Our front hall had a very tall grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs keeping watch over the household. No one could wind it but my father and the clock defined the nights in regular chimes reaching everyone’s ears in everyone’s bedroom.There was a front hall table made of lustrous mahogany where mail and packages were placed daily.The legs of the table looked like a young girl with four legs curtseying all at once. I know because I spent a lot of time under there waiting for God knows what. My favorite part however In this wonderful area of our house was the front hall closet which no one could put anything in except for my father. It was his personal closet for his overcoat and his hats and his umbrellas and his galoshes. I don’t remember hearing we weren’t supposed to go in the closet so I went in the closet quite a bit. There was a shelf the hats were on that had a thumbtacked piece of decorative ribbon that was ruched: something I had never seen before. I took some delight in pulling a piece of it off and seeing what it felt like. My father had four or five coats in there and most of the coats were some range of the color gray. There were cashmere coats, and wool coats, and cotton coats, and canvas coats. The coats had a big life and seemed to go out a lot. Sometimes alone, and sometimes in pairs the coats went out in the world: across oceans and in airplanes, office buildings, and houses not ours, down inside boats, outside on sidewalks. They always came back home slightly different than when they had left. I knew this because when I went in the closet I would stand up inside each coat starting with my head going into the bottom because they were buttoned up, you see, and I would shimmy myself up to usually just the lowest button because my father was very tall and I was still short. I would stand there and breathe in the outside world imagining where he had been and who he had seen and the smell of old Spice would anesthetize me against the real world. In the closet I created whatever I wanted sometimes for hours. No one ever looked for me. I stood so still inside a coat I became a part of its life.
Remembering Something You Thought You Wouldn’t Again
I believe in love and second chances. I believe in the power of memory. I love to reflect on whom I might have married or where I might have lived. I love nothing more than a glance from an attractive man in a public place which says to me “I am interested.”
What I love most of all, however, is the return of a flirtation you thought you had lost and the possibility of an old passion being rekindled.
There is nothing better in life than friendship begun at age four which continues to flourish. Nothing finer than an old designer piece which you wore at 30 still cupping your shoulders with certainly and still making you feel great.
I prefer the old to the new. I prefer the childhood memories to many new memories. I find the thought of an erotic encounter which took place at 24 infinitely more erotic in my mind today than any new ones I might have, except with one single man!
The art of writing romantic letters is seemingly lost today but I have been experiencing it recently with the greatest of pleasure. Imagine before going to sleep that you receive an email from someone you thought you had lost many years ago and that email was filled with love and remembrances of your past together, even painting a bit of what might be in future?
Imagine how that feels? How happy it makes you to think someone else many miles away is having the same thoughts you are having. Isn’t life grand? The really amazing thing is if you have no attachment to the outcome and only feel the joy of love, you can enjoy it even more.
Each little sound bite being sent electronically over IPAD’s day to day add to the wonderful building and waxing and waning tension of this feeling of love and desire yet there may be no consummation. I think I have learned one lesson in life after all these years: don’t live in a fantasy state particularly when starting out in a relationship or the hope of a relationship. It’s a bad idea. Really looking and listening and understanding what the other person is about is a good thing. Feeling giddy is a really good thing. Having hope is an even better thing. Holding hands is the best thing in the whole world even when it is done electronically.
I read the obituaries every morning as many people do. I have no idea why we do this. I look for reasons why people died, how old they were when they died, who survived them, etc. The other morning I saw that my childhood friend had died in February of a long term illness. There was a lovely picture of her taken when she was about 20 I would guess. I have no way of knowing as I last saw her in ninth grade at the graduation of Greenwich Country Day School. She was no longer my best friend having abandoned me for Phyllis and Priscilla and so we barely spoke on that day. I do remember feeling sad I was no longer friends with her and wondering what I had done for her to have lost interest in our friendship.
Betsey befriended me in fifth grade and whatever she told me to do I would do. I went to her house when she still had one (her father later left her mother) and spent the night many times. Her mother had a raspy voice, chain smoked L and M’s, and seemed sharp and unfriendly but stayed out of our way. She had two older sisters who were very glamorous and kind to me. I liked going to Betsey’s house as there was little supervision and we did whatever we wanted. Once in a while we would go bowling, something I never did with my own family.
Betsey told me in fifth grade I needed a bra: not because I was very developed but just because” every fifth grader needed one”. She took one from her sister’s drawer and told me to try it on which I did in the privacy of her bathroom. It was made of a harsh type of cotton and had straps with lengths sticking out which you pinned into place with small gold safety pins. When I wore the bra I felt incredibly sophisticated and old but nervous. What if someone touched my back and felt the strap and knew I was wearing a bra! What a terrifying thought!
In order to wear the bra I had to hide it in my drawer at night and then pack it in my school briefcase, carry it to school, and change into it in the girl’s room under Betsey’s supervision. The whole process seemed so time consuming but worth the excitement and the attention I seemed to get from Betsey for my obedience to her rules.
Betsey also taught me swear words which I did not know at that time. Today this seems startling but in the 60’s it was not surprising. I learned the three swear words that Betsy said were important to learn. “Shit” “fuck” and “dick”.
I found the words very difficult to define and kept returning to Betsy’s side asking her to let me know once again what they meant. I didn’t dare say them out loud and neither did she but writing them was also out of the question. I remember running back and forth most of that school day so I could remember the words, define them, and someday use them.
Once, about five years later out of the blue, Betsy called me and asked if I wanted to sneak out of my house and meet up with her. She said there would be a boy who could drive. I was really torn by this invitation as I never did anything wrong. It simply wasn’t worth the repercussions but Betsey’s invitation seemed irresistible as the “boy” was incredibly cute. I had seen him around town, he was a bit older than we were, and was considered really cool and very bad. Having never been in a car driven by anyone under the age of 40, I couldn’t resist.
As it turned out, my parents were out of town and our house was “loosely supervised” when this was the case. We had a nanny but she put my youngest sister to bed and then went to sleep herself by 9. At 9:10 I was downstairs trying to open the door without making a sound convinced I would be caught. I had no idea what I thought would happen but it wouldn’t be good. I finally opened the door and slipped out into the warm night air. It was very dark and I had no flashlight but I could see some outlines of the drive and the road behind it. I walked slowly past the night shrouded house of the Toby’s thinking of Button tucked safely in her bed and thinking to myself I must be really a wild child.
Waiting in the dark at the end of Meadowcroft Lane for Betsy and her crew was endless and by the time their car arrived I was a wreck. For some reason which I will never understand Betsy got out of the car and wanted me to sit next to Peter, the bad boy who was driving. In this position I felt as if I had been kidnapped by a scary witch on one side and an irresistible prince on the other. Hot and cold, yin and yang, good and bad, god knows what was happening but one side felt really good! Peter’s thigh was about as exciting to me as seeing Rhet Butler carry Vivien Leigh up the stairs in ”Gone With The Wind”. I could barely speak I found it so intoxicating. At one point the bad boy took his foot off the accelerator and moved my leg closer telling me to steer and use the gas pedal which of course I did.
Looking back on that night I see how important it was to me in my life of mostly dreams and few actual adventures. Sneaking out of my house at night, being driven by a bad boy around town, feeling the arousal a teenage boy could create, in me: it was an amazing memory for me to take out from time to time and smile over. Nothing happened. No one was hurt. No one even missed me, but it was magic.
So there was an obituary for me to read about my friend who created the memory but was lost to me for the rest of her life. As it turned out, she lived for many years less than five blocks from where I lived with my young family yet I never knew it. She worked cleaning houses for years and had her own small company. She never married or had children and died with her sister and a friend. by her side. I felt sad reading Betsy’s obituary as her life didn’t seem as large as her spirit and I was sorry. I will always be grateful to her for my night of magic.
I write about the romantic in life because that is what uplifts me. If that is what uplifts you as well then take a trip to the de Young Museum and see the Balenciaga exhibit. It will be well worth your while as there are many visions to dream on. I think I will go back a second time as I didn’t have the time to look at all the details of the gowns nor the names of the women who had worn them.
I am particularly fond of reading the names of the owners of the gowns. It allows one to imagine the life of Mrs. Eleanor deGuigne and to wonder how she ever squeezed herself into that tiny, wasp waisted gown. Did she never eat at all or perhaps not one bite for a period before having herself zipped up into this creation? And what did she think when she went out in the evening? Did she look into the mirror and say to herself how absolutely fabulous she looked? I wonder.
I wonder about that generation of exquisitely groomed ladies who spent a fortune on their wardrobe and lived such apparently glamorous lives. Were they conscious of how they were living or did they just live?
In the attic in our house in Connecticut there was a walk through closet which lead to my brother’s train room. My brother had polio when he was 7 or 8 and my parents bought him a full train set and put it all together on top of a specially made table in the attic. There were two bright red stools which sat at the head of the table where the controls were. I don’t really remember being able to get the trains to work often as by the time I could access the stools on my own, my brother was out of the house. The room was not on our permitted places list but we didn’t really care about that. I do remember sitting on one of the stools lost in my own train town world believing the train was taking all these families to interesting places and the families were laughing and enjoying the ride. The train always stopped obediently at the crossings marked with large black X’s and proceeded with caution when directed. The train world was a secret I kept from the rest of the household. Everyone seemed to have forgotten the train room just as the walk through closet was not a place often visited by other family members.
The walk through closet held the only remnants of our mother’s past life: a life we could only imagine as our world focused on my father’s family morning, noon and night. My mother appeared to have been born to parents who simply disappeared and reappeared only once or twice a year. In the walk through closet there were several dresses I loved to pull out and examine looking for clues as to who my mother was. My favorite of these dresses was an incredibly heavy and complicated Mexican wedding dress my mother had bought on her honeymoon in Acapulco. The dress was long and red and had many many tiny hooks in back which had to be hooked up one by one. God Forbid that you started incorrectly or you would have to begin all over again. From the age of 7 I would drag the wedding dress into the hallway and try it on. Initially I couldn’t button one hook but I shrugged into the puffy sleeves with their ridges of hard lace and held the skirt in my hands twirling it back and forth always slightly terrified someone would catch me dressing in a sacrament.
There was one more dress in the walk through closet that appeared in 1961 and it was a very lovely silk dress with an embroidered flower pattern and a small shrug made to be worn over the dress. This dress was history in the eyes of my mother. She had worn it to the White House and had danced with President Kennedy while wearing it. I tried this dress on as well. I tried it on and moved around within it feeling clumsy and bulky and that I wasn’t worthy of a dress that had gone to the White House.
Years later when I was organizing a coming out party for my daughter a large box arrived in the mail from Connecticut. When I opened it I found the White House dress with a note from my mother stating she hoped I would wear the dress to my daughter’s party. I was almost speechless and reverently removed the dress from the box exclaiming over the beauty of it. Later when I was trying it on I realized it would have to be altered in order for it to work for me as the dress was a little too short and a little too tight. Luckily I had a wonderful dressmaker who redesigned the dress and added a bit more color making it appropriate for 1988. I wore the dress to the party and danced all night and my parents were there to see my daughter become an elegant debutante.
Years passed and just before my parents sold the old house in Connecticut I went back to visit and climbed the stairs to the walk through closet now empty except for a few bent old wire coat hangers on the floor and some rick rack ribbon falling off the side of the shelf. I knelt on the floor and felt all the old feelings of awe and sadness and wonder and depression that fluctuated around my family in our childhood. I remembered the magic the closet had brought me and I remembered my mother’s comment years later about my redesign of her White House dress I was so proud of. “You ruined the dress! Just ruined it!
So back to Balenciaga…it’s worth a visit for those of us who lurked in closets as children as these clothes will never be made again. The skills and talents and materials do not exist. Gone like a puff of smoke from my train town village or the soft click of a closet door closing.
This time of year is always interesting as on occasion, despite attempts at maturity and evolvement, one may revert to a child’s perspective and remember all of the excitement and expectation surrounding Christmas. In our house acquiring the tree was always an interesting adventure. Our mother would ask who wanted to go on this adventure and we would all scream “yes”. Our car was one of those old fashioned “woodie” wagons with no seat belts or electric windows. The back seat could be flattened out with the help of four usually swearing men. There were six children in our family and we were spaced like Catholic children though I was repeatedly assured we were not Catholic. Cynthia Paterno lived next door to us and tried to convert me all the time. Apparently good Catholics gave all their allowance to their neighbors. Once I took all of the clothes out of my closet and made an altar out of my mother’s show boxes but when I lit a candle in there one caught on fire.
I liked being a temporary Catholic. I prayed every night and put a white towel over my head like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story and admired myself a lot in the bathroom mirror being careful to look pious. I knew I would never sleep with a boy until I got married and that I really wasn’t supposed to actually swallow the wine during communion. I knew that good catholic girls didn’t wear patent leather shoes because boys could see their underpants if they did. I learned that if you did something wrong no matter what it was you went to confession and told the priest what your sin was. He would give you a penance and you would be forgiven. A clean slate.
Now that I am grown up and no longer a Catholic I wish I was one. How nice to have the ability of simply telling someone what you had done wrong and being forgiven for it. I think that no one does things that are consciously mean unless they are 14 or a criminal. Relationships are just tricky as we are all so fragile. A friend said to me the other day that you couldn’t reason or understand someone else and have a good relationship if the other person really didn’t want that good relationship. I think that is a very wise thing. We sometimes worry and think about all of the things we have done that are wrong and wonder why another person is angry with us and this is a waste of time. It is better to assume that sooner or later you will find out the truth and that in the meantime all you can do is think loving thoughts. Feeling guilty is a waste of time. Feeling shameful is, too.
This time of year it is important to tread lightly on the earth and with each other. We are all still hoping for a miracle.
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