Olden Girls

Greetings My Dear Ones!

“Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.” –Faith Baldwin

I fell in love again this week.   A woman in her nineties came in, clapping her hands briskly and yelling “ok, ladies, who wants to get to work? I gotta lotta work for you! I’m ninety-six years old and I ain’t buyin’ no new clothes and I’m sinking faster than Venice…These pants is coming up!”  She rattled around the shop trying to whip us up, like she was hosting a pep rally.  Her voice sounded like a cross between a little bird and a cattle auctioneer.  I was smitten. I hadn’t seen anything so cute since eighty-year-old Herman Dinglehopper glued a tea-towel in his pants.

“This is my favorite suit,” she said, stripping down to her large, heavily padded, cotton underwear right in front of me, rather than going into the dressing room, “you gotta help me wear this suit.  I need it for a party coming up.  I had this suit fifty years.  It’s my best suit. I love this suit.”  She tried on seven suits.  She said that same thing about every single one.  “This one likes to party,” whispered Prudence, “in suits.”  The lady went through her bag of clothes—dresses, blouses, jackets, and skirts, shrieking with delight and greeting each one like it was a long-lost friend or relative.  “I can’t buy new clothes,” she said, clutching a blouse to her chest possessively, “what would I do with these poor things?” as if they would be orphans without her.  “Besides,” she continued with a sudden air of blithe indifference, “I’m ninety-six years old!  What the hell!  I don’t need to buy new clothes; I just need to borrow them.”

Like I said, I instantly loved her.  I have always loved what I formerly, when I was younger and the gap was bigger, called “old people.”  Now, these formerly “old” people seem younger to me with each passing year.  I cannot believe how much trouble I have keeping up with my friends in their seventies, or this ninety-six-year-old bird flitting about the shop in her underwear.  I wish I had half her energy!

When I was young, I adored my elders.  They had the most time for me and the best stories.  I loved spending time with my father’s mother, who taught me to knit, crochet, and sew.  She made all her own clothes and was just, well, Fabulous. I also knew my mother’s grandmother, Nana Emma, until I was nineteen. Her kitchen had a big, black, cast iron stove squatting in the middle of it, lord of all it surveyed, that belched out soft, chewy cookies with unfailing regularity. There was usually a box of kittens under it for warmth. Upstairs, was a claw-foot tub.  Her furniture was not antique when she bought it but it is now. It was an old-fashioned house and she was a truly Old-Fashioned Lady who always wore a girdle and was a good judge of horseflesh. She liked to hang around at the local track, betting on winners well into her early nineties.

I had only one regret, growing up: That was that I was not born “in the olden days.” I used to sit on the large, upholstered foot cushion that supported my grandfather’s crippled leg and listen to his stories of growing up during the time of the 1918 influenza pandemic.  His family ran the local grocery store and it was his job to take the horse, with all the boxes of groceries, deliver them to the houses, and pick up new lists of what folks wanted delivered next time.  The first time he did the route alone without his father, that horse knew the route better than he did.  She knew which houses to skip and which houses needed a stop.  If my young little grandfather walked on to the next house, from one doorway to another, the horse knew to move along to the next house and wait.  To protect her son from catching the flu that was claiming so many lives and decimating families, my great grandmother put some camphor on a cloth and tied it over his nose and mouth.  He never got sick.

I adored my grandfather and his stories.  His withered leg stuck out between us, a silent reminder that life in those times before penicillin was hard. He had shattered his leg at the age of 16, when a toboggan he was in veered off course and hit an iron fence. It was a compound fracture that took years to heal after infection set in. He lost so much bone from that accident that his leg was shorter than the other and his knee was fused straight, unable to bend. Despite this, he found a way to angle the leg out to the side so that he could kneel at church.  This always impressed me a great deal. In his walking gait, he always swung that leg as if he was constantly taking a step up.

I especially loved the story about the day his father went to town and bought one of the new motor cars that Ford was selling.  You did not need a driver’s test.  You just went in to the shop, paid some money and bought the thing and drove it home.  The whole family, all eight kids went out with their mother, to stand alongside the house and watch, beaming with pride as their daddy brought the very first car back to their neighborhood.  No one else had one.  But their smiles and eyes turned into horrified circles as they watched their patriarch stand up behind the steering wheel, pull on it for all his might, while yelling “whoa!!! Whoa!!” and then crash it into the side of their barn.  It seems I have inherited his facility with machines.  I am much better with horses than cars, cell phones—or even sewing machines.

If only I had been born in the time of horse-delivered groceries, I lamented over and over as I trudged with my siblings in our little plaid skirts the half mile up hill (Yes, of course, BOTH ways) to the tiny bus shelter at the end of our lane, where we would wait, with invisible ice monsters gnawing our bare knees with their teeth, until a big yellow school bus would take us on a lurching, one-hour ride to a school that was approximately seven miles from the house.  We went to a Parochial school that was serviced by the town buses but it had to collect all the heathen, agnostic, Protestant, and Jewish children and drop them off at the public school first. It was part of our penance to ricochet off the insides of that bus for an hour each way, to and from school.  I didn’t mind so much.  It gave me more time, knees braced against the seat ahead of me, to study the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder until bus fumes made me nauseous.

Once at school, we would form an orderly queue at the back of the classroom, where the lone pencil sharpener was anchored over a large, metal trash can, and sharpen two #2 pencils each for the day’s work ahead.  I can still smell the acrid scent of a freshly sharpened pencil. One was to use, the other was in case the tip of the first one broke, or to loan to a friend who needed one.  It was NOT to be the center of a paper pinwheel constructed by lining up all the holes in a piece of loose leaf paper and spinning it, no matter how irresistibly the holes matched the diameter of the pencil.  Sister would hand out smeared, purple, mimeographed worksheets to do, or make us practice the Palmer Method, while we passed notes to each other and poked each other with the pencils.  It was all so horrible and “Modern.” Why couldn’t we have slates, like Anne of Green Gables? Instead, we were on the leading edge of technology such as the world had never known. Our little nuclear drills proved it:  Once in a while, we would be required to crawl under our desks and tuck our heads between our knees, in calm preparation for the day we would kiss all those little plaid-clad asses goodbye.  We were only mere miles away from Three-Mile-Island during the crisis and this seemed like the most sensible protocol to implement.

I deeply resented being Modern.  I hated seeing the “Keep America Beautiful” ads on our enormous T.V. with its tiny screen that only got two channels without snow in them, seeing Iron Eyes Cody, the crying Native looking at how we had ruined his environment with our trash.  I wanted to go back in time, before such a thing as litter existed. When our home-Ec. Class got replaced with a thing called “computer class” in High School, I could not see the good of it.  To me, it was just math class in disguise—with rows and rows of mystifying code just so a stick figure could walk across the bottom of the screen and get stuck at the other side! I grew up hearing about “the good old days” before there was such a thing as a phone in the center hallway of every house.  Just my luck.  We moved to a house that had TWO phones! We got our first microwave in the eighties and with it, mullets and parachute pants.  Sure, there was a little backlash in the brief resurgence of calico and ruffles and outfits with bows that made women resemble enormous, out-of-scale toddlers but Modernity continued to be a mess.  I wanted to be OLDEN.

Now, today, I am officially fifty-one.  I am no longer just fifty; I am “IN my fifties,” which, in the Olden Days, was OLD.  But do I get to be “old fashioned?” Not yet. Just frazzled and clueless.  Technology and modernity still hound me as I peck at this keyboard and try to post this blog.  Ever so grudgingly, I manage to use a cell-phone—with constant tech support from those people I created in my old-fashioned womb just for this purpose. (It certainly doesn’t seem to be for keeping the lawn mown…)  I raise sheep, spin their wool, and drive a vehicle that still uses a key to start it, does that count? On the bright side, I am a seamstress—which I am told by nearly everyone who comes to the shop is VERY old fashioned indeed. “No One does this anymore,” they insist. Perhaps there is hope.

 Be well, my Dearies!  And do Good Work!

Yours aye,