When I was growing up, I had only one grandmother and one grandfather, from different sides of the family, neither of whom I saw on a regular basis. Both lived in different states. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a colorful ne’er do well, an alcoholic who lived a rather shabby life. There was a brief period after my parent’s divorce when he lived with my mother and myself, but before and after that, I rarely saw him.
My father’s mother, ‘Grandmother’, as I always called her, was a very nice woman who had been widowed early, liked two old fashioned every evening, and was very self-contained. A proper woman. I saw her perhaps ten times in my life.
Grandmother was, for all intents and purposes, my only ‘grandparent’ figure in the traditional sense. She sent me birthday cards with checks, seemed reasonably pleased to see me on our infrequent visits, and loved to travel. In her small duplex, most surfaces were host to a large collection of Hummel figurines. I’m not sure why she was drawn to the charming indulgence, but she dusted them daily. I was allowed to look, not touch, and recall being struck by the angelic, flushed faces of the children.
Other than the Hummels, her duplex was unadorned, outside of a small upright piano.
Grandmother was an impressive and accomplished pianist; concert level – an odd juxtaposition to the life she led when I knew her. Apparently, after being raised as a strict Mormon in Salt Lake City, she was about to embark upon a concert tour in Europe when she met her husband to be, married him, and became a housewife. He was not an easy man to live with, and once I knew her history, I often wondered if she regretted her decision to relegate something she worked at for so long to a life of ‘before’. I know she had been engaged to another fellow prior to her marriage; I inherited the set of exquisite crystal wine and water glasses the man gave her as a wedding present. He must have loved her a lot.
My primary memory of my grandmother, besides the Hummels and the extraordinary surprise I always felt when she sat down and began to play the piano, was her housedresses.
Every morning, she began with undergarb; a girdle, with attached ‘hose’ (for younger readers – these connected via an elastic band with a ‘buckle’ that snapped over the top of a button on the mid-thigh nylons). Once encased, she donned one of several housedresses she rotated throughout the week.
She wore her housedress all day, with short heels, not slippers. A meticulous housekeeper, presumably she wore the utilitarian, always floral outfit to protect her clothing. She never wore them in public, but my visual memory of her is the frequent sighting of those rotating housedresses. I don’t know if this was her habit before her husband died, but it was as long as I knew her.
At five o’clock, she would change from the housedress into a regular dress, invariably paired with a cardigan sweater. Never a skirt, and never pants. And, of course, the girdle and hose remained intact.
What always struck me, even as a child, was why someone would wear a girdle under a housedress. She was an ample woman, and the housedresses were always loose, but who would know or care if she wore a girdle? But she was a woman of her time, and fastidious, so the balance of the loose housedress and tight girdle worked for her purposes.
Fast forward to the wardrobe of the next generation of grandmothers; my mother. Just as I have vivid memories of my Grandmother and what she wore, so do my children of their Nana.
Inevitably my mother wore a combination of hot pink and lime green. She was very stylish and well groomed, but those colors were hers, and nearly every outfit (pants, rarely skirts) included a combination of the two distinctive colors. Whenever my children see those the duo of those vibrant offerings in tandem, they always mention their Nana.
I have begun to wonder what my grandchildren will recall about my usual outfit when I’m gone. Grandmother wore housedresses, my mother matching pants and sweaters or blouses, and I, ninety percent of the time, am in jeans or sweats. It’s been a downward fashion slope.
Yet, when I wear that usual offering, I’m at the park with the kids, on the floor playing or generally interacting in a manner my mother or Grandmother never experienced.
Is this generational disparity something to be grieved or celebrated? Is it an acceptable progression or a sad commentary on style, fashion and priorities?
I’m certainly never going to wear a girdle. I keep thinking I’m too old for jeans, but really, they are so practical. And sweats? I love sweats like I love chocolate.
Yet, I can’t imagine my grandchildren commenting, when they see an older woman in jeans, “Boy, that reminds me of Nana.” Instead, they might make the remark when they see a female with grey hair playing tennis, or certainly when they see a piece of sea glass – my penchant for collecting such treasures is a big part of their memory of me already.
Ultimately, it is the person and their habits, their interests and distinctive way of being in the world that will presumably last in the minds of those left behind. I’d be happy if my grandchildren will recall me when sighting sea glass or a tennis playing grandmother. What is precious is not what I wear, or what my grandmother and mother chose for adornment. It’s the privilege of having the connection, whatever the framing, and the miracle of the mind and heart that creates memories of that union.