“Someday you will make the most wonderful wife,” she says.
“I want to show you your hope chest.”
Your grandmother has ordered a chest for you, the year you turn fourteen. She opens it and you see bolts of lacy antique fabric. These are tablecloths and linens and napkins and doilies. This has been her legacy. These date back generations.
She explains the gilded plates and goblets and the settings and all the tiny silver forks. She teaches you to set the table and arrange the flowers as if these are things that you are going to need to know.
“It’s beautiful,” you say, arranging centerpieces.
You pull her wedding dress from the box where it has been saved in tissue. Beige lace and hand beading almost like a flapper’s dress. It must have been the epitomy of taste in 1918.
Actually it was modern.
You wonder if she had a veil.
Your grandfather tells you tales of his Harley Davidson with a sidecar.
You imagine her breathless in the snow, cheeks shining. The flutter of love in the air. She was 15 and he 18 when they met.
You trace your hands along the lace over the thousands of beads and exquisite workmanship from a time when craft still mattered.
You expect he was dashing.
And she beautiful.
She shows you all the delicate porcelain plates his sister amused herself by painting.
Sea scenes of tiny crabs and fishes.
Ladies’ work. Like lacemaking. Like ladylike. Like Bullock’s Wilshire when she takes you to the tearoom for tiny cakes and watercress sandwiches and petits fours or to the juice bars you frequent on her shopping trips.
In the afternoons she lies on a slantboard and gets her beauty sleep.
She gets treatments and she studies Gayelord Hauser.
You have two realities in childhood. Your grandmother’s and your mother’s.
“She’s trying to steal you from me,” says your mother.
“I can’t stand her and that life she leads.”
“She had to give up everything to be married,” your mother says later.
“Her own life.”
Your grandmother tells you about her aunt Cecee and how she had married the dashing Uncle Wilson. You study the photographs of him abroad, and study all the patterns in the Oriental rugs. He’s on camels, riding. He is in Japan at a tea ceremony. He is off traveling the world riding elephants while her aunt takes her to the club every day.
The club where society women go in big cities for luncheons.
You imagine she must have seen him and thought of a way out at fifteen.
You want to give her more credit than you mother’s disdain.
“She hated me,” your mother says.
“She only loved my brother.”
“I never even had a baby book, and he did.”
It’s a feud that goes on for years with you in the middle.
Your grandmother carries a series of little alligator bags that click open and shut. She carries elegant enameled cases for her powder and a golden tube for her lipstick. She is never without your grandfather’s handkerchief when she needs it.
He encloses her in a series of cars, because she doesn’t drive.
When you are fourteen she is reading Gift from the Sea, and writing little notes to herself about spirituality and survival or how to keep one’s spirits up when faced with unruly children like her daughter.
It seems as if she is always trying to discount or control your mother. She wants you to tell her everything as she sips her aperitifs before the crackling fire in the afternoons.
You go silent.
Which one will you be forced to defend against the other?
Your grandfather and your uncle provide the relief at holiday dinners. Your uncle sitting quietly behind his newspapers with a cigar — and your grandfather drawing, perpetually drawing little things on paper. Little scenes of tranquility perhaps to keep his nerves at bay.
He draws the logo for his Mercedes over and over again.
“If you have nothing pleasant to say at the table, then don’t,” snaps your grandmother. This silences everyone.
The air fills with unspoken hostilities. Another round of cocktails is ordered.
You go and sit with your grandfather and his magical world of elsewhere as he draws. The two of you have the means to escape it. It only takes a pen and a little piece of paper.
Years later you open the hope chest and it is empty. Your mother has dispensed with all the lace and all the silver. At her passing you begin to see what she had wanted to rid herself of.
It was her mother.
“She always told me I was too tall or too clumsy.”
“Don’t be vain about your hair,” she’d say.
“You must brush it 100 strokes a night.”
She hands you a little set of silver -backed brushes.
It will be your grandmother who decides you can never see your best friend again.
“She isn’t a good influence,” you hear her tell your mother.
Fourteen is the year you have to part for a time. Her parents are splitting and her brother is leaving to live with his friends on the Drive. He’s only seventeen and he has to go. Her mother leaves the hill and the teak and the blueberry pancakes for a series of young lovers.
Your best friend is forced to bounce back and forth, and forth and back like a dandelion puff on the wind.
You can’t stand what has happened.
She is alone in that Victorian house her mother bought and she has to fend for herself. She does this by baking loaves of wheat bread and taking up typing. The lovers come and go.
Her father makes himself a bachelor pad and finds a girlfriend.
It’s at the beach.
Your best friend plants a garden for him. He gives her a little couch in the living room.
There will never be another sleepover. There will never be another childhood bedroom full of toys to save and pass on to the next generation. These are the years when everyone decides they will do what they want. They will have what they want no matter the cost.
These are the years where there aren’t any parents.
* * *
“Veiled” — copyright 2009 by Valentine Bonnaire — all rights reserved.
*authors note on the scoring — old songs like Al Jolson? Or these things…