I'm driving along in my car, minding my steering wheel, when purple fountain grass catches my eye. It’s waving like a spectacular part of a woman’s hat, plumes bobbing in an offhanded nod. That single, passing observation quickly takes me elsewhere. I discover I am once again twelve years old, and my green-thumb momma is on her knees in her bermuda shorts and sleeveless tank, the weekend uniform. She’s planting her beloved pampass grass near our driveway. The thriving grass became a tall, friendly backdrop for family pictures. Before long, I am daydreaming of planting grasses because, surely, my mother, who died five years ago, is standing next to me.
I see her arms folded across her chest. She’s suggesting that I add more grasses to our rocky, uneven yard. She points to a place, then strolls to a spot, her foot wear slapping her heels. My mother never calls these sandals anything but “thongs.” These thin rubber-soled shoes, held on by a Y-shaped strap between the big toe and the second toe, are known in 2017 only as flip-flops, but not before the 1970s. She wore "thongs" all summer, every summer, along with large sunglasses. Clearly, the meaning of “thong” has received a twerky update, the Y-shape strap located to another part of the body that only reminds me, Oh well, that part just doesn’t look the same.
Years ago, no one would have ever worn flip-flops to the White House—just ask a grandmother—but some members of the national champion women’s lacrosse team did just that in 2005. In response to the criticism, the team auctioned off their flip-flops on eBay and gave over one thousand dollars to a young cancer patient the team had befriended. I call that Womenade.
At a recent social event, I waded through a crowded, stuffy room. I was tired and ready to go home, until I glanced behind me. A glossy, kelly green, patent leather bag, featuring two handles with gold clasp, hollered at me, as in “Hey there Honey, long time no see!” Its lines, structured and smart. As if seeing an old friend, I went to the owner with winsome accolades for The Beauty on her arm, noting the fine, old school qualities. She took it as a compliment when I said, “Your bag is so like some my grandmother had.” She smiled back and said, “Thanks. It’s vintage.” Uh, yeah!
When my grandmother wasn’t working she was our built in baby-sitter, aiding her single, working daughter. In her room, I’d sit on the neatly made bed and stare as she went through her beauty routine. She was about seventy-three, but I was heartily susceptible to the ritual of a woman perfecting her cosmetics and clothes. Such mystery. Rites of passage, and all that epic pre-teen wonder.
My grandmother was different than other kids’. We didn’t even call her “Grandmother” or anything at all cuddly and cozy, like “Gigi.” She was “Moose” to our family, a weird nickname with which a son-in-law tagged her. Yeah, “Moose.” How do you explain that to your friends? It’s very likely she preferred it to “Grandma.”
For a girl who was named Daisy Opal by her Victorian-era mother, my grandmother surely chafed at the old-fashioned combination in a world where women had recently begun to vote. By the time I was born, she’d changed her legal name to Jackie. Cool before Jackie Kennedy, a first lady, made it so. She took control of her story.
Jackie’s tool kit basics sat on her 1960s French Provincial dresser: Jergen’s lotion in a glass bottle, Ponds cold cream, and delicious facial powder in a round, pink plastic container with some cursive writing in black on the lid. Was it supposed to be French? City AirSpun Face Powder has been around since 1935, in one box or another. Some things just last. A Max Factor eyebrow brush. And, always, always, Jackie concluded her make-up routine with red lip stick. Don’t ask the precise color, just really red.
From the top drawer of her chest, my grandmother then retrieved small, round, elastic garters, because she was a carefully-crafted woman, and that meant she wore stockings. I suspect the stocking garters she wore were of the kind she and her flapper friends used decades before I ever laid eyes on them, perhaps as a place to tuck extra cash, cigarettes, or a lip stick.
For the record, I gave up panty hose several years ago, but my grandmother would be in her eighties before she let go of her individual, sleek, leg-shaped silks that came from her chosen department store. For her, it was always Hanes, in her fav color, South Pacific. She wore them with stiletto high heel, kick-butt, Deliso Debs, a prized possession for those who love vintage fashion and a shelf full of purses at the top of her closet. (I once owned a floral pair of the heels that killed, an estate sale trophy. (That was before I realized I had also inherited my grandmother’s bad baby toe and susceptibility,, Sweet Jesus, to corns.)
Given my grandmother had lost one of her arms in a car wreck, getting the stockings and garters in place was artistic proficiency. I never heard her complain about the accident, which nearly killed her, but, in the end, only seemed to make her tougher. She taught herself how to do everything all over again, including type—as in a manual typewriter—and get those stockings on, type and put on her stockings, so she could go back to work because she liked to work. And she never went anywhere in public without her artificial arm, bearing its charm bracelet of grands and greats, with freshly painted nails. Her stylish dress always had at least a three quarter length sleeve to hide the numerous straps that kept the decorative arm in place. Let us pause and admire the effort. Amen.
With a woman, there's always more than meets the eye, always.Jackie divorced her alcoholic husband, rather than live with him. She supported herself and her two daughters, occasionally living with her parents to make ends meet during the Great Depression. She was an every-Sunday Methodist, but no prude. She embraced life as an adventure. If she wanted cold cereal for supper or ice cream, let it be so. If she wanted to shop or grab a pastry, she got in the car and went. Of course she could make a mean meatloaf, but she made it for herself and her women folk. If shaped by her time, as we all are, Jackie was completely herself, as unconstrained as anyone can be who is stuck in stockings.
The decline of conventional stockings started with the L’eggs product, an egg shaped container of panty hose a woman could buy at the grocery store. That, my friends, was a game changer for busy, working women who were already picking up the milk, meat, potatoes, and cans of fruit cocktail. And once pants became publicly acceptable, women gladly switched to knee-highs.
Thankfully, garters have long ago exited our women scene, unless someone on the Victoria’s Secret runway is wearing them, or, perhaps, Stefano Gabbana is incorporating them into his designs after shaming Lady Gaga after the Super Bowl for having a real-live body. (Yes, Stefano, we have tummies, and if they seem large to you, put men in leggings or Spanx.)
Gone also are pointy bras and lacquered hair that surrounded my childhood. Gone are cigarette ads that told us, You’ve come a long way, Baby. Baby, for goodness sakes! We women have boldly moved past early denim and sweatpants. We’ve got stretchy jeans and leggings. We have new fabric technology that resists sweat because we women work out—for crying out loud—and put our hair in useful ponytails. Oh, for sure, some of us have shape wear to smooth us out here and there, but mostly we’ve claimed “relaxed” as our thing.
I have young children, and yet, I am old enough to have actually observed the advent of very casual women’s wear—and something else. Instead of embracing this happy state of uncorseted freedom, women are still critiqued, shamed, trolled, and exposed to endless opinions because everyone, including The Internet and its Friends, has something to say about The Women. (#LeggingsGate) My grandmother worried about looking too "kittenish," her stand-in word for the question, Am I too old for this outfit? Back then, I wasn't sure what fear she was expressing, but now I do, all too well. However, I have had enough of limitations.
I happened to mention not long ago that I may never get to see a woman president in my life time. An older woman who, I am sure remembers hose, said from her pants, “Well, we don’t want a woman just because she’s a woman.” I laughed, “Well, why not? We’ve had men presidents just because they are men.”
Maybe, maybe, I just really need a very large and colorful tattoo because they aren’t just for sailors anymore.