When she died, she could not have imagined that so much of her beauty would live on, in bottles and jars of potions and lotions, pulled from her bathroom cabinet by her 60-year old son and taken home and put in his own bathroom cabinet.
He saved lots of things because they might come in handy sometime, and certainly a small thumb-sized bottle of smelling salts might come in handy sometime. That was true, with the way things are and the way people act when faced with fate.
His own wife, in fact, had fainted quite a few times at tea dances in her early twenties; it was quite the style, down South, just before the Great Depression. She carried little glass ampules of ammonia smelling salts, sal volatile, in her little chain-swung tea dance bags, along with the little celluloid pack of cards strung on blue silk which the young men who wanted to dance with her would sign in pencil so that she could keep track of them, brag about later, then erase with a gum eraser she kept in her dressing table drawer, under the ruffled skirt.
Even sitting at your own dressing table, in a state of undress but in your own room with the door closed, you hid your knees under the skirts of the dressing table. No wait! That wasn’t until 30 more years had passed, in the 1950s, that such things as dressing tables had to have skirts to hide things. Who are we talking about now, the old woman born in 1878 who used smelling salts and lotions? or her future daughter-in-law, who wore silky shifts and kid shoes tied with ribbons? Her, that daughter-in-law, that’s the one who used ampules of ammonia. But her bared knees, slick in silk stockings held up by a lace-trimmed garter belt, were stuck up under a dressing table made of walnut, with a drawer in its stomach and drawers in its thighs – drawers for pretty handkerchiefs and beads and powders and pomades that stuck the flirty little curls alongside her cheeks.
So this future daughter-in-law would sit there on the padded stool, like a piano stool almost, and play her music on her face, and smooth her shoulders, and admire how her slim legs looked coming out of the hems of the charmeuse silk step-ins. She could sit there and gaze at that tantalizing inch of flesh above the stockings and below the step-ins, urged in her imagination to show to one lucky tea dance man.
Is that all they did all week long? Knock around campus, with their baggy pants belted high, their books slung under their arms, their hair brilliantined, their rumble seats warming in the Knoxville sun, attending geology lectures and waiting for the tea dance at Chi Omega? Hoping to catch a glimpse of silky leg, and later be allowed to reach inside the top of a silk stocking where it was tight around a young thigh, and run a finger just under the edge, teasing the leg while the girl watched?
Is that what the girls did too? Go to Psychology class and learn something shocking which they already knew about libido, and then sit out on the grass, tossing their sleek short curls and adjusting the elastic that bound their breasts, raising arms to let bangles tinkle down their arms in accompaniment to their practiced laughter? They were waiting too for that inch of flesh to show as they were lifted into a rumble seat, their friends shouting and laughing up in front.
Who gets the rumble seat? Do the girls, hot and lusty in their elastic and weekday rayon, choose? Do the hot and lusty young men, who are eager to be at the boyish girls with their fingers, their fingernails just clipped?
Do these young men run the nails of their forefingers across their thumb pads to see if they are too sharp? Do these young men carry nail files as bookmarks? The tools of lust mustn’t hurt...much. Even a chimpanzee can fetch honey from a bee hole with tenderness and patience.
There must have been a lot of laughter and squealing in those crowded black Fords; can’t you see them riding down Gay Street with the canvas top down, boys and girls from the University crammed in like crackers or cookies, and one lucky pair sandwiched in the rumble seat?
Mother: When I was your age, young lady, a nice girl would never think of holding a young man’s hand.
Daughter: But, mother, nowadays a nice girl has to hold a young man’s hand. *
Did the lucky young lady wish she were more of a woman instead. “Hard cheese!” she might have declared, if someone tried to tell her she was not acting appropriately. “Honey, it’s not ladylike to show your stocking tops, you must be careful!” “Hard cheese!”
Defiant, but doubtful nonetheless. Was it really okay to jump around in the rumble seat, letting the speed of the shiny black Ford obscure the difference between questing hands of a beau, and the teasing fingers of a breeze? “Well, hard cheese,” she comforted herself again. “Just because I’m not supposed to, does that make it bad?”
And besides, after the tea dance, which ended at six, there was plenty of time to go home and dress in another pretty silk shift, and go with another young man to dinner, and maybe another one after that for a movie, a Chaplin movie at the Gay Street Theatre. Why not?
Did a tangle of fifteen right-hand fingers spread out over hours, three dates, three different young men make the cheese any softer? Didn’t some psychologists she had heard of say there were such things as accidents? Or was that what her minister said there weren’t – no accidents at all, just God’s will playing out. God’s will, that was a good one to come back with when her mother cautioned her.
And wasn’t she a young lady by benefit of being white and twenty anyway? In Knoxville, from a nice house with a wraparound porch and a little iron stove in her own fireplace, and a dressing table with drawers of fluff and scent?
Sometimes she thought of herself as a begonia leaf. The hardy begonia, growing all summer with its big beautiful leaves shaped like lopsided hearts (and wasn’t love lopsided too?), and most telling of all, green on the top side that showed, green and fresh and natural, and when flipped over, a dark pinky red, the hot blood side; and when seen against the light, the green won out, but the veins throbbed with scarlet blood.
Of course, there was the question of what happened to begonias, even hardy begonias, in the winter. They could be brought in and made to grow inside, but they didn’t flourish, they were struggling begonias then, they were meant to laugh and jostle all summer, their hearts beating with the scarlet blood. So pale in winter, so small the hearts.
Hardy fellows, macho even through their beauty in the summer; fragile and more nearly transparent, sucking sunlight in the winter window as if they were tubercular. Mightn’t it exhaust the hardy begonias to have to live above ground all year long?
The mother had kept six pots of red geraniums alive – through hot summers on the porch, and dry winters in a back bedroom, next to the radiator. They lived that way--growing more dwarfish and huddled--for six years. She carried them out for what would be their last summer, and they tried very hard, those geraniums. Their knobby crooked stems, like limbs with old arthritis, struggled for a month or so. One of them did put out a beautiful flower, and its gentle red velvet glowed for a few days, then shriveled and wizened it fell to the porch floor. The other five died quickly, and then that last survivor died, and not watering or plucking or pruning or coddling or feeding or talking-to brought any of them back. Is six years the life span of a potted geranium?
* from the Tennessee Mugwhump, and the future d-i-l was assistant managing editor