Wednesday, August 6, 2014

PRESENTS OF THE PAST



It’s school-starting time now, but looking at an old compact, its surface still twinkling with stones of several colours, I’m fondly remembering graduation---a time of anticipation and parties and lovely presents from people who’d seen you off to first grade, watched you stumble across the stage in that pumpkin outfit, seen you on that same stage as you moved up in the Spelling Bee and emoted your heart out in the Junior and Senior plays.

 

These same people had attended your piano recitals, bought all those magazines and cards and fruit baskets and car washes to help fund your Senior Trip, and had been kind and wonderful friends of your parents and perhaps grandparents for long years.

 

High School Graduation in a tee-ninecy town in the South of the Fifties was an important thing---we were scarce a generation removed from the young men who’d had to go off to War in those tender years, or “quit” in ninth or tenth grade to work on the farm or for neighbors and local garages and factories, to help feed their families.  And the young women who interrupted their own educations so young, to take jobs in a sewing line or bottling company, or train as telephone operators and LPNs---anything to add to the family’s meager income---so many fell aside during those high school years that getting through and into that cap and gown was considered a great accomplishment in the rural South.

 

And every graduate got presents, of some sort, though in our town I don’t believe a single person received a car, as is simply a given today.   You got as nice and needful a gift as your parents could afford (mine was a portable Olivetti typewriter---a charming small Tiffany-blue one in a little suitcase, with a tiny keyboard and what I always thought of as Olivetti-type---the almost-script lettering which graced every single paper I wrote during college).

 

 

And though no greed nor expectations were assumed, and everybody in town knew when and where the ceremony was, along with Class Night the night before and the Baccalaureate Sermon the previous Sunday, you were expected to send “Graduation Invitations” though the invitation read "Commencement Exercises," to all your parents’ friends, your music teacher, Pastor, Scout Leader, and any other adult with close effect on your life.   The boxes of invitations were picked up at school, ordered in from Balfour-like-our-class-rings, and were identically engraved, with a picture of the school and all the attendant “The class of . . . invites, etc.”    There was a little space on one flap for inserting your name card (we girls called them “calling cards”---highly anticipated and ordered in much greater number than the invitations, along with our “engraved notes,” which we used immediately for our Thank You notes, and for years thereafter). 





 
And gifts started to arrive---in the mail, dropped off breezily in an afternoon by five or six in succession of your Mother’s friends, handed to you after church, wrapped and beautiful, by someone who dashed to the car to get it, or called in to your house from the drugstore or jewelry store (repository also of all those lovely wedding-and-shower gifts of years to come), for you come and pick up.
 
The honorees set up the family card table in the living room or dining room, and borrowed several folding ones of some sort from whichever neighbors and friends were not hosting bridge for a while yet.    Snowy white cloths, ironed within an inch of their formal, crisp lives, settled on and pulled just so, and the opened boxes were set to best advantage for display for at least a  couple of weeks.  All the girls and Mamas in town managed to make the rounds at least once, to admire and appraise and count a little bit of social coup as they had a look at who-got-what-and-from-whom. A few of the more affluent graduates’ families had “viewing parties,” at which the guests came merely to see the loot---only two in our town, but we got a giggle out of that, anyway.    
 
The gifts varied in price and importance, perhaps, but just the OCCASION of it, when it was your turn---the smell of those boxes and envelopes all laid out in that cool, quiet room, with the whispers of Coty and Houbigant from the little bottles and atomizers and the three compacts with powder in exactly your shade.
 
 
 

 
 
 



There were lipstick cases in gold finish, or set with pretty stones, or maybe a teensy round mirror on the end or an infinitely thin one the length of one side, for checking your application in public.   Sometimes there were compacts to match one or the other, either given by a particularly-generous friend, or proffered by-the-piece by Miss Hazel (who was also THE authority on lipstick and powder shade for those compacts) at the drugstore to successive shoppers so nice as to inquire as to your taste---sometimes you’d be lucky enough to receive matching compact, lipstick, AND little evening purse,  each sent by a different person.
 





 
Picture that dining room---the entire thing was one deep RED, with carpet, drapes, and even the glass sconces over the buffet had red panels, to cast quite the inferno-glow across all the largesse. Every garment looked pink, and every sparkle had a ruby tint.

It WAS a lovely time, in a place which made it much like the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, for we were still on that innocent cusp, and our immediate world was way too much with us, in ways we did not yet realize.

But the scents and colours of all the lovely things-wrapped-in-tissue and our humble gratitude for such sweet remembrances---those are memories shaded in a soft light of pure youth. It was just what your friends and neighbours did for you, and your family in turn, or for years before, honored the next and the next, in a kind of genteel potlatch stretching decades.

Every now and then, maybe at a flea market, I see an old cologne bottle, perhaps with a bit of long-ago trapped beneath the glass, and I open the lid and inhale those Emeraude- and Woodhue-scented moments so far past.

In Living Memory---isn't that a lovely, encompassing phrase?
 



 

 

The presents were arranged by category, as it were, by space or whole table---the “Dry Goods,”--- Monogrammed pillowslips and towels for college, muumuus and dusters and robes and underpants and pajamas, especially “hostess pajamas” and all shades and sizes of scarves, all arrayed neatly folded in their flat boxes with the lady-of-the-house’s calling card, amended with a tiny "Mr.&" in ink before the “Mrs. John Hentley Bufforfington on the crisp white card laid atop.

 

There were whole shining arrays of

dresser sets with mirror, comb and brush, sometimes monogrammed, and clocks and manicure cases and fountain pens and Parker Sets, as well as appointment books and address books and portfolios for whatever important papers you’d be carrying around on campus.
 
And checks were always laid out beneath a pane of glass, neatly stacked one-on-the-other in a slant with a slip of paper laid discreetly on the top one so that naught was revealed except the signatures. 

 

I remember so well the luxury of those tables of congratulation and tribute and generosity, from the people I’d known as long as I’d taken breath.   Just opening that door to the scent of the dry, rustly tissue and the brand-new cloth, the colognes and the leather of the books---that long-ago combination of odor and elation is elusive today, but it still makes me smile to think of it.   I hope there’s still something below the level of a BMW which will   bring the thrill of that tableful of presents to the graduates of today, but  I don't know if there's anything left which will kindle such lovely memories as mine.
 
 

10 comments:

steelersandstartrek said...

Well and truly said. At the risk of betraying the fact that I am an official member of the "Hey you kids, get off my lawn!" set, let me say that today's youth have higher opinions of themselves and what the world owes them than we did. Even getting a thank you note (or an RSVP to an invitation) is a rare thing. I am not sure how my generation let this happen with "our children" but I think that the devaluation of self-awareness, gratitude, and humility is a loss at great price to our society.

Thank you for the remembery of kinder, more polite, more gentile times.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Darling Rachel,

Now we too are in the very room admiring all the wonderful treasures sent from admirers and well wishers for your graduation. An Olivetti typewriter......now that is something we should have given our 'eye' teeth for as we would say!

Sadly, we cannot recall any such event surrounding our own graduations, or, indeed, any gift. Still, to have succeeded was enough......how very different, as you say, from the times in which we now find ourselves.

We cannot believe ( but do take your word for it) that a motor car may well be parked in the drive of the newly graduated son or daughter. Unbelievable. And, is this such a good idea, we ask ourselves? Does this really make the point that the best things in life do not usually come with a price tag attached. Sadly, we think not.

harleygirl said...

Wow, what great memories you have! I don't know about anyone else, but I sure like the thought of your gifts and celebration better than today's. I think our society has gone way too far, personally. My graduation was small...I got a lot of cash in cards (well, a lot to me, anyways), and what keeps popping into my mind the most is a small wooden box that my aunt gave me with my graduation year printed on it. It's sitting right here beside me, actually, with confetti in it. (I don't know HOW I managed to accumulate so much confetti over the years...I'm not even that fond of it!), but she has since been moved to a nursing home and so the gift means a lot to me. My grandmother also died shortly after I graduated, and I still have the candle she gave me at graduation. She also gave me some gladiola bulbs because I loved her flowers so much; and to this day I still plant them in honor of her. :) I think our celebrations beat a new car any day!

racheld said...

DEAR SAST,

May a full-fledged Codgess join you on your lawn? Though I'd be out there with cookies and cocoa, saying "Sit DOWN, and what do YOU like to read?"

I see that the BMW thing called home to several folks, and I daresay that no shiny new auto will appear in the driveways of any of our GRANDS (though #7, at four, is well on his way to some sort of Internet invention which could probably put his infant brother into a Lamborghini at the proper time).

Always wonderful to have you drop in---I really meant to share only the kinder, more polite, more gentle . . .

r

racheld said...

Dear Hattatts,

I'm so glad you're home safely, with such wonderful things to tell of your travels. And I'm glad you could picture that dining room (not quite, I presume, for the entire thing was one deep RED, with carpet, drapes, and even the glass sconces over the buffet had red panels, to cast quite the inferno-glow across all the largesse. Every garment looked pink, and every sparkle had a ruby tint).

It WAS a lovely time, in a place which made it much like the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, for we were still on that innocent cusp, and our immediate world was way too much with us, in ways we did not yet realize.

But the scents and colours of all the lovely things-wrapped-in-tissue and our humble gratitude for such sweet remembrances---those are memories shaded in a soft light of pure youth. It was just what your friends and neighbours did for you, and your family in turn, or for years before, honored the next and the next, in a kind of genteel potlatch stretching decades.

Every now and then, maybe at a flea market, I see an old cologne bottle, perhaps with a bit of long-ago trapped beneath the glass, and I open the lid and inhale those Emeraude- and Woodhue-scented moments so far past.

In Living Memory---isn't that a lovely, encompassing phrase?

Thank you, as always,

r

racheld said...

Dear Harleygirl,

I've so enjoyed all your own celebrations with your family all this time you've been sharing them with us.

And I love your stories of your own gradation gifts---the precious box and those heirloom bulbs (our house in Mississippi has rosebushes dating from generations back into the 1850, transplanted in cuttings by new brides and families moving into their own homes, down from all those hard-working women to our house).

PS I've been wanting to ask you something not for an open comments section---my e-mail is in my profile, if you'd care to write.

Jeanne said...

Good morning dear Rachel, Here I am with a whole Saturday before me without company. I thought! Our daughter who lives 3 hours away just called and she is coming for the weekend. Never a dull moment around here. We are thrilled of course.

Your story of graduation is charming. Things were so different back in the fifties.Especially in a rural area. When we lived on our farm there were 12 grades in 4 school rooms. However, my graduating class was nearly a thousand kids. We lived in Miami then and the place was growing so fast it could make your head swim! A different world.

Your gift of a typewriter was an awesome and thoughtful gift. Especially for you. I bet you wrote many stories on that typewriter. Smiling here.

The tradition of showing the gits for a special occasion was such a lovely one. Sigh! Now, it is mostly money which is helpful towards college expenses. Times have changed and it is sad in many ways. It is a pity though. Teaching our children to be more thoughtful is so important.

Have a wonderful weekend dear Rachel. It has been raining cats and dogs here. It is lovely here really. Very green and lush.

Love,
Jeanne


Martha said...

Brought back fond memories!

Jeanne said...

Hi Rachel, I scrolled down to your Ruby Slippers post with Sweetpea and left a comment there. I missed so many of your posts I found one I haven't seen and commented.

I think most people would guess Thomas Kinkade on my post. His work is so identifiable. I had fun with this PS post. I had almost forgotten that I took those photos on the cruise. Taking such a long blog break didn't help. Sigh! It is good to be back, even if it isn't full swing.

Enjoy your week dear,
Love, Jeanne

Kim S. said...

And luggage! Remember the luggage we used to get? A matching set – arranged by the aunts – with a makeup case, if you were extra lucky.