When September 27 rolls around, my mother would be one-hundred and five-years-old if she were still alive. I am the self-appointed sentry of her memory and I think about her often as I try to safeguard bits and pieces of her life. So many things remind me of the years she spent on earth, forty-eight of which was as my mother.
I recently saw a play called Love, Loss and What I Wore. As the title suggests, it was about clothes worn on memorable occasions and the emotional attachment to each garment. It got me to thinking about how my mother made all of my clothes until I got to be a smart-ass teenager with little or no respect for her labors of love over the years. Now that she’s gone, however, my appreciation seems to know no bounds.
There is an old Olan Mills black and white portrait only slightly tinted in color that I keep in a memory box on the top shelf of my closet. Two five-year-old girls smiled for the birdie as a flashbulb popped. The girls are dressed identically in red and white checked taffeta pinafores with matching white blouses. The photo is of my cousin, born eight days after I was, and me. The pinafores were ruffled around the shoulders and the sash was generous, tying nicely into a bow in back. We had matching ribbons in our hair. Mama made those outfits and now seventy something years later, her labors survive only on photo paper. Lord only knows what happened to the pinafores. My guess is that they were handed down to other cousins or sold in a rummage sale.
My cousin’s daddy owned his own business so he had money. No way was he the proverbial rich uncle everyone wishes for, but he had lots more than my daddy who was a policeman for the city. My cousin had store-bought clothes and for all of my teenage years, I was jealous. She died with Alzheimer’s a few years ago and the one thing she seemed to remember and clung to is the photo of the two of us taken when we were kids.
Since our little town was the county seat, every October a parade of carnival rides, game booths and greasy food made its way from Florida to the fairgrounds just outside the city limits. Since the same carnival outfit came to town through the years, Daddy was friendly with some of the “carnies” and their families. I wouldn’t call it a fraternity reunion when the county fair people and daddy made contact, but it was a reunion, of sorts.
Daddy’s career rose from flatfoot to detective and eventually to Police Chief. Needless to say, it was advantageous for fair folks to stay on the good side of the Chief. Because of that, when I was sixteen, I became the recipient of the most glamorous clothes I had ever seen.
My benefactor’s name was Ava, the wife of the man who ran the Bingo games at the fair each year. She was a tiny little thing, as was I in those days, so Ava, who had always wanted a daughter, would leave some of her expensive clothes at our house for me to wear. They were absolutely not like the hand-me-downs from my cousin.
Ava loved black, the slinkier the better. She adored spike-heeled shoes. Ava was in love with bling long before it was a word. Seeing the flashy clothes she left for me, I thought I had died and gone to serious fashion heaven. The clothes fit my slim body as though designed and tailored especially for me. I remember slipping into a black silk blouse with pearl buttons and leg-of-mutton sleeves. I then put on Ava’s tight-fitting red satin skirt and a pair of her red sling-back high heels with open-toes. I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the mirror.
Staring at my reflection, I realized that something was still not quite right. What was I missing? And then it hit me. Mascara. Eyeliner.
It was the mid-fifties and I was a teenager. I might have curled my eyelashes from time to time, but eyeliner? Mascara? Nuh uh.
I sneaked into Mama’s bathroom and looked around for her box of cosmetics, and for the next hour, I went through that box like Sherman through Atlanta.
Satisfied that I had been transformed from plain to devastatingly gorgeous, I went down the stairs as gingerly as possible to tell my parents that I was leaving for a young people's church meeting.
“I’m going now, y'all. Be back in two or three hours, probably.”
My mother looked up from the dress she was hemming, one of the many outfits she had sewed for her only daughter. I will never forget the look on that woman’s face. Horror doesn’t quite capture it, but it comes close. Her mouth was wide open.
Daddy had been reading the paper and when he looked up to say goodbye, the breath he sucked in sounded pretty much like an advanced case of emphysema.
It occurs to me now that they both may have been wondering why the voice of the hussy standing before them sounded so much like their teenage daughter. Still, they kept staring at me as though I were an apparition.
Perspiration began to collect in my armpits and I remember thinking that sweat was bad for a silk blouse. The strap on my left shoe decided at that moment to flop down and when that happened, my legs wobbled. My parents continued to stare.
“Well, okay then. I’m off.” My bravado was so fake that even I was embarrassed.
Mama, having finally found her voice, cleared her throat. “Uh-uh. You’re not going anywhere dressed like a streetwalker. You march yourself back upstairs and take off those clothes before I snatch you baldheaded.”
I couldn’t believe she didn’t approve of my new look. How could she not?
I went on the attack. “Ava gave me these clothes because she wanted me to wear them. Ava’s not a streetwalker. Well? Is she?”
Mama sighed. Daddy coughed.
“No, Ava is not a streetwalker. Ava is thirty-five years old and down in Florida where she lives, people dress like that. We don’t. You don’t. When you are her age, you can dress any way you want to, but not now. So, get your butt back upstairs and put on something decent.”
The following October, Ava left a light blue cashmere sweater-set for me before the fair headed back to Florida. Mama let me wear it as often as I wanted to. She even made me a skirt that picked up and enhanced the color. The first time I wore it as an outfit, she smiled in total approval.
“You look so sweet, honey. Just like a teenager.”