Creative nonfiction by Gloria Bennett
As far back as I can remember, I have always understood that perfume, pretty clothes, and colorful jewelry are just a few of the benefits of being a girl. Even though I occasionally liked to go fishing with my grandfather when I was a child, and had been known to play in the mud, I was definitely not a tomboy. I liked to get dressed up. In a photograph from my childhood, I am standing in my grandparents’ front yard with three of my cousins. The three of them are dressed in casual clothes—shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops. I, however, am wearing a dress, Mary Jane shoes, and socks with lace. The photograph was a black and white snapshot taken by my grandmother, but I remember that the dress and the shoes were both red, which was one of my favorite colors when I was a child.
I lived with my grandparents until I was almost five years old, and money was always tight in their home. They had to save every way they could, so they rarely had the opportunity to buy ready-made clothing for us children. I do remember, however, that my mother and my aunts always wore pretty skirts and dresses, and Grandma sewed them all herself. In the late ‘60s, the fashion trend was bright psychedelic colors and bold swirling patterns. Yellow, pink, and aqua fabrics with vivid flower patterns were popular, especially for younger women. To my grandfather’s dismay, skirts got shorter, and my aunts began to wear colored and patterned hose and, occasionally, white high-rise stretch vinyl boots. Culottes and other flared-bottom pants, colorful tunics with large buttons, and loose-fitting chain belts were also very popular.
Almost all of my clothes were made from the small scraps of fabric left over from the outfits Grandma made for my mother and my aunts. She would lay the tiny remnants on the kitchen table and cut out each piece, without the benefit of a store-bought pattern. Then she would set up her sewing machine and slowly turn those pieces into a beautiful handmade outfit. I often sat there beside her while she gave me sewing lessons that would prove beneficial to me later in life. There were times in my young adulthood that I made nearly everything I wore, and I owe this skill to my grandmother.
To satisfy my desire for trinkets, Grandma would restring the multi-colored beads from her own broken costume jewelry with fishing line from Grandpa’s tackle box, fashioning them into pieces that were suitable for a small child to wear. Thanks to her creativity, I nearly always had a shoebox full of assorted necklaces and bracelets that complemented the colorful outfits she made for me.
To keep me from getting into her perfume and wasting it, Grandma gave me the empty containers to play with. I remember several different ones, but my favorites were the little cobalt blue bottles with worn silver labels. Evening in Paris was Grandma’s favorite fragrance, and my grandfather evidently liked it too. He gave it to her on special occasions—like birthdays, Christmas, and anniversaries. It was a rich floral fragrance that originated in 1928 in the era of flapper fashions and glittering nightlife, and Grandma always seemed to look forward to receiving this particular gift from him.
I would climb up onto the step stool that I used for brushing my teeth and would fill the empty bottles with water from the bathroom sink. Then I would imitate my grandmother, pretending that I was getting ready to go out for an evening of dinner and dancing with my own special man. I’d sit down at her mahogany dressing table and brush my long dark hair with her silver hairbrush and daub the “perfume” behind my ears and on my wrists, just like she had taught me to do. Then I’d don one of her discarded pillbox hats, the kind Jackie Kennedy wore, that she kept in a box on the floor of her closet for my cousins and me to play with. There were several colors to pick from, but I almost always chose the red one.
Evidently imitating scenes from dramas that my grandparents liked to watch on television, I’d go outside and sit in the double swing under the shade trees and pretend that I was in the backseat of a taxi, accompanied by a handsome young man as it made its way down the streets of Paris. Back then, I had absolutely no idea where Paris was, of course, but it sure sounded like the kind of place I’d someday like to visit. At the time, I had not yet ventured far from our rural hometown, and nearly every place name I heard on the television or on the radio sounded exquisite to my young imaginative mind.
My grandmother was born in the year 1919 and was a young married woman during the Depression Era. She was a farm wife with ten children of her own, and she helped raise several others. Special nights out on the town with my grandfather would have been infrequent, and her only connection to Paris was a name on a perfume bottle.
Some twenty years later, my husband took me to Paris. While we toured the City of Lights and dined near the Eiffel Tower, I thought of my grandmother, who had long since passed away. The Arc de Triomphe and the Paris skyline at night reminded me of vintage advertisements for the Evening in Paris perfume that had hung on the walls of my grandmother’s bedroom.
In the back seat of a taxi, on the way back to our hotel after a romantic evening out, I shared with my husband the story of my grandmother and the empty perfume bottles and what they had meant to me as a child. While she never had any actual hopes of traveling there herself, she helped foster the idea that I would grow up with opportunities that had not been available to her and other women of her time period. She always encouraged me to dream of possibilities, regardless of our circumstances.
These days, I collect pieces of vintage glass that remind me of home. And I still own a few of those old cobalt blue perfume bottles. They have a special place in my home. Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of my grandmother and what she taught me about being a woman.
Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.
Gloria Ludlam Bennett writes poetry and prose. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in a number of literary journals and reviews. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at the University of North Georgia, where she also serves as an academic coordinator for writing and publication. She was recently named finalist for the 2015 Georgia Author of the Year in the children’s book category for her book, Summers at Howard Creek.