chocolate is a verb

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Tag Archives: Elsie

Before we smiled

1940s Tobias et alThe photo is not dated, but my mother’s hair style, her cigarette and her voluminous fox jacket suggest that it’s mid-1940s. This is Dorothy’s family: her father’s brother, Uncle Tobias, her cousin Goldine, my grandmother Elsie, Aunt Sally, and Sally’s sister, Evelyn. My mother’s brother, Bob, is probably behind the camera. No one is smiling. Maybe they all smiled for the next picture, but in this one they’re not quite posed, still talking, brushing the lint off the coat, waiting.

I’m glad for the dust-up regarding the candidate’s smile. It’s something I’ve thought about. Perhaps the epidemic of smiling can be directly traced to the popularity and portability of cameras. A century ago, a photograph was as serious and rare as a painted portrait, something that might happen only once in a lifetime. It meant sitting very still for quite a long time. No one smiled. But move closer to the present and more and more people are saying cheese.

Some people are smilers. My mother was one. I am too. I probably learned it from her. Smiles are a social lubricant, an encouraging mirror. What bothers me is the command to smile, regardless. The “you’re so pretty when you smile” that barely conceals its opposite message. What bothers me is photos of children with their pasted-on grins, knowing that an adult is demanding a smile from a child who might be uncomfortable, tired, angry, shy, unhappy. As if that unhappiness is unimportant, impossible, as long as there’s a smile.

We’ve learned to smile. Perhaps we need to relearn what it means.

what we save

Dorothy hair and flowersIn my mother’s baby book — blue, with padded covers and thick, creamy paper — her mother’s notations say more about Elsie (my grandmother) than they do about Dorothy, who followed a much-favored firstborn son. There are some photos, a few notes about first teeth, first words and childhood illnesses, and, most tellingly, long lists of presents given at her birth (including silk quilt, silver spoon, French bib, silver napkin ring), her first birthday (embroidered pillow case, gold pins & two pair bonnet strings, bottle whiskey) and her second birthday (pink wristlets, silk stockings, Irish lace hood and blue silk kimono).

Where Elsie’s notes trail off, Dorothy saved what was important to her: letters from her father, whose insurance sales kept him on the road, and several newspaper clippings about a performance of a Red Riding Hood operetta by the Bluebells, when Dorothy was 8. A cluster of dried flowers is accompanied by a note in Dorothy’s hand, “My graduation flowers from 8th grade at Hartford. I was the valedictorian.” She was also Literary Editor of the school newsletter, The Hartford Crier, and a number of copies are folded into the book.

I turn the pages, mostly blank, and look at the photos. Then I find two bits of folded paper I’ve never noticed before: a scrap of newspaper with Elsie’s penciled “Baby hair” and another, tissue, possibly 1916 toilet paper, that says “5 years.”

As I unfold these fragile bits of paper, the hair on my arms stands up. A century after they were clipped from my mother’s head, these hanks of strawberry blond hair still contain her essence. The hair is fine and much less curly than Dorothy’s would become later in life (and much less curly than mine). It’s beautiful and soft, glossy and drenched in an innocence that squeezes my heart.

perfect

Dorothy age 2Not yet three years old, Dorothy — they would have called her Dottie — sits motionless and polished for her portrait. Her shoes — spats? — and lace-trimmed dress and the tiny finger ring on her right hand, even the portrait itself, speak of privilege and a degree of “perfection” that would be a burden to my mother throughout her life.

Before long, the darling toddler, who could be doll-dressed and encouraged to smile for a morsel of praise, had unmanageable red, curly hair and buck teeth. Her mother (who, to her credit, turned out to be a wonderful grandmother) already favored her firstborn son and couldn’t bring herself to embrace this messy, imperfect girl.

Distanced by her mother, teased by her brother, Dottie invested her hopes in her father: the youngest of ten children, a good-hearted joker who was coddled as the “baby” of the family throughout his life. He was playful and kind to her, but his work and the child-rearing practices of the day — children were “seen, not heard” — kept him at a distance. At any rate, he was no match for his more serious and imperious wife, who made and enforced the rules and set the expectations that the young Dorothy was never able to achieve.

Her life was shaped by that duality — perfect girl on one hand, zany misfit on the other — and the long, painful search for unconditional love.

seeing…

1940s Dorothy in Palm SpringsDorothy is about 30 in the photo, on a trip to Palm Springs with her mother, Elsie. Perhaps Elsie’s husband, Max, was there; maybe he took the pictures. It’s hard to know.

I’ve looked at these photos hundreds of times. I turn them over again and again, hoping to discover a fragment of the story. But the reverse is always blank, so I look deeper at the image, trying to decipher something more about the woman who would become my mother.

A while back, I wrote about a photo that was dominated by the looming shadow of my mother’s brother, Bob. Today, after looking at this photo uncounted times, I notice it, too, has a shadow: Elsie.

The metaphor is unavoidable: Elsie and Bob were the twin shadows in my mother’s life. But I am surprised, too, at how easy it is to recognize someone by their shadow alone — and at the mysteriously selective process of seeing, which also offers this circularity: a daughter dominated by the shadow of her mother writes about a daughter dominated by the shadow of her mother.

shadow

1940s Helen and DorothyDorothy and her sister-in-law Helen look glamorous in this mid-1940s photo. They would have been in their 30s, the war over and life in their favor. But what interests me most is the looming shadow of my mother’s brother, Bob. No matter that the two women are bright and sun-kissed; Bob’s shadow looks massive and overcoated.

If my father’s family was sprawling and inclusive, my mother’s — at least the local branch — was small and self-involved. Bob and Helen and their son, Bobby, who was about my age, lived nearby, as did my grandmother, Elsie, and our families socialized with some frequency.

Uncle Bob was a cigar-smoking joker, loud and a little flashy. He was unfailingly kind to me, but my mother had nothing good to say about her brother. Two years older, he had been her childhood tormenter, teasing her, pulling her hair, jumping out from behind doors to frighten her. Yet the degree of her resentment went beyond a younger sister’s memory of past pranks and she did not forgive him. His presence, even after he had moved away, was sinister, the looming shadow more than a metaphor, and as an adult I came to suspect that there was more to the story than my mother would tell.

another postcard…

Elsie and Jake postcard back

Elsie and Jake plus two unknown -- postcardNo note suggests the place or tells their names. Nothing in their faces says Wish you were here. But in their Edwardian garb, their solemn stares, my grandfather’s firm grip on my grandmother’s arm, the faint trace of ivied column in the background, the image says occasion. The postcard was never sent, and shall not be.

Still cinched into
my slenderness
my practiced gaze
behatted bride
I do not know
that you will die
so soon but only
that your earnest
heat can melt my ice
and make me laugh.

© j.i. kleinberg 2013

shopping with Dorothy…

1895 Grandma and familyIf she didn’t like someone’s décor or didn’t appreciate their individual expressions of extravagance, my mother disparaged people as materialistic. It was an epithet intended to draw a clear line between us and them and to indicate her alliance with the artists and artful, the enlightened, the intellectual and the people of impeccable good taste.

The materialistic included, in addition to those for whom she simply couldn’t find a more precise accusation, people who loved to shop, who loved fashion, who had a lot of clothes and who wore clothes or jewelry or drove cars that she found excessive.

How Dorothy drew this line in the sand is unclear, and the line itself was far from straight. Perhaps she was rejecting the excesses of her Victorian mother and grandparents (above) — wearers of the most lavishly beautiful custom-made clothing — or maybe she was trying to separate her ‘more mature’ self from the younger version who reveled in fur coats and silk stockings. She didn’t use the word ironically, but was somehow able to justify her own love of clothes and shopping and beautiful objects without casting herself among the materialistic.

I remember going with her to Beverly Hills to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin, walking through the heavy glass doors into the perfumed air where everyone seemed dressed for a party. Unlike today’s crowded department stores, these stores felt open and spacious, furnished with sofas where husbands and children could read magazines or watch the passing parade of fashion.

In fact, one of my mother’s favorite stories, which she told over and over until I could tell it myself, was about shopping at Magnin’s. I was about 3. She had parked me on a sofa while she shopped, but I wandered away. When she came out of the dressing room, she saw me in the next department, standing behind a woman who was wearing a full-length mink coat. I was petting her coat, saying, “Doggy, doggy.”

Early evidence, obviously, that I was well on my way to becoming a materialist.
. . . . .
Photo: my grandmother Elsie (center back) at age 9, with her sister and parents, 1895

the mare and the manicure

Elsie and Easy Does It 1945During World War II, my mother worked as a draftsperson at Lockheed — the only job she ever held. She was divorced from her first husband and living on her own. The photos from that time don’t show her at her drafting table, but wearing boots and a bandanna at a small Chatsworth ranch where she was part-owner of a horse with two of her Lockheed friends.

It’s hard for me to imagine her pitching hay or mucking a stall, though the three young women look happy with their filly, Easy Does It. The pictures suggest a degree of carefree competence, of physicality, of outdoorsy fun that I never knew in my mother.

But one of my favorite photos from the time is of my Grandma Elsie, my mother’s mother. Born into Victorian comforts and constraints, Elsie was elegant throughout her life. It’s quite possible she didn’t own a pair of pants. Here, at age 60, skirted and stockinged, earringed and hatted, she sits with perfect posture to offer Easy Does It a morsel on her outstretched “Careful!-keep-your-hand-flat!” palm.

Dorothy remained friends with one of the other women for the rest of her life, but once my parents met — perhaps a year after this photo was taken — the horse, like the war and Dorothy’s brief tenure at Lockheed, slipped into a zone of nostalgic reverie. Her war so different from his; their life together all that mattered now.

headline memories…

Elsie before she was my grandmotherThe news crackles with stories of fire, pushes on memories that are still tender after all these decades: the Bel Air fire.

Here’s what I remember: A line of flame contoured the ridge top, which was perhaps a mile and a half away. I looked out the kitchen window again and again, sat on the front step watching the smoke billow up from the north and west. The sun was a red ball in the sky. My father met with the neighbors and established an overnight watch.

The next day, there were whispers among my junior high classmates. Parents arrived, anxious, milled in the hall, grabbed their kids and drove away without explanation.

School closed early and we were all sent home. On the carpool ride, the car was filled with a kind of muffled confusion. I got home at the same time as my father, who had left work early. My mother wasn’t there; she had taken her mother, my beloved (and only) grandmother, Elsie, to the hospital for gall bladder surgery.

The house was in disarray, things missing. We had been robbed. No, not robbed, we finally realized — what thief would take the hamster, the little bronzed ducks I had made from clay as a child? Dorothy, frantic about her mother, about the fire, had rifled the house for the irreplaceable — my father’s birth certificate, a favorite painting, little Sam in his wire cage — put everything in her car and driven off without leaving a note.

We were lucky. The fire never got much closer. But friends weren’t, their homes consumed while they were in school, at work, in Mexico. Coming home to singed ground, chimneys stark as gravestones, their lives changed instantly, profoundly.

Elsie never came out of the hospital. The confusion and impossibility of her death are forever entwined with the chaos and grief surrounding the fire, and, in the unsteady echo and ooze of memory, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, almost exactly two years later.

Recipe for snow…

snow recipe, 1

snow recipe, 2Folded among the recipes in the back of the RECEIPTS box was this little note in my grandmother’s handwriting. My mother’s mother was a wonderful grandma, but a less-wonderful mother, and in those opening words, Take out Electric Mixer, I read a hint of her condescension toward my mother.

I remember Lux flakes, the box under the bathroom sink, the dry, pearly-white, soapy-smelling “tiny diamonds” that slipped and slid in your hand. I can almost hear the radio announcer’s booming introduction of Lux Radio Theatre, and the ads for Lux, a sort of banter between the actors and the announcer.

Teweles (too-lees) was a lifelong friend of my grandfather’s who, some years after my grandfather’s demise at age 52, became my grandmother’s second husband. Though there are photos of us together and I was nearly 4 when he died, I have almost no memory of him.

More lasting is Badger Brand note paper, which served well for a number of my childhood drawings. I like the homemade design, the letters hand-drawn, the squeeze on Milwaukee, the stretched phone number, with its prefix and four digits.

And at the end, that appended note, checking up, in a time — 1940s, I’m guessing — when a mother’s $15 check was extravagant, could buy something, and a daughter might not have been quite grateful enough.

RECEIPTS…

RECEIPTS: my mother's recipe boxMy mother, who was a superb cook and always thin, kept her recipes in a wooden box with RECEIPTS painted on the front. It took me many years to disentangle the two words.

In my parents’ house, the box lived alongside cookbooks and a radio on a shelf above the kitchen table where Dorothy would frequently study recipes from a sprawl of books and cards.

I open the box. It is crammed full with perhaps 250 three-by-five cards, their top edges furred and nicked from handling and more ivory than white. A few printed dividers are jammed together in the very back — Beverages, Soups, Biscuits-Bread — and one handwritten — Candy. But otherwise the cards are packed together without logic or distinction, cocoa roll followed by eggplant followed by pizza followed by lemon pie.

Most are in Dorothy’s loose, untidy handwriting, in black or blue or green fountain pen, or ball point, or pencil. But a few are typed (some with more than one recipe on a card) and a number clipped from magazines or newspapers, no longer stuck where yellowed scotch tape is little more than a stain. Perhaps a quarter of them are written in my grandmother’s similar but neater hand. One is torn from what must have been a longer letter. Another is written in unfamiliar script on a full sheet of paper headed with the words, “Geese must be fat & froze.” On some, the handwriting becomes smaller and smaller to fit all the instructions on one card. A recipe for Gumbo Creole is carefully typed on a sheet of paper. At the bottom of the recipe is typed, Love. There’s a comma after the word, but no signature.

Some of the recipes credit a source — Carmie, Selma, Goldine, Shirley, Ruth, Evelyn, Sally, Bobbie E., Fran, Irma — names that roll over me like an echo. One says Mama, which must refer to my great-grandmother. Some have notes — delish!, (never fails), (Quick), not sweet enuf add more sugar!, rich, make double — and a few don’t even have titles; you’d have to imagine, or make, the recipe to figure it out. Penciled math calculates multiples or divisions of quantities.

But what I love is their scars: splashes and smudges, scratch-outs and amendments. Cup rings. Oil stains. Rips and wrinkles. Torn corners. Places where a favorite recipe has been tried and tweaked and adjusted again and again, missing ingredients or instructions added, bad ideas lined through. Cards on which the writing has blurred and run and faded, the card slid back into the box for another meal.

Nearly a century of kitchen intelligence noted, shared, preserved. I suppose they are receipts, after all.

Elsie’s gloves…

Elsie's glovesElsie was born in 1886 into a family of top hats and tails, gowns and gloves, fans and frills. She wore gorgeous clothes, married twice, traveled widely and lived long enough to be the only grandparent I remember.

From a drawer, I lift out her gloves, softest kid, ivory and fawn and black and near-black chocolate, beaded or embroidered or ruched or seamed or plain.

I pull on a long glove, an opera glove known as a mousquetaire. It clings, black and weightless, above my elbow, the fingers slender and snug. At the wrist, a narrow three-button opening offers a seductive glimpse of pale skin, pulse.

I turn my hand this way and that, then shake myself back to jeans and sweats, pull off the glove, which is too small anyway, and fold it away, a bit of Elsie’s softness still palpable in the fading scrapbook of my memory.