Remembering Bess

undergarments 1950's
My Mom center, L daughter Lara  and R daughter Brett .

We’d always celebrated my Mother’s birthday on January 3, until she informed us one day that she learned upon  getting a copy of her birth certificate, that her birthday was really January 2!  We all shook our heads in disbelief, but there it was in black and white, Jan 2.  These days, since she is no longer living, I tend to think of either or both days as her birthday.  This time of year triggers memories of Bess.

I easily remember her coming into my bedroom before she went to sleep , to kiss me goodnight. I always pretended to be sleeping, but waited patiently most nights for her sweet kiss.  What a nice game. I never did ask her if she realized, I’d been awake, all those times.

I loved to watch her get dressed to go out with my Dad.  Her bedroom, next to the bathroom, a little misty from the shower she’d just taken.  The door to her closet which held the only full length mirror in the house, would be ajar as she checked her progress.  Those were the years when a woman’s undergarments set the foundation for a well dressed woman. For a young girl watching the armor  applied to tame the mature feminine body, it was nothing less than fascinating.undergarments 1950's


My mother never ever got dressed without pulling on her girdle first.  When I questioned her about the procedure, she told me in no uncertain terms that she felt undressed with out it. I took her word for it and stopped inquiring.

Following her lead, when I became an adolescent, I decided I needed a girdle as well before going out on a date.  As a dancer, at this time of my life, I was very slender.  My Mom tried to tell me I didn’t need it, but I would have none of her reassurances.  The purchase of a girdle was a right of passage and I was hell bent on wearing one.

I got a stomachache midway through the date evening, excused myself, went to the bathroom and quickly pulled off the now loathsome girdle placing it in the trashcan, before returning to my date. Liberated!

Mom’s summer cologne in those years was usually Mary Chess, white lilac.  My love of the scent of lilacs equaled or surpassed hers and I too wore Mary Chess until it stopped being produced in the early ’60’s.

The choice of shoes completed her outfit and preparation.  She had about a dozen options, neatly displayed on her closet floor.  Years later, her oldest toddling granddaughter was attracted to that closet as if by a magnet.  She’d chose her (Mom’s)shoes to wear by some mysterious process and proceed to wear them around the second floor of my Mom’s house for several hours.  Mom never objected.

Today, I wonder how my Mom’s life might have been different if she’d been born a decade or two later.  She was one of the few working women I knew.  All of my friend’s moms were stay at home.

Mom put a lot of energy into making her home attractive and vibrant.  She boldly painted her kitchen ceiling red. She did not hesitate to go all white in her living room, reupholstering and recarpeting as needed.  The only caveat was it was not a room for children, only for company.  If kids tried to skirt the rule she’d quickly ask them to leave.  She cleverly converted New England antiques into working partners in achieving the look she sought.

She always needed and wanted a broader life, but my Dad insisted that if she was to work, it could only be for him, as a cashier in his grocery store.  I know she had bigger dreams, but never went after them.  She adored my father and stayed by his side, seldom complaining except when he spent most of Sunday golfing.  All through my childhood, she repeated to me, “Get out of Holyoke!”

I got the message along with the Mary Chess.


You Remember What You Want to Remember! And don’t forget it!

If I could sum up the most important thing I learned during my junior high years, it would be the statement frequently heard in my Social Studies class when a question was posed by our teacher to which no one had the answer.  “You remember what you want to remember,” she thundered.  I cowered. I was a timid soul in those years.

Holyoke, Mass. school teacher, Helen Dunn

Miss Dunn was the end of the line for the never married teacher.  She must have been under 5′ tall, stout, buxom, with greyish white hair, cut short.  You didn’t mess with Miss Dunn, but you learned what she wanted to teach you. She still had the remnants of an Irish brogue and she scared me to death.  She taught me grammar in 7th grade and then was my Social Studies teacher in 8th.  She was a stickler for details, but when she taught, I remembered, because I knew it was in my best interests. I’ve often said she was the only good teacher I ever had as an undergrad.  The above photo is the only time I remember her smiling. May she rest in peace.

I never have described myself as someone with a “good” memory.  These days, as my recall gets a little dodgy, Miss Dunn’s words continue to reverberate.  Do I not care enough about the things I’m forgetting? Maybe not! There are still many things I clearly remember.  They are usually things that I cared about or things that scared the s*%t out of me, searing some brain cells in the process.

But, heaven help me if Miss Helen Dunn would reappear today to ask me what I ate for dinner last week, or ask me to remember details of a conversation I had recently. Could not do. I obviously just didn’t care enough.

Now, some things just have stayed with me, like the words to songs or my mother’s warnings like “Don’t come crying to me!”  I’ve never been one to remember plots of movies.  That’s been going on for a long time.  Now, even if I hear the title, I might not be sure I’ve seen it, never mind recount the plot!  I also can forget the plots of books, although I generally remember if  I liked/disliked.

But I’m not getting worked up about being a little more forgetful than I’ve been.  Yet.

I love the poignant ballads, “I Remember You” as well as “Try to Remember.”  I’ll feel certain that I’ll still be able to sing those songs on my deathbed. 

I’ve always had trouble remembering why I’m angry at someone because I can’t usually remember the reason for it.  That’s for the best I think.  I have been heard to say, “I’m supposed to be angry with _____, but I forgot why.”

All the new emphasis on brain exercises doesn’t interest me.  I still like to think, as Miss Dunn would have it,  that if it’s important enough, I’ll remember it!