your memories are precious, and your willingness and ability to share them beyond price. Thanks.

jeanne said...

Rachel, you know how I truly loved this story of times gone by. Those charming days of being dressed and lovely for the day. My mom was so much like your aunt. She was always bathed and dressed for the moment when our dad would come home from work. I swear she would meet him at the door with a hello kiss. We six children knew that our dad was the number one person in our home. We loved it because we felt the love between our parents and it was a great feeling of security.

Your description of your aunt and uncle just made me smile and feel happy. What a delight she must have been. A loving aunt that you loved and looked up to. The truth of it all is what a role model she was for you to carry in your memories for the rest of your life. We do pattern our own lives after those we admire and that is a good thing. The photograph like my mom and her sisters, is a treasure beyond words. Lovely women each one.

Wishing you happy days always dear friend,
Jeanne xoxoxo

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Rachel:
We have been delighted by this wonderfully written story of Aunt Cilla and Uncle Jed. The picture you painted of them was so vivid, we could easily imagine them right here in our own drawing room. They were obviously 'made' for each other in every possible way.

We can so imagine your being entranced by them as a small child, their ways being so very different from those in your own home. But, as you say, how many of their practices have you acquired as your own now you have your own home?

racheld said...

Oh, Sis---weren’t they just PEACHES??!! Just a breath of fresh-scented air in our hot, plain days. Do you remember the roomful of BIRDS? I coveted one of those parakeets with a mighty wishfulness, and one weekend they drove up with a neat little cage in the back seat with the most cunning little pair of miniature birds. “Javanese Temple Birds,” she called them---I’ll have to google that.

They were pale-to-dark grey, with several salmony/pink markings, twinkly little eyes, and tiny peach-colored bills. Oh, they were beautiful.

I hope to include a post on Aunt Meg, ( it’s not nearly so upbeat and happy, but it was what it WAS) and one on Aunt Ossie---I’ve pretty much covered Aunt Billie over in the “High Biscuits” post.

I LOVE that you remember as fondly as I do!

racheld said...

@Mississippi Artist: I’m glad that you enjoyed the piece---we all have our memories of times well-remembered, and this couple were certainly memory-making.

Thank you for reading and commenting---it means a lot to me.

racheld said...

@Robin from CA:

It's lovely to evoke pleasant memories for other people, isn't it? That pleat-pinching gesture was a great part of a gentleman's routine of keeping his wardrobe neat and smooth.

And I'm glad you share some of the same memories of those times.

rachel

racheld said...

Steelersandstartrek:

Your words are so gracious and kind, you leave me with none of my own. What a sweet comment, and what a beautifully-phrased compliment! I die, I faint, I FAIL.

Extra hugs when next we meet, and go share one with your sweet Bride right now---consider them both from ME.

r

racheld said...

Dear Hattatts,

What kind things you say!! And that pair would have fit right in with your gracious crowd---they were really special.

And my own efforts at such gracious manners and kindnesses are futile some days, in the scurry of ins and outs and meals and dogs and birdseed scatter, but I've concentrated on the younger folks for quite some time now. The grandchildren are my total focus when we're together, and it's the most gratifying part of my life to see the light in their eyes when we meet, when we sing, when we create/read/watch/craft/ learn something together.

The elegance of afternoon tea, the letters and words to channel them towards the great rewards of books, the little moments and civilities and niceties of things---that's what we play and learn---and my own reward is a heart-swell that encompasses all that we are and will be.

I'd so love a home of the serene, cool green rooms I remember, but the importance of dining-chair trains and breakfast-table pirate ships eclipse all the draperies and pristine tabletops one dreams of.

We love a pretty-set tea table, lunch on the patio with bright dishes, use-your-napkin, hold-your-fork-like-this; There are neat toy and book shelves once-a-day when clean-up call rings out, but it's the doing and the living that we're concentrating in these moments.

Life will come along soon enough, and this preparation stage is the NOW.

racheld said...

My Dear Darling Jeanne,

It's always lovely to make you smile, and the common memories of kind people and sweet moments are a wonderful link, aren't they?

Keetha said...

I feel like I know her! Thank you for that. The imagery, and the love in those words - so pretty.

Kim Shook said...

Well, between you and my husband, is there another word to say? I am surrounded and supported and so, so grateful for you and your stories and your glorious writings and rememberances, my dear, dear Rachel! You should see how often I dip into Lawn Tea and my copies of our early emails. I emerge refreshed and happy! Love you, dear!

Beverly said...

Ah, such sweet memories to share with us. And, they surely ignite our own sweet memories.

And, goodness knows she does favor Wallis. Only your Aunt Cilla is much prettier than Wallis. She has a sweetness about her face that I never saw in Wallis.

So much of this reminds me of my Aunt Martha. I always admired so many things about her. And, I was always so excited to receive a present from her because it was always, always something very special and very pretty.