Saturday, August 28, 2010


This is the first in a periodic series of essays on women I have encountered who have lit a style candle for me....


One fall, I helped my sister pack her belongings into a small Volkswagon for a trip to college for her senior year. Because she was going to be living off campus in an apartment, I was interested to see her new home and roommate.

A smiling young woman delightfully charged towards us as our VW pulled into the parking lot of what turned out to be my sister's standard issue flat. Beth had a charming smile and waves of auburn hair shorn in a becoming short hairstyle. She was wearing white socks with a pair of Ked's and I thought it made her look romantic and girlish with jean cut-off shorts and cotton bastiste camisole top. She looked like a little China doll with her apple red lipgloss, and greeted us warmly as we were led into my sister's new living quarters.

I became enchanted immediately by a sweet floral scent and noticed that Beth had placed baskets and containers all over the apartment filled with something I was unfamiliar with - a delicious rose potpourri. I knew what potpourri was but I had never seen it actually used before. The scent was delicate and rare and permeated the apartment like a sunbeam, giving everything a graceful feeling. Soon it became clear to me that Beth was the most feminine woman of my own age that I had met up until that point in time.

We were shown the bedroom Beth had selected for herself, which was thoughtfully, the smaller room. It was already set up and decorated as if she had been occupying it for years. There was a bed with a brass head and foot board, a few well-loved petite wooden dressers, a desk, and a low bookshelf. The bookshelf contained the complete novels of Jane Austen interspersed with dried flowers and glass containers of ribbons and buttons. The bed was fully dressed in white lace, like a bride in all her wedding finery. Lace runners covered the dressers and on top were small china dishes holding bits and bobs of jewelry, a silver comb, a few lovely hair accessories, a crystal perfume bottle. A cup of freshly made tea was on the nightstand in a delicate bone china cup and saucer, a paperback book open on the bed. I had never seen such feminity, such fluff and frippery, such fun! Drapped quiety in waiting across the brass footboard was a beige silk camisole with lace cutouts shaped like shells across the top and matching silk tap pants. This was the late 70's, when most young women were still wearing unisex army jackets, frayed jeans, and the no-makeup look. Beth had clearly embraced another way of being in the world and I was her rapt and watchful student, spellbound.....

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August Issue

I was lucky in that my father paid for my subscription to Seventeen magazine until I came home from college and had my first job. The first Seventeen I ever read, which signed, sealed, and delivered my fervent wish to have this magazine in my life for always, was the August 1969 Back to School issue. We lived within walking distance of the local market, and having just enough change one day, I snatched the magazine off the rack and skipped home with it.

I was still a tween, so I was slightly wary of showing my mother this purchase. I had an inkling she might not approve of my reading what seemed to me, such a grown up periodical. If she disapproved, she didn’t prevent me from keeping it and I stretched out on the grass and cracked it open that hot summer afternoon. Like Alice, I fell through a rabbit hole and I still haven’t found my way out, although my one remaining tour guide is now Vogue.

Back then, Seventeen was an extra long magazine. It was the same size as my mother’s McCall’s and Ladies Home Journals. Magazines were forces to be reckoned with. The August Seventeens were thick and heavy too. There was plenty to say in August to a young school girl wanting to put her best foot forward in September. The paper was shiny and slippery, the spine hard and taut. But the smell of the magazine! I could smell the ink and paper, certainly chemical, but oh so exciting and full of promise.

Each turn of the page brought a new fascination. I poured over the ads for Bonne Belle Ten-O-Six Lotion, Windsong perfume, Sears Jr. Bazaar department, and Modess. Each page showed me the young lady I wanted to become. With Seventeen’s help, I got there.

In the privacy of my bedroom, I tried pinning loops of braids on each side of my face like the Bobbi Brooks models. I experimented with “baby” barrettes, red nail polish, chunky wooden beads. I made lists of back-to-school items that suddenly became necessities: Maidenform bras, tights, a plaid raincoat.

One fall, Seventeen introduced me to the maxi coat and I wanted one with the military styling and buttons just like the one on page 72. I also wanted the boyfriend on that page too. Seventeen showed me pictorially how to comport myself if I were to have a boyfriend. I was dreamily transfixed on the images of Colleen Corby, Cheryl Tiegs, and Cybil Sheppard. When the boyfriends appeared, at least I would know how to dress for it.

The articles were of some use to me but my real concentration was Seventeen’s fashion, the ads and the beauty advice. I pounced on my issue month after month, year after year and saved them in a makeshift tower that was eventually tall enough to hold my makeup mirror at eye level.

The magic, the glamour, the hope, the wish - that’s what Seventeen meant to my pre-teen self. The August Back to School issue told me it was time to fold the beach blanket with a snap, dust off the sand and head back home. Did Madison Avenue have a hold over me? You bet they did and it enriched me in ways that still make me hopeful when the calendar turns a corner and heads toward fall.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Powder Up

It has been hot as heck in New England which is unusual. Does anyone remember the opening lines of To Kill a Mockingbird? Grown up Scout recounts the hot as Hades summers in Alabama and how the ladies of Macon turned into tea cakes by late afternoon; their talcum powder like melted icing mixed with rivulets of perspiration.

I’ve been intrigued by powder boxes and their contents since I watched Since You Went Away last Christmas. Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) receives a powder box from her missing- in- the- war husband which was wrapped and sent months before his disappearance. Husband Tim’s accompanying note tells Anne that the powder box is not “so fair” but it can't be resisted because it is also plays their special song. She weeps over this lovely, heavy, round and footed box with a hinged top. I started looking for a powder box for talc but they are hard to find and the ones on eBay are much worn. Most likely, Anne's box is for face powder.

My grandmother introduced me to talcum powder in her 1930's bathroom. Among the things that captivated me in that fascinating room was the built-in water goblet holder, a claw foot tub and a square pink box on top of the commode. This box contained fine, fragrant talcum powder and lying on top of the powder was a snowy hand mitt placed on a small net screen. It smelled divine and I know more than once I made a bit of a mess with it. No one minded about messes at this house, however. My grandmother often gave me boxes of talcum powder for Christmas and birthdays and they always had a soft hand mitt.

While doing clinical work in a nursing home one summer years ago, I noticed how common it was for the female residents to have talcum powder in pretty tins which were sprinkled on them as part of their bedtime toilette. In fact, the halls reeked of the stuff but it was a pleasant smell that I came to expect as I performed my duties each night as much as I expected the music of Lawrence Welk in the background from every TV set. This led me to believe that the use of talcum powder was a thing of a certain generation. I imagined these lovely elderly women in their younger days, dressed in tea or afternoon dresses and smelling of lilac, lily of the valley, and especially, of roses.

For me, I love Crabtree and Evelyn’s Nantucket Briar. And, I wish I could find a talc box with a mitt like the kind my grandmother gave me years ago. Those are hard to find today. I’ld also love a real nice old fashioned or vintage powder box. I did find a round faux shell box with a butterfly motif that I keep my sparkle powder in. There is no scent to the sparkle powder but I like to powder puff my arms and décolleté when I go out in scoop neck or sleeveless dresses on warm summer evenings.

But there is something nice about keeping myself sprinkled before bed on these very sultry nights. Talc fell out of favor because of certain health risks and there are some non-talc powders available. They just don’t have the same soft fineness of real talc. I continue to use my talcum with a conservative touch this summer as I await for blessedly cooler temperatures.

Is anyone else using talcum powder during this hot, languid summer? What kind?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Summer Visit

I visited my first best friend and her mother at the seashore last week. I drove to their summer home, the house where I was a constant guest as a girl and teenager. My friend, Paula and her mother, Rosemary, were my second family. Rosemary is my other mother (see my Second Mothers post).

We only see each other from time to time and that's really a pity. But we take up right where we left off - a natural ability of true good friends. They make me feel I belong to something, to them perhaps, or to the past we share. Who else in one's life remembers a field trip to the zoo in kindergarten? I know every book Paula read, every outfit she wore. I remember her grandmother, her dog, her dolls, her boyfriends. I was there the day her father died. Our only children were born the same year.

I toured their great old cottage on my arrival. It smelled the same - the nostalgic scent of pine walls and the sea and it instantly lodged an aching lump in my throat that didn't disappear until I arrived home at 2:00 am. I lingered on the curved stairway, sat on the double bed Paula and I shared in the back bedroom. The rooms seemed smaller but they were windswept with the white billowing curtains I still see in my dreams. The same faded mirror hung on the wall and I almost glimpsed our 15 year old selves reflected back, our cheeks reddened from the wind and sun and every bit of us the height of loveliness.

We walked to the beach and I found I had forgotten how beautiful it is. Memories flooded back of girls on blankets playing cards, searching for seashells, dabbling with first loves. Poems and songs began to swirl in my head with words and phrases from long ago. It was 1968, 1971, 1973, 1978... the years flipped by like a calendar in an old black and white movie.

At last, Paula took one of my hands in hers and traced her finger over my knuckles. "You have the same hands", she whispered and I suddenly became aware that she does this each time we see one another now. We were as close as sisters and I guess we still are if she feels comfortable enough to perform this sweet gesture on another middle aged woman.

I am so blessed to still have Paula and Rosemary. I am blessed to have a keyhole to peek through from time to time when I want to visit the young girls we once were. I am certain it is heartshaped.

Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on and heads grow
gray, how fast the friends do go. Touch hands, touch hands, with those that
stay.. Strong hands to weak, old hands to young... Touch hands! Touch hands!
-William Henry Harrison Murray