Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
August. My mother let out a deep sigh. She wrapped a Swirl cotton dress around her naked body feeling more comfortable without the extra undergarments. New York was hot and humid.
She opened her shoe hassock, looked inside at the shoes secured by padded satin, closed the hassock and decided to leave on her backless bedroom slippers.
She walked, slippers slapping the back of her feet with each step, to her dressing table and sat down. "I'm tired today," she spoke to her reflection. "Guess I'm tired of ration books, trying to read photographed v-mail, air raid drills, kids bickering, the heat." She stared at her face. Small lines had begun by sides of her hazel eyes. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were so blonde they seemed to not exist. She pulled a Maybelline crayon-pencil from the center drawer and 'put on' eyebrows.
The machine-permanent-wave had singed her naturally straight hair at the ends and left the rest frizzy. Certain if she brushed it the curl would be pulled out, she merely loosened it with her fingers. It looked frizzy and uncombed. "Too hot for a snood," she sighed again and pulled out a tube of lipstick. The intense color wasn't flattering, but Revlon had promoted it to be the most fashionable. She stared at her features. Although her bone structure was envious, and porcelain skin without blemishes, she noticed the lines radiating from the sides of her eyes. "Only the beginning," she uttered.
As she lifted herself from the velvet bench, the mirror glass caught the reflection of her wedding portrait which was hanging on an opposite wall. Innocent eyes expressed anticipation and uncertainty; a virgin garbed in satin and veil clutching calla lillies seemed less important in the frame than the feelings caught in her eyes.
Mom pulled back the coarse top-sheet on the double bed. She re-made hospital corners on the loosened bottom sheet. "I'll let it air," she spoke to herself.
"Mom. Mom." My call sounded urgent.
"What now?" Mom sighed again. Louder she responded, "What's the matter, Lois?"
"I need you." I whined.
"You always need something, and I wish the whining would stop." Mom thought she'd talked under her breath but I heard that. "I'm coming," she called back.
"I can't straighten up. Pain. Here." I pointed to my right side. I was leaning at the bathroom sink, supporting myself on the basin's side.
Mom's fatigue was forgotten as her concern focused on me, her bent-over daughter. "I'll help you downstairs."
"It hurts. I can't stand up normal." I whined again.
Mom held back her usual automatic response for correcting grammar; she wanted to remind me that 'normally' was proper and go through the adverb routine. Even with my pain, real or an attention getter, speech flaws were something she wouldn't tolerate.
"Sit here." Mom closed the lid on the toilet and moved me from the sink.
"Where'ya going?" I panicked.
"Just to call the doctor." The wrap-dress was caught in my grasping fingers. It opened a bit and I noticed my mother had no slip nor underwear on.
"I'm not fooling this time. I really have pain. Do you believe me?" I sounded out each word.
"Yes, yes, yes." Mom wasn't sure but never took chances when it came to health. I pulled so many antics, it was always difficult to assess real from fake.
She returned to the bathroom, lifted my arm. "We're going to the doctor, now. I'll help you walk."
"I can't get downstairs." My voice showed fear.
"You can, honey. I'll help you." Mom began to dismiss the possibility that this was a prank. Her heartbeats were getting faster. "That's good. Only twelve more steps to go. Good. See? In the car you can lie down."
"Oh, goody. Just what I need. Itchy wool seats," I was sarcastic.
"Glad you haven't lost your sense of humor." Mom smiled relieving some of the tension that was mounting.
Gas rationing wasn't too bad for us as Dad took the train to work each day. Cars were for emergencies; this met the criteria.
A white count of my blood confirmed the doctor's suspicions: appendicitis. Right from his office, Mom drove to Jackson Heights Hospital and checked me in for emergency surgery. She first called Dad, then Grandma to drop by and watch that my sisters, Carole and Joy, don't fight too much and to feed them; then she sat on a hard upright chair in a waiting room.
The surgeon told her he'd use clamps, a new idea, instead of stitches, and that there was only one other patient on the ward so it'd be quiet for me after the operation; then he left her alone. Her eyes welled up with tears. She felt ineffective; she could not kiss away this boo-boo or prevent pain. Her children were getting older, too.
She twisted a linen towel, left on the chair by the person who'd sat there previously.
A radio was going. "The Andrew Sisters. I hate the sound of the Andrew Sisters!" Mom spoke to the silence.
In a sterile room, I fought the ether mask and screamed that I wasn't asleep yet so don't cut me; my teeth hurt. The anesthesiologist turned out to be Dr. Burke who lived two houses away and was the very first on the street to own a television set, but he didn't like children coming over to his house. I was even more afraid, because I did play near his house, that he'd let the surgeon cut me before the ether became effective. Blackness.
"She'll be fine," the surgeon seemed shorter than before as he bent down to talk with Mom. He pulled up another wooden chair and gave post-op procedures. "The ether hasn't worn off yet. Does she know about periods? Sometimes this shock can bring it on a bit sooner."
Nods of understanding, and response to questions, came quickly. Mom stood up to thank the physician, and was suddenly aware of her housedress and nakedness underneath. She didn't even realize she'd driven a car in backless scuffs on her feet. She felt embarrassed; my pain and how to fix it had made Mom unaware of her own appearance. If the surgeon noticed, he said nothing.
"We interrupt this program to announce that Victory in Japan has been declared." A radio speaker small in size delivered large news. "V-J Day, Americans!"
With tears of pleasure in his eyes, the physician quipped, "Mrs. Greene. One day people will ask you where you were when the war ended."
Mom pulled the housedress tighter around her body, and smiled.
©1999 Palo Alto Review
syndicated June 2004 via Clear Mountain Syndicate
reprinted April 2016 Eunoia Review
Gatsby and generations
The 1920's ‘flapper’ dress style will be head-turners in 2022! I didn’t know whether to merely grin as I read this or literally laugh out loud. That design freed females from corsets and Leg-o-Mutton sleeves; with that liberation came smoking cigarettes. August 1920, white women in every U.S. state could even vote in an election! Although the 19th Amendment to the Constitution said none would be denied an opportunity to vote because of sex, it did not reach the ears of narrow-minded and such that barriers regarding skin tones and ethnic culture also were to be dropped.
Can clothing actually be a study of behavior and attitudes? A flapper became dancer of the Charleston rather than the minuet, she was a short-haired lady who didn’t spend hours with metal hairpins, wore skirts that showed legs. Her attire signified a ‘freedom’ once World War I ended. Minus constricting waistbands or set-in-sleeves, these dresses allowed arms to swing upwards as legs lifted immodestly to popular music of jazz. Social conventions were outwardly tossed away... what followed after marriage and childbirth? Did the division of labor, compliance as domestic life took over have the now aproned remember her clothing rebellion?
Why did the 1929 crash of the Stock Market cause a return to conservative attire with waistbands, long hemlines, wide shoulders on dresses that should have stayed ‘history? Those suffragettes jump-started a ‘notice-me as I’ve brains’ and ‘I, too, am a citizen’, and the flappers forced society to see females as people capable of altering norms. What prompted singer Marian Anderson to realize that wearing clothing for conformity might cause others to recognize that a non-Caucasian’s attire seems quite identical to the White population?
Men wore pants; women wore skirts. Women were not to ‘masquerade’ as males. Well, needing to work in factories when the men were serving in armed places during World War II, change was a necessity else a skirt could get caught in gears or whatever was being manufactured. The actress Kathryn Hepburn, about the same time as the 1939 World’s Fair appeared in Flushing Meadow Park, NY, put on pants! Shocking! Vogue Magazine featured this image on its cover!
My mother bought me a weighty cotton corduroy skirt and matching jacket; a starched white blouse was worn underneath the jacket. This 1947 post-war ‘New Look’ had too much fabric, a skirt covering my calves, and shoulders that made me feel I’d left the hanger in the jacket when I put it on. Someone in another country decreed it was to be a period of extravagance after saving material, tin cans, aluminum foil, using ration books. Then all my comfortable skirts that gave me ability to have a wide stride, yet were modestly below the knee, were ‘dated’. So? Rebellion from a group of girls who shouldn’t wear lipstick until the 9th grade just wasn’t going to happen. I complained but complied.
Yes, certain clothing came with religious, educational, and other experiences: Catholic girls’ communion dresses had them look like miniature brides, Nuns in their habits proclaimed a modesty that revealed faces and little else, elementary school graduation dresses in the 1940's were to be handmade by each female student and all using the identical pattern, high school graduates wore robes so we’d all look alike donned in mortar boards on our heads yet with only a school-color tassel that we could actually keep before returning the rented robes and hats. Rather than a skirt which could get caught in the single-gear bicycle, a below-the-knee type of slacks came out in the 1950's aptly called ‘Pedal Pushers’. And I felt incredible when my dad bought me wool jodhpurs complete with knee-high leather boots as I was a serious horseback rider; I waited for the city bus to take me to the local stables feeling my identity as a horse lover was recognized.
I felt confident as a 17 year old co-ed, but the Dean of Women, lectured that I had to adhere to a dress code, and ‘pants’ were permitted on Saturdays but only until 4pm no matter what the New England weather dropped on us. Obedience was necessary else a bachelor’s degree wasn’t going to happen. How could ‘liberated’ women blindly obey such! The Korean War was in progress and universities, that would even accept females, were happy to have our tuition and attendance. Unlike the ‘flappers’, co-eds were neither making social statements nor showing a radical side in dress, but some of us did assert ourselves by insisting we live in dorms where mixed races and mixed religions could co-exist.
After my wedding gown was exchanged for suitable high school teacher-attire (ironed skirt and blouse, shoes with a 1" heel height), then maternity clothes with a hole cut out in the skirt but a top that looked like a painter’s smock and intentionally designed to try and camouflage the bulge, the book “The Feminine Mystique” reached the public.
During 1972, the passage of Title IX happened and girls’ athletics and Women’s Rights was noticed. It took from 1848's first conference until 1977's but the latter was supported with federal funds. Stock photos, online, of that do show women in skirts/dresses/ skirt suits. Clothing and politics were still different. The 1978 Equal Rights Amendment ratification’s online archived photos have those present in proper attire. So who really was affected when singer Cher screamed to society and conventions in 1974 preening in her evening gown that provided a view of much of her body with only feathers and crystals covering private parts? Might she have wanted to make a statement to the male-dominated music industry, or tell women to just ‘do their own thing’?
Society-conformity remained paired. With liberties previously unknown for females and then legally enacted, how could any don a “Bondage” Collection Versace gown, 1980's and ‘90's, with such low cut bodices that double-sided tape was actually needed to hold the dress in place on the upper torso. Not made for modesty, nor current dance trends, nor attractive when wearer was seated, the proverbial ‘rich and famous’ just had to be seen in such.
A woman is currently America’s Vice President; women are physicians/lawyers/mayors/ policepersons / firefighters and such. Women may write books minus a male-pseudonym, run a business, be on school boards. The suffragettes and flappers helped, and movements forced gains as individuals.
So...why, autumn 2021, are many still buying sex-symbol attire, succeeding in making headlines with see-through fashion minus underwear? With opportunities to be successful, able to press charges if harassed, appreciated for knowledge, for starters, why is showing cleavage and various states of undress still so important? And why should today’s confident women allow a single ‘designer’ to dictate how to look?
Propriety of manner
Clutching Calla Lillies, in her handmade satin bridal gown with her head’s veiling also becoming the train, my mother’s innocent eyes looked at the camera’s lens. A glass plate negative was secure inside a heavy wooden camera mounted on a tripod. A rubber bulb-shaped item secure in the photographer’s hand was squeezed and captured the moment. Time spent in a ‘darkroom’ transformed the image, via chemicals in solution baths, and produced the timeless black and white visual impression.
Little girls had dolls with wooden bodies. I also had rubber easy-to-hug toys, yet my Deanna Durbin model was wood and so was the bride doll a few years later. Whether it was “Cinderella” or “Snow White”, as examples, a handsome prince would transform the ordinary into a princess, and what garment might do that other than a white gown made to only be worn once? What other dress might ever-ever be purchased to be so frivolous as single use? And, for most, it also could be the most expensive never-reused item of clothing a woman might buy.
An aura of expectation and shedding a familiar last name came with the transition when the gown was carefully wrapped in tissue paper, then laid in a cardboard storage box to be glanced at occasionally later in life. As clothing was hand washed, hung on a line, a match needed to light a gas stove, milk sold in bottles with crimped cardboard tops and not homogenized so a delightful glob of cream was right under the seal, Mason jars preserved some foods since freezers didn’t exist nor frozen foods developed, and children’s vitamins were castor oil generally followed by orange juice that had to be squeezed by hand from a fresh piece of fruit, with doctors carrying leather bags because house calls were usual for patients, my mother went from Miss to Mrs.
My father died at age forty five; my mother held my arm as I walked to my groom. My lace gown might have been worn by Scarlett O’Hara with its double-hoopskirt fullness and elegance. During the ceremony, my lower arms, below the short sleeves, were covered with long gloves in the matching lace. Modesty was still part of the scene. The lovely bridal veil, secured in a crown of pearls, was lifted from my face, and the groom and I kissed in front of the onlookers. I was now ‘wife’ and, at my Cinderella moment, I missed my dad’s gentle smile yet quickly noticed how well my mother masked her emptiness.
Grad school classes, at Columbia University, were at night silently reminding me that many educational institutions were male only, and my undergrad Sociology course labeled Marriage and the Family spoke of a woman’s place and that being a ‘bad wife’ could hurt her husband’s career. I wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
Barbie, with a woman’s body frame, and her upwardly mobile social status concept, possibly helped a shift from the imagined princess to Wonder Woman. And ‘attitude’ using body language can easily be viewed on any Smartphone or Smart Device personal snapshot. One hand on a hip, elbow bent, reminds me of “make my day” said in a Clint Eastwood movie. Prom dresses with daring cleavage and form-fitting bottoms began to appear as bridal gowns. Plunging necklines that require double-sided tape to be used for flesh to stay contained in the long ‘v’ of the top signal body is to be shown. A gowns with slits from ankle straight to the top of the thigh says ‘modern woman’. Online collections also offer see-though fabric enabling thong underpants to be part of the visual.
It’s confusing....messages we send. Say Parent, not Mother, on birth certificate; wear clothing so tight or sexually suggestive people notice, but then shout harassment if looked at; clump eye make up so thick a viewer wonders how heavy the fake lashes are rather than seeing a total face; balance on stiletto heels whose height and points appear to be weapons yet proclaim freedom to dress comfortably. Are today’s online bridal wear shops sending a similar mixed message?
Clutching Calla Lillies, in her handmade satin bridal gown with her head’s veiling also becoming the train, my mother’s innocent eyes looked at the camera’s lens. In the photographer’s studio, the rolled-up backdrop for the photo was lowered as a window shade and it appeared she was standing in a chapel. If a blemish on the print was apparent, the negative needed to be retouched with a tiny sable brush, then a new picture printed in the darkroom. For many today, notice-me has replaced modesty, and bride dolls are deemed sexist.
Love Bites and Painted Walls
My mother knocked on a panel of the open door to my bedroom. "May I come in? Am I interrupting anything?"
"Just putting away my pictures. Pop says to date them right away and put them in the album so the edges won't curl up."
"Pop?" Smiled my mother. She walked over to the desk and stood behind me. She had the aroma of perfume and laundry soap. Her hair was wound up and secured by hairpins that were slipping away in different spots; they stuck out like push-pins in a corkboard.
"I'm trying out different names. Daddy is getting too young sounding. Father is definitely out. Papa is what you called your father, and old and old-fashioned. Dad is too ordinary." I pressed an already-glued corner down again. I didn't want the horse and buggy stories and the modern age now, followed by how lucky I was to be young right this minute. I took the initiative. "Mom, what's a hickey?"
Surprised, my mother sat on the edge of the bed; springs made a popping sound. Her lipstick took on a bluish cast when she walked past the window before sitting. "It's a red mark on the neck."
"That's it? Like a pimple?"
"No, dear," She pulled a linen hankie from her skirt pocket and wiped the edge of one nostril. "It's a bruise of the skin made by another's mouth."
I hate, 'dear', I thought, and why is she so uncomfortable talking about sex here when she's perfectly relaxed when she and I secret ourselves in the car and I can ask my private questions. "For Pete's sake, what's a hickey, Mother!" I knew she’d pick up on 'mother' which indicated my annoyance.
"It's sometimes called a love bite as it's a sucking of skin on the neck. Done because of passion."
"Like Dracula: I vant to zuck your blood! Why is that passion? Sounds yucky to me." I shook my head with bewilderment.
"Sometimes kissing gets ardent and kisses move from the lips to face to neck. The neck is soft and just sucked up with a hard kiss. The hickey is the bruise left behind." My mother gave me her look which indicated that she thought she’d handled this well.
"Does Daddy do that to you?"
Noticing that 'daddy' not 'pop' was uttered, did she sense I was caught between child-woman? "Sometimes."
"Do you like it?"
"Sometimes. Problem is," she tried to make light of it, "the bruise lasts awhile and at my age I can't say it's because I squeezed a pimple."
I laughed, got up from my maple desk chair and walked over to her. "It's really good," I hugged her, "you answer everything I ask. Think I'll do that with my kids?"
"Kids are animals. Children." She corrected and emphasized the word children.
With a harder squeeze, forcing the fragile hairpins that were already upright to pop from their places, I said, "I love you."
I remember getting these types of questions from my oldest pre-teen granddaughter. How time played out circles amazed me. “Grandma, what’s a hickey?” Since I’m ‘cool’, and remember how it felt to be twelve years old, I answered as my own mother had. My granddaughter looked at her grandpa with a different light trying to imagine him doing such to me; she couldn’t. She and I giggled with the question, and I told her about the marks left on my neck when I actually had a boy try it and then me to him, but she would never be able to imagine her grandparents as a ‘couple’ and young. But then, I couldn’t imagine my parents playing out these games even though I could talk to my mother as if she were my best friend. “The bruise lasts awhile,” I told my granddaughter hearing my mother’s voice decades and decades ago.
Elementary school graduation was a memory, and high school classes were only a few days away. Alone in my room, I turned on the radio. While the tubes were heating (necessary for transmission), I rotated the volume dial to its loudest position as if to catch any music. An announcer shouted WINS and quickly I rotated the volume dial counter-clockwise to a comfortable-hearing position.
I pulled up the heavy wooden Venetian blinds and looked out into the street. Leaning on the sill with both hands, I stared but my eyes weren't actually looking at anything. Turning back to face the room, I decided that I needed a sitting-room look now that I was leaving childhood behind. I wanted to push my bed against the outside wall even though my mother once told me I could catch a cold sleeping where it’s drafty. I also wanted paint instead of flowered wallpaper.
"Joy? You busy?" I called, competing with Dick Haymes’ singing voice from the radio.
"Why?" Joy answered from her bedroom.
"Just are you busy!"
"I guess not."
"Then come here." I was impatient with Joy, four years younger.
She was in a chenille bathrobe over her pajamas. Underpants were worn beneath the pajama bottoms, remnants of wartime when the house was cold due to heat rationing. Oversized wool socks were on her slipperless feet. A red barrette shaped like a seashell grasped a clump of hair; it looked out of place with her sleeping garments.
"You sick?" I asked.
"Just sniffles. Mom made me drink hot tea with honey and I hate gooey honey. Then I had to get undressed and keep warm. You know," she whined with the last two words.
"What do you think?"
"Well," I realized I hadn't mentioned the reason I'd asked the question, "about painted walls. No wallpaper anymore."
"You mean you want to cover up these beautiful, big, yellow roses?"
"Is that all you can say? Oh?"
"Yeah. OH." Joy didn't know what response I wanted.
"I'd like deep green paint, and to push the bed here," I pointed to the outside wall for its length. "Then I'd like to get rid of this headboard and footboard."
"Mom'll kill you." Joy interrupted. She squat on the floor next to the bookcase. Bing Crosby was now singing in the background; I knew she didn't like his voice.
"Well, how can I bring it up? I saw a bed without the springs showing! Honest. The salesman said it was a boxspring, whatever that means, but these fat, ugly coils the mattress sits on didn't show when the spread was off."
"Mom'll kill you," Joy repeated.
"Can't you say anything else!"
She shrugged her shoulders. One nostril was moist and a drop had pushed its way to the opening. She sucked in air as if to shove the drop back inside.
"And I saw a foam mattress. No bulging buttons. Smooth. Just smooth. And more. The mattress and box spring were covered with the very same material."
"Sure," Joy said sarcastically not believing me.
"Mom won't have to change anything except the wallpaper for paint, the whole bed, and let me move it against the wall."
"It'll be hard to make over there." Joy shook her head back and forth. “You can’t get to one side!”
"That'll be my problem. If I don't mind the trouble, why should anyone else."
"Well, just ask her."
I turned off the radio and whispered, "I'd love to get rid of this bedspread too, and all these dumb doilies," pointing to the dresser and nightstand scarves, "and I hate cleaning those dumb blinds and would love really heavy drapes I could pull open and closed."
Joy shifted positions. She lay flat on her stomach and leaned her weight on her elbows. "I don't think you'll get all that."
"Do you think I can even ask right now?"
Joy's nose was now dripping quickly. She got up and went to the drawer where I kept hankies.
I didn’t get my room fixed for another year. The painter used oil-based paint, and when I leaned against the wall it left a greasy impression. I never told my mother that I missed propping myself against a headboard, and the drapes weren’t as versatile as Venetian blinds. Making a bed that left no room between it and a wall really was a chore; I kept this to myself also. The tailored spread and drapes were hand-sewn by my mother, and had the look I wanted, but my organdy-skirted dressing table seemed out-of-place. But how could I part with the spot I learned smiles, expressions, even studied under my eyelids and inside my mouth? That table represented my ordinary life. My new sitting-room type set-up had no sense of history. Perhaps that’s why, when I got what I wanted, I truly missed familiar.
Familiar. My oldest granddaughter used her mother’s childhood bedroom set. Its triple dresser in French Provincial styling was actually bought for my firstborn, and had a matching crib. My mother loved the white and gold, but I had a son first and wondered about such a dresser; she said one day if I have a daughter the girl will have it from babyhood on. Even when my third pushed into life, that piece of furniture was already hers, and he shared drawers with his brother for awhile. Wonder how my mother would smile knowing her great granddaughter went through girlhood with this tangible item holding so many memories? I miss her. But even deceased, she’s ‘familiar’, and I guess with her gift of giving me life goes my gift of remembering...even silly questions she treated with respect, such as ‘love bites’.
published Summer 2003 “Heroes from Hackland”