BY FLORA SPENCER
LIVING IN THE SEVENTIES… not the time, but the chronological age…has come as a great shock to me. I find, in looking back from this “peak,” that I contemplate my mother, and beyond her, my grandmother, who both lived to the age of 84. (I can do the math!) I have a new interest in their strong, but very different attitudes towards life, and I hope that I, in a different time, might have done something to push the envelope that genetics may have dealt me!
When I was four, Grandma was 76; short and stout, but upright and dignified in artfully tailored and trimmed dresses of her own design, always decorated with beautiful braid or buttons and sewn skilfully by her dressmaker, with the intention of maximizing her shrinking height and minimizing her girth. I recall her at the head of the dinner table, exerting her presence over the meal, where great formality reigned, and her adult children and grandchildren sat up straight and spoke politely about matters that meant little to me, the youngest by ten years. Even the jokes were a mystery. To signal the end of the interminable meals, she pushed a button at her toe, and the maid came through the swinging door from the kitchen.
Only once do I recall an unguarded moment that quite literally bared some of the facade. One hot June day, in her sun-dappled bedroom Grandma, my mother and I were gathered at the dressing table. Grandma was wearing a light mauve seersucker wrap with a flower design trimmed with cream rick rack; my mother was helping her dress for a cousin’s wedding by brushing her hair, beautifully white and very long, the important 100 strokes. As I lounged against the softness of grandma’s breast, awkwardly limited for space by her girth and made restless by her moist powdery scent and the stickiness of the day, my attention was caught by several pretty gold-trimmed china dishes on a matching china tray on the dressing table, conveniently child-height. My hands darted among them.
“What’s this for?” I fingered the round hole in the lid of a flowered bowl. “It’s full of hair!”
“It’s to keep the combings in,” she said. “When I was a girl, people would have their hair woven into lovely ornaments after they died.”
“Why?” I quickly replaced the lid, a little horrified, and reached for a little white leather case containing nail scissors and a long oval-shaped leather covered pad. I rubbed it on my nose to smell it.
“It is so soft, and it smells funny,” I said.
“It is a buffer for polishing fingernails,” grandma said, as she began to demonstrate on my nails. “It is all the polish your nails will ever need. It’s covered with baby deer skin.” This was a further shock, hot on the heels of my hearing the story of “Bambi!”
Next, I opened a little rectangular box with a lid. It fell to the floor unbroken, but out hopped lovely curved combs and the large thick hair pins that my mother was about to use to hold the twist of Grandma’s hair in a soft knot at the nape of her downy neck. I scrambled to retrieve them as needed, and came upon another oddity on the bench at the end of the bed. It was a garment of shell-pink cotton with shiny brocade roses, and when I picked it up, pink laces, like the ones on my shoes, dangled from long rows of eyelets, and there were hooks and eyes — hundreds of them!
“What is this? It can stand up by itself, and I can walk inside it!”
“Don’t touch,” was the unusually quick and sharp command.
“But what is it? What are the laces for?”
“Not for you to touch!”
I stood back and contemplated the amazing item, wondering about the secrets that it held. My mother spoke up, and her voice took on an interesting challenging tone that I had never heard.
“It’s an old-fashioned instrument of torture held up by the bones of whales. What a cruel end for a whale! It is called a corset and it is worn under clothes to hold up your body. It is too tight and certainly too hot for a summer day like this! I would never wear one,” she stated emphatically, looking at Grandma, not me.
“A woman should never be seen in public without one,” was grandma’s defiant retort.”
“How do you put it on? Can I see?”
“Go downstairs and see Mrs. Johnson,” was her uncharacteristically loud reply.
A wooden stool in the hot and busy kitchen was the usual result of my misdemeanours: restlessness at the dinner table, exploration of drawers and cupboards and too early rising. Mrs. Johnson wasn’t a talker. How was my question about the pink mystery garment so bad??
The clear answer to its function came months later when I was sitting at the kitchen table at home looking at the newly-arrived Eaton’s Winter Catalogue, while my mother prepared dinner.
“Mom, here is something like grandma has!”
In fact, there were pages of ladies’ underpinnings — brassieres, girdles, panties of all sorts, garter belts and girdles as well as brocade corsets with bones for rigidity and laces for compression. My mother was prompted to return to her earlier statement of her aversion to confining garments and unnatural shaping of the body. Her bras were nothing like the rocket shaped satin offerings of the catalogue; they were light silk, mere wisps, for her slim and firm bodily requirements.
“Our bodies are resilient enough. Keep slender and you will have no need of such confinement,” she said, as she took a drag on her ever-present cigarette.
Years later, after the birth of my brother, after a lifetime of food and drink and cigarettes, my mother’s figure was no longer lithe and did come to require confinement, if only to hold up the elastic stockings that dealt with her varicose veins. She began to wear an elastic girdle, with much complaint, that led to many shopping ventures, in a vain attempt to find something that was truly comfortable. The stockings kept her upright and mobile, though, while she coped with a large farmhouse, summer canning, peripatetic summer holidays with my artist-father, and the frequent and seemingly effortless entertaining of their friends. (Unlike my grandmother, probably in opposition to her, my mother had chosen a life bound by fewer rules, and certainly not helped by servants.)
I was forty-one when my mother was 76; she had recently nursed my father for a year, as he died of cancer, suddenly developed rheumatoid arthritis, and after a time, following a broken hip, she required a wheel chair for any degree of mobility. She let her hair grow long, braided it to keep it out of her eyes, and wore loose and colourful clothing. Over that time, she listened to her grandchildren’s secrets and kept her judgements of their antics to herself. We visited often. One day, while helping her sort out her clothes, I came upon her old girdle, now flaccid and unused.
“Isn’t it hideous! Throw it out,” she laughed. It is my only compensation for the this wheelchair.”
My mother’s fight for freedom and forging her own rules wore her out, like her girdle, but she reached her 84th year, after two years in bed listening to the C.B.C and the visiting nurses, who became her friends.
Grandmother’s severe rules and sense of decorum had conveyed her on her upright way all the way to 84. She spent her final years in her handsome home, now run by her daughter-in-law. She continued to preside over meals prepared by a cook and she entertained her visitors.
Shortly after my grandfather died, she arrived at our house on a hot June day, after a three hour drive. She was wearing a lovely white dress with tiny pearl buttons from neck to hem, straight and firm as ever. She was just staying for a week, she said at dinner in our hot farm kitchen. Four days later, she died of a stroke.
In my mind, it was her corset that had kept her going — that and perhaps her continual efforts to keep everyone on a rigid path to right behaviour, having been shaped as a minister’s daughter in small towns and “finished” as a dutiful wife under the eyes of Grandfather’s large family.
I am now well on my way to 76 and my attitudes towards proper attire have been shaped by the commercial production of the starter bra, the boned strapless, pantie girdles and garter belts, full skirts, tight skirts and mini-skirts, followed, thank heaven, by pantie hose. The elastic stockings that support my veins are cleverly held up by a band of rubber dots so that I can stand up long as possible to teach, hike and cook — no girdle! I to go to the gym sometimes, to strengthen my muscles — and I buy clothes that hide the softly sagging body. I hope that I, like my feisty lady-ancestors, can hold onto my mind, my character and my beliefs until the end, for that seems to me to be the most importantly resilient quality — nothing to do with undergarments!
Flora Spencer has lived in Dundas, Ontario for 43 years. She grew up in Guelph where her father was an artist – a portrait painter by profession. Flora taught English and Art over many years in Guelph, Dundas, and Hamilton. She raised two wonderful children and is now retired.