Friday, June 13, 2014


In high school, I wanted to be a cheerleader more than anything.  I adored the uniforms:  black and orange wool skirts with wide pleats, cozy crewneck letter sweaters, black socks and saddle shoes.  I especially loved the oversized chrysanthemum poms the cheerleaders wore on their left shoulders at football games and how their maneuvers made the creamy petals fall like flakes of snow at their feet.

But our cheerleaders were not just enthusiastic sideline champions of the boys football team - they were fierce competitors in their own right who had been winning competitions all over the state for three years.  This meant that to be chosen for this elite club, one needed to be able to jump high, hold the weight of another girl on the shoulders and thighs, and make military precision arm movements in unison.

The year I tried out, I practiced every day after school in the driveway.  But no matter how hard I worked, I simply could not improve my jumps - I was always just an inch or two too low - a subtle difference but one that would not go unnoticed by the judges.  In addition, my mother had already spoken to the cheerleading coach who had told her that only one twin would be allowed to join the squad.  This meant I was competing against my sister, whose jumps were consistently higher than mine by those inches.

I felt no animosity toward my twin and fully expected her to win a coveted spot but I tried out anyway.  I was in good shape from years of ballet and was proud despite the fact that unless there was a miracle, I would not be selected.  So I was not too disappointed on the late bus that pretty spring afternoon and I was genuinely excited for my sister.  The noisy bus distracted me from my loss as I listened to other school stragglers like the girls field hockey team and detention inmates.

When we pulled up to the grassy field at the top of our street, I saw my mother sitting on the wooden bench near the road.  She stood up as the bus door opened for me and underneath her arm I saw a large white box tied with a yellow paper ribbon.  I remember the soft smile in her eyes and the words she said, "I didn't know who was getting off the bus today but I brought a present for her".  My mother said she could not see the differences between my sister's jumps and mine, no matter how many times I tried to show her but I was never sure I believed her.  A placid breeze carried the scent of fresh earth and early blooms as we sat on the bench while I untied the ribbon and opened the box.  Inside was a beautiful broadcloth peasant dress in the richest grape hue I've ever seen.  It was trimmed in large red rick-rack and had puffed sleeves and a small flounce at the hem.  "This dress will look so nice with your new red patent clogs", my mother said, still smiling gently.  She clearly felt much worse than I.

I don't think we spoke on our walk down the hill that led to our house.  I held the dress box and my mother carried my books and purse.  When we reached the backdoor, the warming sun was just dropping behind the town's massive water tower and I could smell dinner cooking in the oven.  When I passed the dining room on my way to hanging up my lovely new dress, I noticed the table had been set - one of the chores that was always left for me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mistress of Herself

I've written about her before on this blog, but Mrs. Delany continues to capture my imagination and inspire me as my premier muse.  In addition to reinventing herself many times over, she kept living well and enjoying life long after many of her contemporaries had fallen.  Her gorgeous paper mosaicks (sic) created after her 72nd year, her needlework, her shell designs all remain for us to explore. 

I will forever be drawn to flowers on black backdrops such as the awe-inspiring dress above because it echoes so much of her art and needlework motifs.  In fact, if I had $425 un-earmarked, I would be purchasing Gucci's new and lovely Flower Print silk scarf.  With its roses, trailing vines, and even insects, it is the perfect foil for all things Delany.  I have officially embraced the movement.

But it really is the woman herself who draws me in.  Despite bitter hardships and a horrible arranged first marriage, she was always ready for her next reincarnation.  She never looked back.  She began creating her mosaiks during the potent stage of first grief after her beloved second husband's death - a time when one would expect a drawing in of life and creativity.  Instead, Mrs. Delany constructed over 1,000 pieces of artwork that still captivate us with their intricate detail and uniqueness.  She also maintained her friendships with the younger women in her circle through correspondence and extended visits, always curious about the latest fashions and trends. An arbiter of good taste and good sense, she was a woman who stood up for herself in times when women were suppose to be docile and subservient.  Mrs. Delany was no pushover and spoke her mind.  She knew who she was and based her life on that vision.  Lessons for today.  Difficult work for any woman.  Profound for an 18th century one.

Enthusiastic letter-writer, lively conversationalist, skilled needlewoman, social observer, she was mistress to no one but herself.