Friday, April 25, 2014

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd...

Those are Walt Whitman's words.  The poem seems to be an ode to spring but in his later years, Whitman admitted he was writing about the tragic death of Abraham Lincoln.  That April, the lilac purportedly bloomed earlier than normal which made the unspeakable loss of the president all the more sorrowful to Whitman. 
Lilacs seem to mingle with our very souls, their scent is so dazzling.  And since most of us encounter them first in childhood, we have enduring associations with these purple blossoms.  Our yard growing up did not host a lilac bush but my best friend across the street had some ancient ones.  I remember picking bunches and bunches of them and then watching as her mother placed them in crystal clear glass vases throughout the house.  We brought some to our teachers after burying our faces in the cold blooms on our walk to school.  But the fragrance of lilacs builds to a crescendo quickly and then suddenly...they are gone. 
Because the time of lilacs is fleeting in proportion to the potent emotion they garner, it makes sense that Whitman uses them as a metaphor for the unencumbered past.  He longs for the innocent time when lilacs seemed to bloom unceasingly, only to realize that as they return each season, he remembers loss and bereavement.
All this is not to say that lilacs depress me.  They do not.  I do wish they lasted longer - at least until the roses and peonies replace them in June.  Lilacs will always remind me of my best friend, her mother, my mother and grandmother.  My wonderful teachers.  Spring school assemblies outdoors.  Friendships.  Music.  The first picnic.  May baskets.  Mother's Day.  Proms.  Spring dresses.  And oh  Always, always they remind me of love. 

 When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night;
I mourn'd-and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! Trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the wet,
And thought of him I love.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Lost Art of Dress and Aunt Laura

Yesterday my lovely 98 year old Aunt Laura died.  She was the last of the "American Mitfords" as I called my grandmother and her five sisters.  All were elegant and knew how to live.  Their modest homes were filled with well-chosen furnishings, inexpensive greenery and flowering plants, and had hard-working kitchens and sewing machines.  Somehow, it doesn't seem like an accident that I've been reading The Lost Art of Dress, a marvelous book by author/historian Linda Przybyszewski.

No one mastered the art of dress like my grandmother and her sisters.  Aunt Laura, in particular, had a beautiful lithe figure that was a seamstress' dream. She made almost all her own clothes including evening wear, coats and wraps.  Przybyszewski tells us that there was much help for the home sewer from what she refers to as The Dress Doctors. 

The "doctors" were the professors based in Home Economics departments across the country who empowered women to create the very garments of their dreams using practical design principles and theories of proportion.  Their messages were dispatched via books, booklets, pamphlets, and radio.  I've since discovered that some of the written material has become very collectible, and indeed, the premier Dress Doctor, Mary Brooks Picken, taught a nation of women to care about their appearance and wrote 96 books to help them.  Przybyszewski puts it all together in The Lost Art of Dress and she inspires us with Picken's very hand on her shoulder.  My running thought as I read, is "Why can't women dress like this today?"

I wonder too, if Aunt Laura may have had access to some of the Dress Doctors' publications, her skills were so precise and her clothes so beautifully made.  Ever a lady, she was soft-spoken and serene and  had an aura of finespun femininity about her (I'll always think of her when I sniff Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue, her favorite perfume).  Not long ago when I asked her if she remembered how to make my grandmother's famous Italian Pitta pastry, she held out her daintily cupped hand and said, "You take this much flour...."

I leave you with a sweet picture of Aunt Laura holding my younger brother in her arms, her godson (she adored babies and children).  She sits close to her true love and husband, Uncle Rennie. You will notice her graceful balletic frame and her pretty dress which no doubt came straight from the kitchen table.  It's where she kept the sewing machine. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Caring Hour

Victoria Magazine called the time before bed, The Caring Hour, an evening interlude devoted to beauty routines and rituals - a tranquilizing hour for pampering oneself and doing those little niceties there never is enough time for.  I've always had a little regimen of my own which I employ:  I fold down the corner of my bedclothes, turn the lights low, put on a little eye and hand cream, brush my teeth, get into comfortable pretty nightclothes, and find a little snippet of something nice to read before sleep.  All of this creates a personal lullaby - a prelude to slumber with a wish and a prayer that it will be a good one.
When my sister and I lived together as teenagers and then as young working women, Friday nights were sacrosanct for a tradition we called "Beauty Parlor".  We put egg white masks on our faces, polished our nails, took long baths with scented oils and engaged in all manner of female beautification. We read aloud to each other the question and answer columns in Glamour Magazine where we first learned about foam shaving creams for women, shampoo and conditioner combos, and the superiority of slanted tweezers.  Later, when we lived apart, we kept our ceremonials, just separately.
Now on Friday nights, if I am home and not too exhausted, I will add a few additional beauty tasks, such as deep hair conditioning and foot creams.  I always feel more peaceful and serene after I've looked after myself this way.  I consider it money in the bank and the routine is calming and reassuring.  And by the way, reading choices are more soothing if they are easy favorites; a book of poems, a children's story, or a domestic novel. 
Tonight I called my sister to tell her I had just given myself my first pedicure of the season.  "What are you doing?", I asked her.  "Just putting on the top coat", she replied.
What are your nightly beauty routines?
 P.S.  I adore Avon's sensitive skin, unscented bubble bath which I add my own fragrance to, usually Chanel #5 body wash.  The bubbles are frothy and pure white and #5?  Well, you's delicious.