My family and a Korean grad student, Chinatown, LA, c. 1955
This year, I've been "house-cleaning."
That's just one of The 99 %'s euphemisms for "turning one's home upside-down looking for primo stuff one can profitably sell online for cold hard cash."
(We have other euphemisms, if you're interested.)
In the process of scrounging through my worldly possessions, however, I've made some startling discoveries, and I'm not simply referring to the analog wonders that have turned up: a grandmother's entirely crystal-beaded evening clutch, featuring, I believe, dahlias. I'm certain someone in Arkansas or Iowa has an entire collection of these surprisingly pliable (like Slinkies, really) treasures.
There's also Aunt Willie Sue's (named for one of her father's old flames) demitasse collection -- another analog wonder. An upscale Italian coffee bar somewhere in the city should snap up these fragile wonders ("Made in Occupied Japan"; "Bavaria, Germany, US Zone"; "Fondeville, England," etc., etc.). Even a demitasse of chicory coffee must have been hard to come by in Seneca, South Carolina in the last world war.
But it's not the actual stuff that I've found to be such a revelation: it's the chasm-like difference between the life of my late mother (Elizabeth Janette Boleman Herring, 1920-1992), and my own existence that's come as something of a shock.
My mother gave birth to me at 30 -- late for the 1950s -- but not really that many years separated us. And yet, between the objects that defined her, and those that characterize me? Well, there seems to be an intergalactic-sized caesura.
Her death occurred at roughly the same time -- 1992 -- as that of this country's middle class. (I lost most of her money in the .com bust.)
Characteristically, she was doing pretty well with Stage 4 cancer until a small tumor appeared on her face. Then, much like Oscar Wilde, either that horrid wallpaper or she would have "to go." Visible tumors, if you were my Southern Belle of a mother, were not to be borne.
She was a daughter of South Carolina, and of Pasadena, back when Los Angeles was still a paradise for a certain stratum of Americans (and hell, of course, for others, as it remains).
She learned to drive at about the same time I was born (of sheer necessity), and never really mastered the skill. At the scene of her first fender-bender -- in Altadena -- she emerged from her little coupe with dark glasses, chignon and wide-brimmed hat all firmly in place. In four-inch pumps. Tears streaming down her face. The policeman produced a handkerchief.
Was there ever really such a time and place?
Now, I'm putting her Louis Vuittons -- some never used -- up for sale. The garment bag is large enough for precisely two Pucci dresses, Size 4.
The set of Hartman luggage -- which never saw the interior of a jet's cargo bay -- is going on eBay as well. Pristine pieces, with tiny little wheels, "stroller straps," and combination locks set to her birthday.
The fur coats -- we didn't think, we didn't know, OK, we were idiots -- are already sold. The "good jewelry" -- and there was so much of it, my parents were married for 35 years, and he was smitten with her -- has already gone. Newt and Callista have done a lot more to underwrite Tiffany's than my mother ever did but she did have some loot, none of which suits her only child, who took after her Danish, Quarterback father in terms of limb length and height, rather than her 5'2" mom.
On me, that delicate little Tiffany watch on its gold chain looked like a strand of tinsel on a Sequoia.
My mother wore four-inch-heels and over-the-elbow kid gloves through the 1970s. I'm keeping some of those shoes, all of those butter-soft gloves. She wore and wore them and yet there's no wear on them to speak of. Nor on the hats -- most sold now, or given away before I left The South for good.
There's even a china "hair collector," an object with a removable top and a little opening into which my mother placed the hair she removed each night after brushing out her long black tresses. She used it to "fatten up" her Merle Oberon chignon, which she wore under an invisible net, held in place on the nape of her neck with beautiful Spanish and Mexican silver-and-turquoise combs.
She never changed her hairstyle.
She was a kind, gentle woman with a very straight back, a fierce social activist, a voracious reader, the wife of a therapist, without whose editing skills he would never have written a comprehensible sentence, a frustrated author, one of the first two women in her family to attend college (though both would marry before finishing degrees) ...
... and thoroughly middle class. Upper middle class. Down to the Spectator pumps and up to the real pearls (the real pearls, which are going on eBay, too).
And I must say, I treasure those of her possessions I will keep, and am grateful to have been left the treasures I will now part with to buy necessities. And I don't want to go back to all that ironing, and those girdles and saggy silk stockings, and the Chanel make-up, and the Dior red lipstick.
But, too, I never, ever want to forget what a work of art Mother was ... and I'm sure that that Altadena policeman, if he's still around, still remembers the Merle Oberon lookalike he had to ticket back in 1955 -- not one hair out of place, but tears and black mascara everywhere.