Sunday, July 19, 2015


There’s a dry whisper to all the memories of the Aunts and some of the Uncles of my childhood, for their clothes and shoes and selves seemed crisp, somehow---the fabrics and nubby  linens, the book-edge cuffs and sharp pleats of the men’s pants.   Serge and gabardine and woolens are serious cloth, not like the frivols of today’s miss-matched cottons and all those man-made, unmemorable plasticky garments sported by the young.  It seemed to me that the adults of those times, with their hair, clothes, powdery skin---all seemed to be made of dry fabric, as if they spent their days pinned on a line in the wind.   
Even lively and laughing, they seemed preserved, somehow, with the little dust of powder on the ladies’ faces, the pencil-swoop of eyebrow, and the tissue-blotted lipstick a matte effect, in contrast to today’s glows and shines and all those modern glittery, gleamy cheeks and wetnesses of lip smeared and dabbed on at random moments, morning to night, while driving, in conversation, balancing purse and phone and applicator deftly, not missing a beat as that small wet wand swoops across a tightened lip, between children’s schedules and plans to meet Sherri-with-an-i for  lunch.

OUR ladies sat at Vanity Tables, carrying their taste for tulle-and-net-covered dressers way past their teens and into their married bedrooms, and the poufy effect was enhanced by all the powder puffs and atomizer bottles and dresser sets of comb, brush and mirror, all laid out as part of the room’s décor---all with their own perpetual haze of sifted-down face-and-body powder lending a soft focus to the entire scene.  A matching ashtray was quite a part of the arrangement, as well, holding a few lipstick-tipped butts as casually as the little china box held bobby pins, and the smoke-drifts added their own oddly inoffensive-then note to the perfume's bergamot and rose.  There was such an aura of forceful feminity to those dressing areas---an almost overwhelming sweetness to the smoke and the scents, like opening a long-ago perfume bottle with but a dried golden film in the bottom.

 They sat down and tended to things, those ladies in their boo-dwars, with everything to hand right on the countertop, and every gesture and application a serious business.

The foundation swooped and smoothed just so, the powder, the tiny round rouge puff maneuvered delicately over contour of cheek, and the practiced touches of the lipstick, with the final lip-clench over a bit of Kleenex to avoid smears on glass or cigarette.   

   All the younger Aunts but one---my dear Aint May-ry-on-the-other-side, she of the soft  smooth skin and fine blonde hair, contagious laugh and forward-tilt in her pretty white pumps, a dry rustle to her own crisply-ironed cotton blouses and skirts---all those other Aunts smoked, as did my Mother and Daddy. And since I saw these relatives so seldom, and then always with all of us in our Sunday Clothes--“dressed-up” to me naturally meant a nice spray from the Chanel or White Shoulders bottle, the smooth hang of their luxurious fabrics in unfamiliar greens and browns and taupes, or some soft-toned mustards and yellows, and the ethereal suggestion of just the faintest wisp of Chesterfield or Kool.   It was simply a fact of life, that scent-addition encircling almost every adult in the family---either the honest sweat-and-khakis of a hard work-day, or Sunday clothes with their own dry-goods-store aroma mingling into the Old Spice/Coty/Shalimar/My Sin and smoke.

I loved to watch my visiting Aunts get dressed for the day, especially Aunt Cilla.   She had the most wonderful wardrobe of them all, from Goldsmith’s and Lowenstein’s in Memphis, all cut to fit her tiny frame.   She’d hang her things in the closet as soon as they arrived, in hanging bags-to-match-her-Samsonite.   Those smooth tobacco-brown cases held wonders never imagined by Aladdin in that cave---pale stockings-with-seams, all in a pink satin bag to keep them safe from runs, and stacks of pastel undies and gowns and dusters and the tiniest bedroom shoes of velvet and and beadwork and lace, cuddled into the Overnight Case with tiny satin sachet poufs tucked in.   Her real shoe-case was a square puzzle-box thing that folded out in several directions to display a half-dozen pairs of beautifully polished leather shoes---mostly peep-toes or sling-backs with heels which raised her height to at least 5’2”.

And the dresses and pants and little jackets with peplums, or that one darling “military-style” one which was a deep blue, cut off sharply at the waist, with gold buttons and the smallest hint of little epaulettes.  I remember she wore that one occasionally just around her shoulders, striding down our little main street in her perfectly fitted slacks and fabulous shining shoes. 

She was FROM there, but no longer OF there.   Being “from OFF” separated her and Uncle Jed from the rest of us, into a cool, sanctified place, of wide streets and hedged lawns, of brocaded spindly chairs and sofa (as opposed to our chunky, wide-armed prickly-covered COUCH and chair-to-match.  I remember that Daddy complained from Day 1 that you couldn't balance a glass or plate on the slopy arms of those things.

 Even having been ordered from Sears in Memphis and delivered on the TRAIN did not imbue ours with such cachet as the stately, delicate furniture in the still, sea-green living room in her House on Parkway).   It was, and still is, the absolute in décor and gracious living.

And if I could replicate it, I’d go there and simply DWELL, swinging along on my own two merry little clothespins.


Dorothy said...

How I love to read of those times! I can identify with some, if not all, of what you wrote. ♥

Val said...

This is a beautiful piece of writing, Rachel. May I suggest submitting it to Southern Living or something similar? It's just incredible. ". . .Lipstick-tipped butts" and all the other details. You're a wonderful writer.

Kim S. said...

Here I am, woefully behind, but trying my best to catch up!

I vaguely remember those powdered and pressed folks. And my grandmothers had exactly those vanity tables. Being always behind the times, I tried to recreate one when I was a teenager. I especially loved the matching decanters and powder boxes and one very intuitive and imaginative friend gave me an entire celluloid set for graduation.

I, too, remember that the most heady perfume in the my world was Momma’s mix of Arpege and tobacco.

And that prickly couch fabric! Bebo (Daddy’s mother) had a whole suite of that living room furniture and even when it was slipcovered, you could feel the prickles!