THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART III)

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IMG_0531[Continued from previous two posts:  “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….”]

LIFE IN VILNA.  She was not lucky in her place or time of birth. However, until war erupted in 1914, when she was ten, her life in Vilna seems to have been peaceful. Two photographs of her survive from this period, both taken in a studio by a professional photographer. In the earlier picture, she appears to be no more than three, a solemn little girl posed in front of a low plaster wall and facing directly forward.   She is dressed in a long semi-fitted wool redingote that reaches almost to her ankles; it has a scalloped edge running along an asymmetrical single line of buttons from collar to hem and is trimmed with deep cuffs of ornamented velvet and a wide pointed ornamented velvet collar. She also wears softly crushed little leather boots buttoned up the side; they disappear beneath the hem of the redingote. On her gently curling hair, parted in the middle, is a brimless velvet cap, presumably the same color as the velvet collar and cuffs of her coat. She holds a small riding crop in her left dimpled hand.

Someone has told her to stand quite still and look straight at the camera; she is taking this instruction very seriously. The photograph is in muted shades of grey, so one can’t see the color of her coat and cap, but I know that those clear round eyes are brown and that, at this age, her hair is still light, if no longer blonde. She already has the finely shaped upper lip I used to admire as she applied lipstick to it in the bathroom mirror when I myself was a little girl. And even though this photograph was taken more than a hundred years ago, I see in it also the distinctively low round baby cheeks which skipped two generations to reappear when he was little in my younger son’s first-born child, her great-grandson — whom she did not live to know.   Beautifully dressed and cared for, and (I think) much loved, little Musia — or Musinka, as they would have called her –looks gravely at me across the one hundred and seven years that separate us. I wish I could hug her and protect her from what lies ahead. But of course I cannot.

By the time of the second photograph, she is eight or nine and has a baby brother, five years younger. His name? Osia, she told me. Osia is the diminutive of Osip (Joseph). But I learned that later, from reading Russian novels in translation. Not from her.

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In this second picture, taken in the summer  — a birthday portrait perhaps? — she is turned slightly to her right, so that the camera captures her in seven-eighths view, leaning on her crossed forearms on a low table and gazing into the middle distance. A narrow white silk ribbon is fastened across the top of her head, with a flat bow at each temple and two short trailing ends descending along each side of her chin-length wavy hair.   Her dress is white cotton, the loosely tucked sleeves generously bordered at the elbow with white-on-white eyelet flower embroidery, the collarless and nearly transparent front yoke a wonder of more white-on-white eyelet flower embroidery with even narrower silk ribbons run through its borders, a bow at each side. And below the yoke, the dress becomes a loose cascade of tiny vertical crystal pleats — delicious to wear in the Russian heat, and probably very difficult to iron in those days before electric steam irons. She wears a small medallion ring on the fourth finger of her left hand.

But her enigmatic expression is the focus of this portrait. She seems somewhat sad. It may be that her eyes have already acquired the characteristic look with which I am familiar – pupils positioned high between her upper and lower lids, so that the white beneath the bottom of each pupil is clearly visible, a look which suggests tragedy even where it may be simply genetics. Or perhaps she is impatient for the posing to be over.  It’s clear she’s hot; her hair is damp at the hairline and forming curls from perspiration. But she’s also resigned to the length of the photography session.   Yes, “resigned”  — to what she cannot help — may be the operative word here. Although not yet ten, she already looks like the mother I once knew.

These two photographs are all I have of my mother’s life in Vilna. Just as she never spoke of her father, so she never spoke of that early time except once, when pressed for details, to say she had had a pony. She must at some point also have gone to school, in all likelihood a private school to which Jewish girls were freely admitted, upon payment of the tuition, because I recall her saying that she was later able to earn a place in the “gymnasium” (pronounced with a hard “g” and an “ah” sound) — which had a Jewish quota — only when she entered the “fifth class.”

However, there is one more photograph, in faded brown sepia, which she brought out of Russia together with the very few family pictures she was able to take with her; later, in the United States, she pasted this third photograph on an 8 ½” by 11” sheet of paper, perhaps to preserve it despite its worn fragility.

The photograph shows at its center a wide driveway bordered on both sides by tall trees in full summery leaf. The driveway leads from the viewer to two wooden doors folded back and open to a cobblestone street; along the other side of the street and perpendicular to the driveway runs a low fretwork fence. It’s hard to make out what lies beyond the fence. A quiet brook? Grassy woods?   In the pale far distance, behind the brook or grassy woods, rise four onion domes of varying heights, each topped by a slender spire faintly piercing the sky with the Russian Orthodox cross. My mother made no notation on the paper mounting of the photograph. She didn’t have to; she knew where that driveway was. I know only that in all likelihood it was not in Baku, even then a major city, and that the fragile photograph meant enough for her to take it with her to America twelve years later. Moreover, someone (whose hand I do not recognize — therefore neither my mother or my father) has written a date with a very fine pen point in the lower left corner of it: “1910.”

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I therefore like to think this fragile sepia photograph my mother brought halfway around the world and kept for the rest of her life is a faded representation of the view from inside the driveway at Vladimir Vainschtain’s estate near Vilna, where once upon a time she had lived with her mother and father and little brother, and was loved and secure, in a place that was home.

Then, suddenly, there was no more father.

And no more home.

[To be continued….]

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WHY BLACK IS ALWAYS THE NEW BLACK: A FRIVOLOUS PIECE FOR LADIES

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[Note:  Male orchestra conductors and classical musicians also seem to be going down this road more and more frequently, although almost certainly for reasons to which I am not privy.  Could it be that black looks more artistic?  If so, consider that the twelfth reason to wear black, as set forth below.  I could only come up with eleven on my own.]

Is it true that you can never go wrong with black?  I have been reading this ever since I first opened a copy of my mother’s Vogue, some sixty-five or more years ago. That’s not to say you should believe even a very small part of what you see in Vogue. But about black — as I have come to realize after considerable trial and error over all the intervening decades between then and now — those crazy fashion editors have pretty much got it right. At least for all purposes where jeans won’t really do.  (And by the way, well-polished black leather boots and a good black turtleneck cashmere sweater really do dress up a pair of narrow jeans beyond belief.)

These are some of the reasons I have concluded that black is always “in”:

1.  Black is appropriate for all ages.  If you think you look too young (haha), it will make you look more sophisticated.  If you’re feeling dowdy, it will make you feel more urban.  If you’re feeling middle-aged, it will make you feel sexier.  If you feel you’re looking old, it will help you feel you’re still in the game.

2. Black is slenderizing. Yes, more so than navy, which tends to look prim, institutional, or nun-like.  If you’re already slim, it will make you look even more svelte and seductive than you already do.  If you’re the opposite of slim, and you don’t buy your black too tight, it will seem to smooth out the lumps and bumps and bulges.

3.  Most things that come in black, other than shrouds, are chic.  Yes, they are.  A black sweater is more chic than one in lime green or pale blue (no matter how green or blue your eyes).  A black dress looks a hundred times better than a print one. On everybody.  Including the model in Vogue.

4.  Men appreciate women wearing black.  They will be proud to be out with you, or — if they’re not yet in position to be able to do that — will certainly be more likely to be eyeing you than that other woman across the room wearing a yellowish tunic over brown pants.  Men also like black lingerie very much, but that was never the subject of a piece in Vogue when I was growing up and therefore not strictly speaking the subject of this piece, which is limited to why Vogue has been right about black all these years (despite being wrong, or eventually wrong, about so much else).

5.  You need fewer clothes if most of them are black.  You can only wear that dress in fuchsia, or the one with red roses or big polka dots all over it, once or twice; after that, you’ll be tired of it, and even if you’re not, other people will begin thinking “Hm. Hasn’t she got anything else in her closet?”  Whereas you can wear a well cut black dress over and over  — with a different scarf, or different jewelry, or different footwear — and no one will be counting.  They will be overcome with the overall glamour of You.

6.  Black tops and black bottoms go with each other even if not bought together. They also go with almost everything else you may own. This means you can travel light.  (One week’s worth of wardrobe changes in a carry-on bag if it’s not the dead of winter, and maybe even if it is!)  It also means you don’t have a lot of stuff cluttering up your closet that only goes with one other thing.

7.  Black goes out of style much more slowly than other “hot this year” looks and colors.  You can adjust hemlines if need be.  Put your money in a great new handbag.  Or a new laptop.  Or the bank!

8. Black looks good on nearly everybody.  You just need the right neckline.  (Decolletage, anyone?)  Or the right accessory.  Pearls perhaps. (If real pearls are beyond you, as they are for me, get fake ones with knots between each fake pearl. That will make them look more real.) Or a good silk scarf in a color that’s “you.” (White or cream or ivory is always good.)  Interesting earrings.

9.  Black doesn’t show dirt.  You can’t see what accumulates at the neckline or at the edges of sleeves.  And most other spots, such as those acquired elsewhere on the garment from sloppy eating, can be made undetectable by sponging off, which cannot be said for spots on lighter-colored clothing.  It’s true that hairs from affectionate family pets, unless the pet is black, will be visible, but these can easily be removed by several swipes of a Scotch Pet Roller, the outer layer of which then gets discarded in the nearest wastebasket.  I keep one of these Rollers in my closet, another downstairs near the front door, and a third in the car.  Far cheaper than dry-cleaning, far less labor-intensive than laundering (or worse, hand-washing) and subsequent ironing of non-black garments.

10.  Clothing in an inexpensive or synthetic fabric looks less cheap in black than in color.  If it’s not cotton, silk or wool, it usually doesn’t take dye well; the colors will be too bright, or too dull, or slightly shiny.  Black  — or, in all candor, white — is the better choice. Unless you don’t care about whether your inexpensive purchases look it.  But that’s not you, of course.  If it were, you wouldn’t be reading this trifle of a piece, but looking for something more meaningful on WordPress — about the state of the economy, or what’s happening with campaign finance, or how to write a truly readable novel in just thirty days.

11.  Black tends not to show wrinkles, even when it’s cotton.   I have a black cotton shirtdress, straight up and down, with a black cotton string-tie belt, that I can wear throughout the summer (with a straw hat, straw bag and black ballet slippers) — and I don’t have to press it, even though I sit in it, and perspire gently in it, and don’t give it any special treatment until fall, when it gets washed and ironed and put away for another year.  I have another version of exactly the same dress in lavender cotton, which I don’t wear nearly as often (see point 5 above), yet its backside looks much more wrinkled after a wearing or so than the black one’s does.  Go figure.  I say black conceals more than any other color, including wrinkles made by sitting.  You can say whatever you want, including that I may be stretching the truth.

But I won’t be listening.  Now that I’ve provided some lightness and mirth to balance all that heavy stuff about proactive defense of the immune system, I’m out of here, to look for something on the economy, or campaign finance.  But not something about writing a truly readable novel in just thirty days.  That I do not believe!

VANITY AND THE OLDER WOMAN

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A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am.  Which means she was about seventy-one when she called.  It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed.  But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading Lydia Davis or War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.

The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked.  However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind.  Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery.  Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.)  “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.

Well, sure.

She seemed almost embarrassed.  “It’s, um, about your arms,”  she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more.  The upper part. How do you deal with that?”

Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before.  Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin.  And the last time I had seen her upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world, especially as they had curious cellulite-like indentations in their probably softening flesh that I have never seen on the arms of a young woman, no matter how plump.

Wow!  Didn’t think I could be so judgmental?  Then you sure thought wrong.  I make judgments all the time (including about myself).  However, I mostly keep mum about them.  As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill.  Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman, if somewhat round, who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.

But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh?  Awnings of loose skin hanging below when the arms are raised?  A generally wrinkled surface?   “What do you do?” she repeated.

Well, that was an easy question.  ” I cover them up,” I said.

“Really?  Even in summer?”

“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.

“There you go.  You have no idea what they look like.”

“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully.  “So what do you wear?”

“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up.  Or if it’s a sleeveless dress  — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly.  “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to.  You can still look good.  A different sort of good.  And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”

She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.”  But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could.  I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?

We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie.  Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly.  My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up.  Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby.  But then I never did my post-partum exercises.  Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.

There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes.  You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out.  I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness.  Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young.  Even Diane Keeton, who at 67 still looks great, has just come out with a new book that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)

The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.”  Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments.  If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.

So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen,  go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.

Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons.  It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.

Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.”  It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much.  All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.

Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his.  But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.

Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead.  If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!

MY FIRST BRA(S)

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My mother had promised:  When we got back to New York from the beach resort where we were spending the summer, I could have a bra.  I was just thirteen and still only a little beyond flat-chested.  But there had been bouncing.  And teasing.  And embarrassment.  It was the summer of 1944.

My mother didn’t make promises easily, but those she made, she kept. In September, we went to Best & Company, a department store she felt she could trust for what she called “such an important purchase.”  The saleswoman in Misses’ Lingerie looked me over doubtfully, shook her head and gave my mother a little card from the drawer under the cash register.  “Come back in a year or so,” she said to me.

The address on the card was that of a small shop on Madison Avenue in the Seventies.  We waited on little gilt chairs until someone could be with us. There was a pale pink brochure on the round glass-topped table next to my chair, which I read.  Brassieres could apparently be fitted to the requirements of, or could be custom-made for, the client with extremely large breasts, or pendulous breasts, or just one breast, or no breasts.  The brochure was silent as to the needs of the very young client.

However, the white-haired corseted lady who finally emerged from behind the floor-length pink curtains that divided the anteroom from the rest of the shop seemed absolutely delighted to see me.  “Exactly the sort of client we love,” she cooed.  “A young girl with happy problems, easily solved.”  She ushered us past the pink curtains into a large mirrored alcove shielded by more pink curtains. There I was instructed to take off my blouse, drop the wide straps of my slip, and remove my undershirt.  My mother sat on yet another gilt chair, holding the blouse and undershirt and looking anxious.  She did not know what all this was going to cost.

I felt shy about exposing my budding breasts.  Even my mother hadn’t seen them recently.  But the white-haired lady didn’t seem to find them peculiar.  “Lovely,” she murmured, running the tips of her fingers softly around the sides. “These are very delicate tissues,” she explained to my mother.  “One must be so careful to protect them from bruising and strain. Lack of proper care at this age can result in irreparable damage and a lifetime of regret.” I wondered if lack of care in Russia was the reason my mother was so floppy without her brassiere.  Was she now enduring a lifetime of regret?

The white-haired lady measured me with a pink silk tape measure and jotted notes on a small pink pad with a small silvery pencil. She felt each baby breast gently to gauge its circumference, and jotted more notes on the pad.  Then she slipped away for a few minutes. Before I knew it, she was instructing me how to center each breast in the AA-cup of a beautiful pink silk satin brassiere.  “There is a right way, and a wrong way,” she said.  “Now you are one of the lucky young girls who knows the right way.”

When I was hooked in, she had me turn around, inspecting me as if I were a work of art.  “We’ll need to take a teensy tuck in the left cup,” she told my mother.  “Nothing to worry about.  Many young girls need it, on one side or the other.”

My mother nodded, inquired the price, bit her lip, and said we would take two.  The white-haired lady looked pained.  “But my dear!” she exclaimed.  “She needs at least two more for night wear. Are you really going to permit your precious daughter to damage those delicate young tissues while she sleeps?”

So it was that I became the owner of four AA-cup pink silk satin brassieres at the beginning of my second term of high school.  My mother worried aloud all the way home on the subway about what my father would say when he heard what she had paid.  But they couldn’t be returned.  The left cup of each of them had been custom fitted especially for me.

I never wore the extra two to bed.  For at least a year I had been playing with my nipples under my pajama top every night before I fell asleep, and it didn’t feel as good through the silk satin.  Besides, I didn’t care if my fragile tissues got bruised; I was sure I was destined to be a dud in the looks department anyway.  I just wanted not to bounce when I walked.  To generate enough laundry to allay maternal suspicions, I changed brassieres every day instead of every other.

By the following year, I had developed sufficiently to go back to Best & Co.  The four now outgrown pink silk satin bras went to the Salvation Army, where perhaps they found a second young wearer with delicate tissues.  Or perhaps not.  You never know with those custom-fitted items.

I suppose you could say all that about “happy problems” and “precious daughters” were the good old days.  I’m not sure what was so good about them. Except that they’re fun to post about.  And hopefully to read about too.