Today, my grandmother would have celebrated her 97th birthday. Ninety-seven, the number alone sounds impressive, considering how much has changed since she was born in 1916, it’s nearly impossible to grasp. By today’s standards, people lived in the Middle Ages at the height of WWI. Technology and everyday amenities were still in their infancy, at least in comparison to our technified lives. In the past 97 years, progress has been made on the expense of tradition and time. Depending on your preference, those changes have improved our lives or deteriorated them. No matter how you feel about this development, there’s one thing you may not even have noticed: we as humans have changed, too. And while I still grew up with grandfathers in hats and grandmothers with luscious curls, today’s children rarely get in contact with a generation who still dared to grow old with grace. Personally, I loved having grandparents who had clearly aged. Two people who loved spending their time with me without constantly rushing away. A grandma who cooked, a grandpa who took his afternoon nap in his favorite wingback chair. Two people from a different generation who, from time to time, demanded quietude and patience, but made me laugh like no one else. They taught me things my parents couldn’t, spoiled me without forgetting to remind me of their rules and instilled the desire in me to be a better person. As a child I remember seeing many other sets of grandparents like mine in the streets. Old ladies with handbags full of helpful necessities and grandpas who used their umbrellas as canes until it started to rain. Today, I miss seeing that image: old ladies dressed to a tee, their hair as perfect as their demeanor. I can honestly say, I never heard my grandma using foul language or swearing, no matter how bad a day she may have had. I know that’s an ideal memory but also the childhood I was granted to have. It may be a special bond only grandparents share with their grandchildren, dulcified by the touch of an outgoing generation who grew up in a time so different from the world we are now living in. All those gentlemen and ladies, with their attitude, lessons and style, I love them dearly, the few representatives who are still gracing us with their presence. I really wish we would listen to them more closely and wouldn’t allow their children to take claim to all the positive changes we’ve benefited from in the past decades. So, on my grandma’s birthday, here’s my toast to all my much-admired ladies, those who are still with us and those who live on in my memories. Although today it isn’t always easy to see through, you have taught me so much about being a lady – how to present myself to others and myself, and most importantly, how to be modest in bad times and grateful when the sun is shining again. It’s something I value more deeply the older I get, a lesson I hope to be able to pass on to the next generation with the same kind of love, respect and dedication I was given by my grandma, my all-time favorite lady.
In 1916, my grandma was born. August 18th was her birthday. Gregory Peck was born that year, so were Kirk Douglas, Betty Grable and Olivia de Havilland. WWI was haunting Europe, leaving an entire generation lost and scarred. Radio was the connection to the world and newspapers the main source of information. Irving Berlin was a big name in music and Cole Porter presented his debut, See America First, on Broadway. Al Jolson was big in show business, as well as movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. James Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while Claude Monet and Henri Matisse created some of their most beautiful paintings.
The world my grandmother grew up in seems so different now from ours and yet I always felt our souls were one and the same.When she entered her teens, she was affected by the Great Depression like everybody else. Those years shaped her understanding of money and security, and made her frugal despite her generosity. When she was barely of age, the world was shaken by another World War, a catastrophe that shaped her decisions about marriage, family and friendship. When the war was over, the world changed yet again, with women (despite their inferior legal status) struggling to juggle their jobs, children and returning soldier men. In the 50s, my grandma couldn’t afford to live the dream of a housewife, she had to work to support her two children because her husband’s salary alone didn’t suffice. She worked in a field she had been trained in with her father’s permission before the war and stayed with the same company until she finally retired at sixty. It took her years to afford a washing machine or other amenities, her household eating up much more time, without the help of her husband. I don’t know how she did it, but she cooked every day and created delicious meals on a tighter budget than I am scraping by today. She was a beloved host and as a child I always aspired to get as much praise for my cooking as she did.
It is her discipline, warmth and love I remember the most, the everyday routine she kept even after she had long stopped working. Her closet always looked impeccable, with neatly folded sheets and her well-groomed wardrobe. Her clothes were ladylike, her hair curly and naturally gray. When I close my eyes, I immediately see her in the kitchen, an apron safely tugged around her waist and her glasses steamed up from adding a secret ingredient to my favorite dishes. I often wonder how she would feel about my vintage life today and remember the feeling of reaching for the phone to ask her for a recipe or some advice long after she had already passed away. Sometimes I hear her voice in my dreams and I see her face smiling at me. When I wake up, I always feel blessed but also lonely for her presence, then I realize how many of the things I love were cherished and celebrated by her in a humble way. She read whodunits, loved music, embraced solitude as well as company and liked to talk to me at least an hour every day. Like me, she also loved Perry Mason and when I look at Della Street in her senior years, I always feel reminded of my grandma and what a gift it was to have been loved by her.
It’s that time of year again: spring has finally arrived and I feel like cleaning out my cupboards, closet and shelves. I look at new (vintage) dresses and dust off my heels, I start looking for flowers and I’m back to cooking leaner meals.
When I grew up, I have to admit, I never grasped the meaning of spring cleaning. I knew my grandma did it with abandon and what was important to her has always mattered to me, but somehow the rejuvenating effect escaped me until a few years ago. I don’t know what started it, maybe I’ve just been getting older (and a little wiser I would hope), but now, spring cleaning starts my new year like I was always taught it would.
So along with scrubbing my floors and clearing out my basement, I also go through my boxes and files, my pictures and books, my movies and shows. And each year seems to awaken something new: a project, a friendship or a journey.
The funny thing about my spring cleaning is that it’s a process – though joyful and humbling at times, it also comes with a melancholy side. Last year at this time, I was mending my heart that had started to break the year before. This year, I feel like striking roots while looking for a change, a feeling that ties in with something I once read when I was still a kid, that most women have two hearts beating in their chest, that they have ambiguous feelings about marriage, career and motherhood.
I remember soaking up those words without understanding them, after all, I’d been taught that we could have it all. But when I was little, my mother was a housewife and my grandma retired, and I greatly cherished their presence. My mother returned to work as I got older, working part time without leaving the house before I’d been off to school. When I came home, she was always there with steaming food on the table and open ears to hear about my day. Now, I often remember how safe a feeling that was, how cushioned I felt, and I’m beginning to crave to create the same kind of haven for a family of my own. At the same time, however, I love to work and cherish having a career. Or to say it in my words: do I want to be a Barbie Hale or Della Street?
So far, I haven’t minded walking on the Della Street side of life (without having found a darling boss like Perry Mason or excelling at secretarial duties as naturally as his perfect girl Friday – fiction aside). But what if I’m craving to have more in life than that? How do I adopt that Babs Hale attitude I am so fond of, that “I chased him till he caught me” poise to use it on the Bill Williams of my heart who seems to be as shy as Our Miss Brooks‘ Mr Boynton? How do I get to be a Lucille Ball with a spoon of Lucy Ricardo, or a Donna Reed with a dash of Donna Stone? How do I learn to walk that tightrope Ms Hale and Hearty once described, that fine line between devoting yourself to having a family and being your own woman who leads a creative life?
You see, I’ve always taken great comfort and found inspiration in reading about female lives in times so different from ours today and yet so alike. My love for vintage was born this way, instilled by my grandma and our close-knit relationship.
My grandmother was born in 1916, a working mom of two girls who lost her son early on. She was married, of course, and yet juggled the household, her kids and the job she had been trained to do all on her own. By law, she wasn’t the head of her family, but she sure had to act as one. And when her health was troubling her, she didn’t have time to complain or rest, nor did she want to burden her family. What she really loved was cooking for us and our extended family, a whole apartment full of people at times. She never tired of running around to get more dishes, to serve more booze or cigarettes (yes, those were the days).
As a kid, I remember marveling at her in her apron dress, getting up early to follow a tight schedule every day. She always put her loved ones first and herself last without ever subordinating her personality. Like me, she loved Perry Mason and together we watched the TV movies with great pleasure (and a conjoint crush on Ray Burr), one of my favorite memories because Della Street has always reminded me so much of my grandma’s humble, demure attitude, her commitment and quiet joy.
I was truly blessed to have someone in my life who was always there for me, who understood me so deeply, who spoiled and loved me no matter what. I’ve been missing that a lot since she’s passed away – the values and the trust she raised me with, her concept of family, love and community. I suppose that’s the question for me to answer this year, how to (re)create something that has been lost?
Now that’s my personal note on spring cleaning – apart from cupboards, sewing and dishes.