She Considered It Slothful To Eat Breakfast In A Housecoat
by Nicole Freire
I have a charming pair of black sandals that I only wear once in a while. Not because they are too charming to wear more often, but because they have a funny little heel and I am guaranteed to fall off the heels and trip at least two or three times a day.
Two weeks ago, I was in a store called 'Forever 21' which, if you are not a female under the age of 25, you might not know that it's practically the temple of cute and inexpensive clothes for the younger set. The store is on State Street, in the same building that used to house the store 'Anthropologie'. I would wander into that store sometimes to admire the displays (always excellent) and look at clothes and say, "$85 for a shirt?"
I was in 'Forever 21' because I have a 12-year old daughter and that means that one cannot start a new year of school without some new clothes. Plus, I can walk into 'Forever 21' and say, "Holy cow, this shirt is only $10!"
So, back to the charming black sandals. 'Forever 21' is three stories tall, which equals two flights of stairs. Marble stairs. Slippery stuff, this marble. If you ask me, they are a 'slip and fall' accident and ensuing lawsuit just waiting to happen.
I'm in the store with my daughter, and wearing my charming black sandals, and sure enough, I fall off the funny heel and trip a bit as we walk up a flight of stairs. After that, my daughter insisted on holding my arm as we walked up to each floor and again as we descended each flight of stairs.
This sweet display of affection and consideration reminded me that my mother recently gave away a pair of black shoes because she said that each time she wore them she would trip and almost fall. And when I am walking with my mother I often take her arm - not because she's too fragile or prone to fall often - but because I remember the black shoes that tripped her up. Besides, I like to hold my mother's arm, just as my daughter did for me.
My mother has a birthmark on her inner calf, a birthmark shaped like a skinny version of South America. I have the exact same birthmark on my inner calf, but on the opposite leg.
I can visualize that particular strand of DNA twisting a bit, giving me something of my mother, just in a different place. And of course there are things about me that came from my father, for I am nothing if not my parent's daughter. I never once thought that I might be adopted (although readers may remember that I used to torture my sister when we were young by telling her that she was adopted. If she had just looked into a mirror, she would have been assured that I was just making it up) because I have my mother's voice, as does my sister, and my father's long toes. I have her curly hair and my father's obsession with books and reading. My mother has the most beautiful nose in the world and my sister and I have variations of our father's nose. Not that it's any less lovely. But when people tell my sister, "Oh, you look so much like your father!" she always responds with "Oh great, because that's what I really want to look like, a sixty-something man."
Why am I telling you this?
I do this writing thing right? And sometimes people ask me how I do it. Do I write many drafts? No. I write one. Do I write any articles in advance? No - much to my chagrin, because Ed is so patient with me and my squishy interpretation of what a deadline means. I can't explain how I do it because honestly, sometimes I'm not sure just how I do it. I sit down at the computer and out it comes.
In my grandmother's house there was a small table with just one drawer in it. In that drawer was an entire ream of white paper. Beautifully blank - and so much of it! It seemed miraculous to me, to have an entire drawer devoted solely to plain white paper, and so much of it, seemingly an unending supply. Within arm's reach of that drawer of paper was my grandmother's typewriter, and I loved to sit down at her typewriter, put in a blinding white piece of paper and 'pretend to write'.
And then I remember that my grandmother wasn't always an English teacher, she was a reporter. She wrote the news reports for radio stations and stories for magazines.
I remember again that her mother was also a writer. She loved the theater and wrote stories for ladies' magazines.
In my house there is a small blue table with one drawer in it. And in that drawer there is always a ream of white paper. I rarely write on paper these days because after typing from written notes, I finally figured out how to do the same thing on the computer, sans written notes (which is good because my handwriting is atrocious, almost unreadable).
So maybe it's not a fluke that I can sit down and write something. Maybe it's another strand of DNA twisting down through three or four generations of women who write, often feeling compelled to do so.
My grandmother was a tall woman who was an English teacher in an elementary school. She was allergic to just about everything and she could play the organ. She died too young, at least to our family and of course, my mother. She was 67, and never saw me in print or read a column or a story of my own.
Her sister, however, my great aunt, is alive and healthy and one of my biggest fans (besides my mother).
She recently sent me a copy of an obituary that my grandmother had written for their great aunt. And when I read it all I could say or think was "Damn! This is really good!" I've typed it out for you readers because it is really good - a great piece of writing. Any obituary that includes the sentence, "She considered it slothful to eat breakfast in a housecoat" and have it make sense and appeal to a reader's heart is a talented writer indeed.
I can only hope that someday my writing will be as good as hers. I don't know if having a drawer full of blank white paper helps or not but I have one too.
For Miss Bertha Folley: A Memorial
To the Herald-American:
Last October my aunt, Miss Bertha Folley, died and your paper printed her proper obituary, including the facts assembled by the mortician in the usual fashion.
During the months that have followed it has been on my mind how little those words conveyed to your readers of the life that had finished or what the death meant. For many years I was a news reporter and have written hundreds of "obits" myself. I have often suspected their inadequacy, but this is one I know.
And thus I must submit here to the compulsion to write to give you some of the meaning of this life and perhaps submitting to you an obituary of a different sort.
For the statistics usually included in such a summary, my aunt had the greatest scorn. Indeed, we were not allowed to know her age and when the mortician asked, it was with the clearest conscience that the answer came, "I don't know."
So she outwitted your form in that matter. I'll give you a clue that I know: She passed the four-score mark. But I won't give away her secret.
She taught at Prescott School. How many years? I really don't know, but more than 35, of course - nearer 50.
She never married, but she carried on a great love affair with the city of Syracuse. She bore no children, but she guided and cherished and instructed hundreds upon hundreds of little ones.
Who knows how many weddings she attended and silently "gave away" the bride or groom? How many funerals to say goodbye?
Each copy of your paper brought to her an account of the doings of all the people she knew. She'd supplement your words with additional tidbits about all the relatives by blood and marriage whether you wrote of the bank president, the grocer, the store clerk.
She compiled thick scrapbooks on the history of Syracuse, but how sketchy they were compared to the storehouse of her memory.
Next to Syracuse she loved her country. When she managed to save enough for a trip beyond to visit to relatives she crossed this country. She did go as far as Bermuda once, but had no wish to go beyond while this land offered areas yet unseen.
She went to the Dutch Reformed Church on James Street all her life and for as many years as I can remember she was in charge of the flowers for each Sunday's service.
Only those lucky enough to grown up with a "maiden aunt" in the family can understand her special place in our lives. We had other aunts, very dear, but they had their own homes and families. This one was an extra parent to all six of us.
She visited each of our homes regularly during summer vacation and treated us all with scrupulous equality. She would take us each to Woolworth's and at the door hand us each a dime to spend as we pleased. She let us take hours to decide and then bought us a soda.
How many years did she belong to Morning Musicals? Probably as long as there were morning musicals. And Commonweal. She purposely made her life into a litany of similar days and her years, of cherished traditions.
She always ate Good Friday luncheon at the Yates. She always had a lettuce sandwich and tea for lunch at home. She bought her clothes from the same "girls" in the same shops, keeping track of their romances and marriages.
She considered it slothful to eat breakfast in a housecoat.
She and her friend Carrie Hurlbut invented the intercom: They tapped out messages on the radiator.
She observed each season with a new hat and planned to buy a new one last fall.
When I was five or so, she told me gently that an angel had come during the night and taken her mother (my grandmother) home to Heaven and this was how I thought of death for many years.
I hope the same angel brought her a golden halo for her winter hat.
She lived alone for 34 years and was scarcely five feet tall - a tiny life in a tiny world.
But what towering memories we have .......
BARBARA FOLLEY DeNIKE
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Nicole Freire is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara.