A family wedding is coming up next weekend, and my cousins will be converging in Massachusetts for the festivities. The twenty-something bride and groom, who met in college, have been together for several years. I look forward to much boisterous laughter, good wine, dancing, and perhaps a serious conversation with my cousin Nancy, who recently divorced her husband of thirty-five years.
But I also approach this event with some trepidation. Over the past few months I have learned via the family grapevine that my kissin’ cousins (first cousins once removed, to be exact) believe I have the inside story on our shared family history. Our grandmothers were sisters, part of a sprawling Irish Catholic family from outside Pittsburgh. There were seven or eight siblings, not counting the ones who died in infancy, and in the early twentieth century, they married and fanned out from Baltimore to Cleveland, Missouri, and Los Angeles. I know a little about my grandmother, my father’s mother, but my data was barely enough for me to help my sons complete their family trees in the fifth grade social studies project. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would think I know the history two or three generations back, to County Roscommon.
What I do know is that my paternal grandmother, Mary Katherine–called Mame, by her friends and family –was a very private woman. It was impossible to draw a story out of her. As a child, my parents, younger sister and I lived upstairs from Grandmother, a widow, and my aunt in a two family house in Baltimore. Grandmother was in her seventies when I was born, and old photos of her show a study woman with glasses, short white hair and mother of pearl button earrings. She did not read to me, nor did she regale me (as my other grandmother did, to my great delight) with stories of her childhood, her courtship by my German-American grandfather, or anything about her earlier life. She had moved with her husband and six children to Sparrows Point around the time of World War I, and lived in a Bethlehem Steel house until my grandfather died and the company gave her thirty days to vacate. By the time I came along she had been widowed for over a decade, and moved to the northeastern edge of Baltimore City. Though she was a constant presence in my early life, I can recall almost nothing that she said, beyond her habitual greetings (“You’re a little fraud,” she would say, or “You’re an old stick in the mud,” though she said it nicely, so I got the affectionate subtext). When I discovered and pretended to adopt a litter of kittens living in long sewer pipes stacked up in a nearby contractor’s yard, she curtly told me that she disliked all cats on principle. When I asked why, she said it was because a cat had knocked something over and caused a fire in her father’s factory when she was young.
Her world looked pretty limited from my vantage point. She never learned to drive, never took trips or vacations. She had two visitors that I can recall—our spinster cousin Virginia, and my grandmother’s younger sister, Aunt Stella, who traveled by train from Cleveland and stayed for a week. Grandmother took the trolley down to St. Dominic’s Church in Hamilton, about two miles away, or to the A & P. She patronized another large grocery store two blocks away from our home, and a pharmacy and bakery on the Harford Road. Her life appeared to revolve around doing light housework, cooking meals for herself and my aunt, going to Mass, reading The Catholic Review and Maryknoll Magazine, and listening to the radio. She often had homemade brown edged butter cookies waiting for me and my cousins, but never any Coke or root beer, only ginger ale– never one of my favorites. She did not play cards or board games. And I never saw her drink anything stronger than a little peppermint schnapps over ice—exactly once, at the housewarming party at our new row house. In a short-lived family kerfuffle, my parents had been obliged to cede our upstairs apartment in Grandmother’s two-family to my aunt and her new husband.
Somehow, it seems wrong that I remember so little of Grandmother when I spent so much time in her presence. What I do remember is the night when I was in sixth grade when two policemen showed up at our house with Grandmother in tow. She was wearing her good winter coat, and dressed for church—with earrings, a nice dress, good shoes and stockings. It must have been a weekend, for though I was in my pajamas and perhaps even in bed when the doorbell rang, I was still awake. Grandmother had been discovered pulling at the locked front doors of St. Dominic’s church, trying to get to Mass. Someone must have alerted the cops, who could not get a sensible response from her, but looked in her wallet for identification, and found the relative living nearest the church—my father. My mother took my sister and me back upstairs to our room and explained that our grandmother had been mixed up. Though it was nighttime, she ‘d thought it was time for Sunday morning Mass.
The next week my father, his brothers, and his sisters gathered to strategize about what to do about Grandmother. This was long before any talk of Alzheimer’s, day care programs for elders with dementia, or home health aides. So within days Grandmother was shuttled off to a nursing home on the other side of the city, a place run by an order of nuns who went by the strange, unreassuring name of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. My father took me to see Grandmother every month, and he visited much more frequently on his own.
The last time I saw Grandmother they had her in a white restraining jacket, her hands and arms covered completely and tied back tight against her body. My father said this was to prevent her from scratching at herself violently. Her body had shrunk to that of a preadolescent girl, and she opened her large blue eyes briefly, then seemed to fall back to sleep or into some sort of reverie. I was thirteen, and seeing her made me strangely sad and morose. After that, my father stopped making me come with him to the nursing home.
One night a few years later, I was at my usual Friday spot, CYO. The last song, a slow dance, played sweet and long. Couples draped themselves against each other on the dance floor, barely moving, and a few girls stood outside smoking and waiting for their rides home. I disentangled myself from my partner when the song ended, said good night to my friends, and made my way outside to wait for my mother to pull up in the family station wagon. Mom was matter of fact: “Your grandmother died earlier tonight.” I don’t remember whether we talked about it on the way home. My father, stoic and deeply religious, was philosophical. After all, Grandmother had lived a good, long life, had enjoyed many years of good health, and had been a devout Catholic. “The Man Upstairs figured it was time,” Dad said.
As a child, I sought stories and entertainment from my elders. I got none of this from Grandmother, who did not see her role as my companion or teacher. A few years ago, my aunt handed me some old family papers she wanted to get rid of. Among these were several detailed blueprints and patent applications for a broiler oven and assorted other kitchen appliances. I assumed that these were drawn by my grandfather, a master mechanic and engineer. “No, your grandmother did those,” my aunt said.
I never learned whether Grandmother got her patent. As far as I’m concerned, she was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Perhaps by the time I came to know her, she had long since stopped being Mame. She had become simply Mom or Grandmother. She had given up all her dreams, and resigned herself to a life of prayer, reflection and domesticity.
This is not about Prada bags and Jimmy Choos, little black dresses and pearls, about red lace-up Olaf Daughter boots from the ‘Seventies or what to wear to a job interview at a social networking start-up .
This is about the heart of fashion.
Fashion is not reacting to trends, not jumping at every new look, whether it’s belly shirts or babydoll blouses—which to me look like old fashioned maternity clothes. No, fashion is a way to control the way we present ourselves to the world and the way we are perceived by the faces that we meet, to borrow from T.S. Eliot. We absorb our sense of fashion from many sources, some creative and liberating, others constricting or pedestrian.
Martha, Liza and Flo: Fur collars, bobs, pumps and ghillies
Cumberland, Maryland in the ‘Twenties
It really began with my grandmother. Extremely nearsighted, auburn haired, short and stout, she had four husbands—not all at once, but in succession beginning when she was nineteen, when she married my grandfather, a man nearly forty who’d alrady left the detritus of one broken marriage behind him. My grandmother’s first marriage lasted three years—this coat lasted a great deal longer, and gave her more happiness, I think.
Florine, known as Flo— but let’s call her Mimi, as my sister and I did—loved shoes and took particular pride in her small feet—size 4½. In this photograph of her with her sisters, Liza and Martha, she wears pumps, her favorite style that she continued to wear into her eighties. Mimi believed in investment pieces in her wardrobe, in taking up hems if you needed to, and in cutting the labels out of the back of blouses and sweaters—that way they would never stick up or scratch you. She preferred to have only a few classic, expensive pieces and she avoided fashion trends. Her clothes never seemed to wear out. Underneath, and she would not like it if she knew I were revealing this, she wore top-quality foundation garments—an underwire bra to support her ample bosom, and a pink corset to keep her looking fit and trim. Her stockings were held up by garters, even as pantyhose made their appearance in the 1970’s.
The photograph seems poised, almost professional in its composition. Mimi wears her usual expression in photographs—never smiling, always stern, looking straight at the camera. The sisters wear leather gloves and white silk scarves, probably to protect the fur from the body’s natural oils and the makeup they had only begun to wear a few years earlier. Maybe these fur-trimmed coats were an investment they made in the Roaring Twenties, in the years before the stock market crash of ’29, but that’s doubtful, because of the coat lengths. In the 1970’s we would call these Midis, something the fashion world tried to foist on American women. The Midi went the way of the Ford Edsel. Almost no one, short, tall, thin, zaftig, could carry it off.
It would be many years—fifty or sixty at least, before fur would become politically incorrect. Before a woman would come up to me on the Orange Line MBTA platform at State Street when I was seven months pregnant, and wearing a ratty raccoon coat my law school pal Susan had given me when she moved to Dallas. The woman approached me smiling, then spat the words at me—“ Warm fur, cold heart!” That was the day I stopped wearing the fur coat. After the baby was born, I folded the bulky coat into a black garbage bag with my maternity clothes and dropped it off at Goodwill.