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Out of the Closet

by Elizabeth Stewart

Aged by Margaret Puckett
"Aged" by Margaret Puckett

Looking back, I realize that I've probably been harboring this secret since I was at least ten years old.

It was the mid-fifties, I was a chaste Catholic School girl, Doris Day was big, and the first seeds of feminism were probably just being sewn for my generation at about the same time that my grandmother brought me three brown bags full of old evening clothes and accessories.

Back then I had a walk-in closet with a clothes rod on the left side, and a built-in bureau on the right. There was also an overhead light in the center of the ceiling, and a full-length mirror on the inside of the door, and, best of all, the door opened in. It wasn't long after I got those wonderful, shimmering old gowns, high heeled shoes, and beaded evening bags that I realized if I went into that closet, closed the door and pulled the drawers open, no one -- not even my mother -- could open the door from the outside. Alone in the absolute privacy of that closet I, a skinny, flat-chested child, could experiment with being any forbidden thing I wanted to be -- vixen, vamp, femme fatale, or flapper -- and no one would ever know!

What followed in the sixties were serious times. Times when girls were told that they should no longer focus on becoming wives, hairdressers, secretaries, or school teachers. Times when girls were learning that they too might affect the world if only they focused on the more serious occupations like social work. Then, just at a time when the most righteous thing a young woman could aspire to (short of helping the poor) was burning her bra and joining the new sisterhood, I experienced a less than subtle rush of hormones. There were no two ways about it -- this was not a time for any young woman, least of all a shapely one, to wear anything but the most serious clothing, if she ever hoped to be accepted into this brave new world of women.

And so I dressed for success -- modestly, quietly, acceptably -- that is, unless I was at home alone where, funky or elegant, I fluttered around the house in clothes that I loved but feared might be too conspicuous, too attention-getting, or too pretty to wear in front of other people. And so developed my secret addiction; I was a closet dresser!

Last winter, while unpacking an assortment of tank tops, tee-shirts, a bathing suit, and eight or nine giddy and wildly colored sarongs after a two-week vacation, I found myself startled as my eye was caught by the contrast of the staid New England wardrobe peeking enviously out of my own bedroom closet. Glancing back at the profusion of boldly printed fabrics that I had worn tied as skirts, dresses, and nightgowns for the previous fourteen days, I suddenly heard myself laughing out loud and asking, "Who is this woman?" Certainly, anyone seeing the stark difference between one set of clothing and the other might wonder if she wasn't someone who went on vacations solely to become someone else -- someone wild, someone who would do things that the owner of so many black garments with such clean lines would never do. Yet, almost as soon as the question had formed, the answer echoed back: "She's your true self."

Family lore has it that two days after my great-grandmother's fiftieth birthday, she arose early, attended to the business of breakfast, put on her best dress, hat, coat and gloves, picked up her purse, and set out on foot to walk the six blocks to the train station in East Greenwich, R.I. There she bought a round-trip ticket, boarded the morning train, and settled into a window seat to better enjoy her adventure. At the end of her twenty-five mile journey, Grandma disembarked at the Providence Station and walked another five blocks to the most exclusive dress shop of the day, where she purchased what was to be the most important dress of the rest of her life -- the finest and most beautiful dress she had ever owned -- and the dress she planned to be buried in!

Grandma proudly showed her new dress to everyone -- neighbors, friends, relatives -- each time pointing out the impeccable quality of the black crepe fabric, the perfection of the French seams, and the delicate beauty of the Alencon lace collar and cuffs. She told everyone that this (she was certain) would be her last year and, in an effort to provide her family with one less chore to attend to when she died, the dress would be in its box on the top shelf of her closet, just ready and waiting for her funeral.

After that, with every passing holiday -- Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween, Valentine's Day -- with each passing birthday -- hers, ours, George Washington's -- and with every passing season -- summer, fall, winter, spring -- Grandma announced that this would, undoubtedly, be the last time she would celebrate that particular occasion. In fact, she continued to make the same pronouncement with great regularity as she continued to live her "last days" to the very fullest.

My earliest personal recollections of Grandma begin when I was about three years old. I remember holidays at her house when she cooked wild boar and a fat goose, and all of those Sundays when she cooked roast beef and roast pork. Grandma always cooked two of everything -- two kinds of meat, two kinds of yellow vegetable, two kinds of greens, and even two kinds of potatoes. There might be Irish potatoes mashed with cream and butter and laced with finely chopped onion, and there might be French potatoes drizzled with oil and herbs and roasted, or they might simply be left in their jackets, slathered thick with butter, and baked in Grandma's big, old, cast-iron stove until the skins were crispy and good to the very last bite -- but there were always two kinds. Best of all, every time we arrived, Grandma had two kinds of pie cooling on the kitchen sideboard. The filling would depend on what was in season -- apples, strawberries and rhubarb, blueberries, or pumpkins -- but the crust was always as light and flaky as only a piecrust made with lard can be.

Grandma was renowned for both her great cooking and her great love of eating. In her last years, at only 4 feet 6 inches in height, she grew almost as big around as she was tall, and, when she was safely out of earshot, family members often affectionately referred to her as "Grandma Four by Four."

I don't know what motivated my great-grandmother to buy that dress when she did. Was it because she had been widowed and thought that she would probably be the next to go? Had she lost a friend whose family had buried her in something undignified? Or was it simply because actuarial tables of the day said her time was near? I never did have a chance to ask her. I had not been born when she bought the dress, and when she died, I was just old enough to think I knew all the answers, but far too young to know any of the questions. I guess I'll never know how and why, at the age of fifty, she became so thoroughly convinced that her life was coming to an end because by the time I even realized there were questions to be asked, anyone who might have known the answers was already gone.

I do know that, after an exceptionally good life, Grandma died one night in her sleep. The doctor said she had not had a heart attack but that her heart had simply slowed down until it stopped. The dress she had bought to be buried in was not only many sizes too small by the time she died, but also, when taken out of its original box, its beautiful, hand-tatted lace collar disintegrated under the lightest touch. That dress -- the finest and most beautiful dress she had ever owned, the only dress she never wore -- had been sitting on the same shelf, in the same box for forty-three years when Grandma finally, and quite simply, expired -- at the age of ninety-three!

And so it seems we have all survived another winter, and now it's time to clean out our own closets. What will we keep this season, and what will we discard? Will we hold on to the habit of our childhood school uniforms? Will we suit up to society's expectations? Must we wait until we are transformed by death before we finally dare to be beautiful? Or, will we, at long last, let our spirits free from that dark closet of conformity, and permit ourselves to be whoever we truly are?


Elizabeth Stewart studied theater at the University of Rhode Island, and in addition to having worked as a theater director has done professional storytelling. She is the mother of three children and the grandmother of six. In addition to her desire to continue to develop as a writer, her other interests, while wide and varied, include beadwork. She feels that there is a correlation between writing and making beaded jewelry in that words, like beads, must be strung on a common thread in an interesting, varied and rhythmic pattern. She is currently studying grant writing and hopes that one day soon she will be writing winning grants that will enable many women to do great things for their communities. You can contact Ms. Stewart at lizziebits@earthlink.net

 

 

Out of the Closet ]
Window Writer ]
Reconstructing My Father ]
Appreciate Life ]
The Psychiatrist as Poet ]

 

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