She was beautiful when she was first carried across the threshold. I saw a picture of her once that was on a lampshade. She looked just like a movie star. Her hair was piled up on her head, in a Grace Kelly French twist. Her make-up was drawn to perfection. Her smile was wide and contagious with pencil rimmed red lips around dazzling white teeth. An intricately detailed Dior wedding gown draped her voluptuous form. It was hard to find photos of her. There weren’t many from her youth and there were fewer taken as she grew older. That photo must have survived because it was one from their wedding, or maybe because she had it made into a home decoration. She loved interesting home décor and furniture.
When they met, I imagine, it was like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 'The taming of the Shrew' where the man with the lascivious smile has to tame the wild beauty. She was creative and independent and said ‘silly’ things, which he found amusing. “He knew what he wanted from the first,” she once told me. With firm and constant pressure, he guided her in the direction he intended to go. After a half feigned struggle for her independence, she submitted to his will. She was proud to have caught her prince charming in the end. I thought that was a funny way to for her to put it--from the stories she told, it seemed so much the other way around.
When I was very young, she still had an amazing sense of style. It was not just the fashionable clothes and impeccable make-up. She always had piles of decorating magazines around and pored over them, as if embellishing her home was a job. As the curator of her personal museum, she cut out the perfect pieces of furniture from magazines and laid out potential rooms on a grid. Then she would meticulously place tiny swatches of paper and fabric neatly around her model of perfection. She turned my father’s house into the flower of his success, a glittering palace no less magical than OZ.
Cooking, ironing, cleaning, being a gracious hostess, making a beautiful home, these were all ways to help your husband succeed, she informed me. Having studied home economics in college, she spent hours educating us on matters of etiquette and style. But of all the things she knew, her real forte was in antique furnishings. She could look at something as ordinary as a
His children were born between her sturdy legs, and with each child born, her shape changed a little. It became softer and rounder. The house work and romping children turned her hands and feet broad and coarse. A looser fitting yet still fashionable fabric now covered the lumpiness of her new shape. I liked the softer shape. Her lap was warm and comfortable, a perfect place for a tired child curl up fall asleep.
I don’t think she was fond of the changes though. Eventually, she gave up the designer cloth and covered herself in durable denim, strong, easy to clean, a color that would hide stains from cooking, cleaning, and the chocolaty palms of small children. She stopped going out as much and spent more and more time looking at the decorating magazines, arranging her home and waiting for her children to come back from school and jump into her lap. Eventually, she didn’t want to go out at all, and the details of her personal decoration became completely unimportant to her.
Her husband had his work and the children had school and activities. And she would say, “I’m living vicariously through the stories you bring me.” Sometimes she listened intently, and her children could imagine a deep concern for them in her eyes, and other times she drifted off to sleep as they prattled on about their daily happenings. There were a few occasions when she would start to say something, but dozed in mid sentence, her hands falling limp at the end of her resting arms. And the more sedentary she was, the less she wanted to move, the broader her back became, the wider her seat, her arms filling up like soft pillows.
Eventually, she became indistinguishable from the room around her, except that the rest of the room was not quite as worn. Her blue denim covering was becoming thread bare. This really bothered my father. “I don’t care what covering you choose, as long as it isn’t blue denim!” he demanded. I felt sorry for her. Somehow she stopped wanting to make decisions about her own coverings. In a sort of last desperate plea for help, she begged me to make a decision for her. I tried to help by choosing a pastel blue fabric with light floral buds. I thought at least it would lighten the atmosphere.
Not long after that, we children each left home one at a time to follow our own desires leaving the two of them behind. Her limited existence became almost inanimate. Occasionally, she would call just to hear us speak, but she never had anything to tell us.
If we contacted him, my father didn’t mention her anymore. It remained that way for years. That’s why I was so surprised when he called me a few weeks ago. “I have something for you,” he said. “I think you used to like to curl up in it when you were a kid. If you want to come pick it up it’s yours.” And then he added, “Just remember that whatever you take out of the house you can’t bring back.”
He probably didn’t really remember why I loved it so much, but I was delighted that he offered it to me and I went to pick it up right away. The tiny bud print on the pastel blue fabric had split wide open and the stuffing was oozing out. Too many years of use and neglect, I guess. The frame was still good and the legs still sturdy, so I have just had it recovered. It is now clothed with flowers in full bloom and is looking beautiful again. It’s still wonderful and warm to sit in. I often climb into it with my children and read them cautionary tales of princesses who are willingly enchanted by smooth tongued princes promising happily ever after in perfectly appointed castles. Sitting there together, my children and I dream of all of the things that we might someday become.