One-Minute Memoir

November 30, 2012

First Love

By Jim Sizemore

I arrived at her door nervous, like a teenager on his first date. It was my mother’s 72nd birthday. I was 42 then and had driven nearly six hundred miles from my home in Baltimore to our hometown in Virginia to take her to dinner. My plan was to retrace 40 miles on the Interstate to Lexington, a college town with a decent restaurant. She answered my knock wearing a simple house dress under a thin tan raincoat, her gray hair wrapped tightly in a flower-patterned dime-store scarf. The scarf material appeared to be cheesecloth. I pointed, “Must you wear that thing?” My mother looked at me as she often did, like I was crazy. “It’s clean,” she said, an answer that made no sense to me. Typical — our life together had been one long misunderstanding.

We headed back east to the restaurant, the sun setting behind us; I kept looking at the back-lit mountain ridges in the rear view mirror and the reflected light on the sloping hills ahead. When I mentioned the beauty all around us she shrugged, just sat there, scrunched down in her seat like the wrinkled shell of some creature you come across in the forest. My face had started to wrinkle, too, and I saw that the lines were forming into her patterns. It was eerie. I could look at her face and see my own, thirty years down the road.

At dinner all she did was complain. The place was too fancy, the meal too expensive, and anyway, that “pile of food” would just go to waste. Besides, she said, she didn’t like people to make a fuss over her. I made a mean joke about her “plantation mentality,” her inability to enjoy the good that came her way. We left the restaurant in silence and I drove her home, very fast. Outside the car window the black sky was background for a line of darker mountain ridges. The headlights illuminated flashes of broken white lane marker, and the dash instruments cast a dim, yellow light on my hands, tight on the wheel. I began throwing up curses from my gut, spitting them out in random combinations, alternately screaming and whispering every blasphemous oath I knew. It was an evil performance, variations on a filthy theme, a jazz riff of profanity, of streaming dark passion. The foul words had bulk and filled the dark cavity of my car. I had trouble breathing, seemed to be drowning in my own angry bile. “What does it take to move you?” I screamed, and the words echoed in the tight space.

No reply. I was sure she was smiling at my intensity in the dark. “You damn well should know what’s got me going like this! The sunset! That beautiful goddamn sunset!” After a long silence, I blurted, “What the hell does it take to move you?”

More silence. “Answer me!”

Her voice came back quiet, calm. “I never raised you to talk like that.”

I spit out my reply like another curse. “You didn’t raise me! You were gone by the time I was twelve!”

Not a peep from her, but I knew she was thinking how odd I was. She had always claimed I was different from her other sons, didn’t behave like a regular baby, didn’t cry much — that I was serious, like a “miniature man.” Then she said, “Well, it’s all done and over — the good times and the bad — your daddy and me — me and you. And from now on I’ll not let on like I’ve had all them babies, diapered ‘em, raised ‘em up ‘til they was teenagers or thereabouts, stayed up of a night when they was sick. Kept ‘em clean and fed.”

I took the first exit into town, heading for the Esso station on Main Street. I needed gas, but also wanted an excuse to leave the car before I started bawling. As the gas pumped and I cleaned the bug-plastered windshield from the trip down through the Shenandoah Valley, I tried to stay focused on my hand and the paper towel. But in the bright light of the gas island my eyes moved from the splattered glass to my mother’s face. There it was — that bemused smile on her thin lips, and I’m thinking: Damn, this is one cute woman!

Then a memory of her snaps into sharp focus: I’m a little kid, standing in my mother’s bedroom in the company shack where I was born, over by the paper mill where my father worked, and I can’t be more than three or four because I’m looking up at the window sill, looking up at it and watching dust motes dance in a shaft of light. The warm light is reflected from the floor onto the wall and ceiling and it looks like magic. She’s sitting at her round-mirrored dresser, her back to me, wearing only a full slip, brushing her beautiful auburn hair that looks with the morning light in it like a sunrise, patiently counting the strokes.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to a thousand words, on any subject, in any style — as long as it happened to you. Whatever the subject, we have a bias for the lighthearted tone. And if need be we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story, please contact us at jimscartoons@aol.com 


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting II

November 30, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

My mother was walking down the street and she ran into the receptionist from the June Taylor School of Dance, where I went as a child. The receptionist asked, How’s Wendy? My mother said, Well, I don’t know. She’s not going to law school, she’s not dating a lawyer; now she’s writing plays. She’s cuckoo.

I thought writing a full-length play was something I didn’t want to do and didn’t know how to do. It seemed old fogyish. But I was on a committee to evaluate the Yale School of Drama, and there was this young woman, a directing student, who told me that what she wanted to do was explode text. I thought of Miss Julie exploding over the Yale School of Drama saying, There goes The Sea Gull! I thought, Well, before you explode it you should know how to do it. I thought, I would just like to try to do this. If in fact playwriting is like stained glass, if it becomes more and more this obscure craft, then it would be interesting to know how to do that craft.

When you write in an episodic mode, you know that the scene will be over. The hardest part, what’s really boring, is getting people on and off the stage. You can’t just bring the lights down and bring them up again. Someone has to say, I’m leaving now . . . . That’s very hard to do. I always think structurally. But for The Sisters Rosensweig it was very hard going. In that play there are four scenes in the first act and three in the second. I should have combined the first two scenes.

I was very sad when The Sisters Rosensweig opened the first time. People like Merv and Gorgeous are fun to write; they’re nice to have in your apartment. They’re really good company. So when you discover those people, they’re talking and you’re not talking anymore. I remember the day I wrote the line for Gorgeous about Benjamin Disraeli being a Jewish philanthropist: I started laughing because I thought, That’s Gorgeous, there you go. The character, not my sister. If you stay with the actual people in your real life, it won’t work. It’s too constraining.

I learn things from watching and listening to people. I’m not much of a reader; I’m slightly dyslexic. Take Merv—he is someone I knew when I was eight years old . . . I remember going to someone’s bar mitzvah in Brooklyn with my mother and young niece. And you know when they take the Torah out? My mother said to Samantha, Quick, kiss the Torah before the rabbi takes it out for cookies and lunch. It was such a crazy image to me.

My plays start with a feeling. The Sisters Rosensweig started when I was living in London writing The Heidi Chronicles. I thought about Americans abroad, and somebody said to me, You’re terribly Jewish, just like my brother-in-law. It was that same feeling I had at Mount Holyoke, a little bit uncomfortable with myself. Like wherever I went I was always wearing a tiara with chinchilla.

I always think of new plays when I’m finishing one . . . . This is a darker play than The Sisters Rosensweig. My plays tend to skip a generation; this one is closer to The Heidi Chronicles, though it is also darker than that play.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (This is the second of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review. Part three will post next Wednesday.)


Today’s Gag

June 13, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

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Dead Freddie’s

August 18, 2010

When my oldest son was five or six (he turned 49 on August 13), we left the women—his mother and grandmother—in the cave and went to forage for lunch meat and hard rolls at Muller’s delicatessen on Harford Road, in Northeast Baltimore. (Muller’s still has the best German cold cuts and sandwich breads in the city.) Next door to Muller’s is a bar called “Dead Freddie’s.” It’s been there for as long as Muller’s has, but the name has long intrigued me for several reasons. For one thing, I can’t remember if “Dead” was part of its name back in the day. Was it just “Freddie’s” then  and, when Freddie (the owner?) died, rather than get rid of what is a fine example of a classic neon, the word “Dead” was added as a dark joke? Or was the word always part of the sign and I just didn’t notice? (If anyone out there knows the history of the bar and/or the sign, please set me straight in the comment section below.)

Anyway, to get to the point of my little story about that day of male bonding, either my son asked to go into the bar or I volunteered to take him. Either way, I thought it was a good idea, so in we went. Once inside I think I bought Shawn an orange soda, in much the same spirit my father used to buy them for me when he took me to bars to keep him company while he drank a few of his “Arrow” brand beers. (The sins of the father really are passed down.) And I clearly remember that I took the opportunity that day to demonstrate to Shawn how the pinball machine worked. In fact, I’m pretty sure he got to shoot a few balls himself. As you and I know, most boys love bright lights, fast-moving objects and noise, so of course he was delighted. And so was I, still being a kid at heart myself. That was it. We two happy guys finished our pinball game and headed back to the home cave with provisions for lunch.

But now comes the sad ending to my little narrative. (Here I feel it’s fair to  speak for Shawn, too, because I remember how boys think and feel when it comes to neon and pinball machines.) When we got home, still very excited about our wee adventure, we couldn’t wait to share our delight and  high spirits with my wife and her mother. Their reaction was not what we expected. Well, you know what comes next. My wife and her mother were shocked, shocked, that I had exposed the child to the dark and sordid interior of that bar. Their disapproval was clear in their words and the expressions on their faces. And here I won’t speak for Shawn, but personally I felt the morning’s fun feeling exit my soul in much the same way air instantly leaves a pricked balloon.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Today’s Gag

July 7, 2010

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

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Just Shoot Me

January 18, 2010

Confessions of a Photographer’s Daughter
By Jacquie Roland

My career as a child model was short-lived but intense, and I hated every minute. I was the oldest of too many brothers and sisters, a motley crew that today may generously be called “rug-rats.” When I was a child in the 1950’s, Shirley Temple was still the rage. You couldn’t open a magazine without seeing pictures of adorable, curly-headed moppets smiling out at you, usually with tiny kittens or fuzzy ducklings as props. My father wanted to be a photographer, but he didn’t particularly want to photograph children, especially his own somewhat scruffy brood. “Art ” photography (read “naked ladies”) held his interest, but having so many free mini-models close at hand finally developed some appeal—but only after my mother put her foot down. ( Or, in a manner of speaking, “up” a certain part of his anatomy.)

Before my father’s photographic mania struck in the ’50’s, our magazine rack held titles such as Modern Romance, Hot Rod—and, perhaps, a tattered EC comic book or two. After Popular Photography became his bible—or should I say his porn—the coffee table soon overflowed with expensive subscriptions to Modern Photography and Camera 35, among others. He began taking pictures with a plain box camera. You know the one, black imitation leather and metal strips, a leather handle and strap, which you always kept around your neck. But while his kids wore hand-me downs and had too little to eat, my father’s camera bag slowly filled with bigger and better equipment—more expensive cameras, the latest and biggest lenses, tripods, light meters and various other esoteric photographic gee-gaws. Unlike his children, these gadgets were meticulously cared for. Meanwhile, the front room/bedroom/living room/temporary photo studio was also filling up with the occasional young twit of a “model” behind the now-closed door. These bimbos were each determined to become the next Marilyn Monroe—willing and eager to strip, giggling as my father adjusted his lights and other equipment. During these “shoots” as he called them, my mother and I, and the rest of the kids, sat as quietly as possible—as ordered—in the back room/kitchen of our tiny three room apartment. During those sessions there was pain my mother’s eyes, and a “god only knows what is going on in there” look on her face.

Later, we all got to see what was going on when our only bathroom, which doubled as my father’s darkroom, exhibited 8×10’s and 16×20’s of the naked ladies, with occasional close-ups of their anatomical bits. WOW. ( We weren’t supposed to look, but of course we did.) Large format black and white photos were laid out to dry on shiny rectangular dryers, the wet prints rolled slightly and held in place with something like a bungee cord. The photos, on their heavy matte paper, dried with a slight curve. Other finished prints and fresh negatives were clipped to a “clothesline” sort of arrangement over the tub. Three pans, for developer, fixer and a plain water rinse, lined the tub bottom. ( We kids washed up in the kitchen, at the sink.) Toilet paper was moved to make room for large brown bottles of smelly chemicals, and stacked plastic trays. Red and yellow bulbs in metal clip-on lamps were attached to where the curtain rod used to be, timers and tongs sat on the back of the tub. Interesting glass measuring jars marked in red increments topped the sink. Our three toothbrushes (his, hers, and the one for us kids) were moved to a cup on the floor, sharing space with a tangle of extension cords which covered the linoleum. Our tiny linen closet held black and yellow boxes of photographic paper and other supplies. (The family towels were now kept in the hall, rough dried and unfolded, in a laundry basket outside the door.) This made room for his enlarger, big and gray with an interesting bellows that sat in a corner, on wheels, rolled out of the way.

My father spent a lot of time in his darkroom. Locked on the inside, it was the one place with absolute privacy in the apartment. Sometimes he took one of his models in with him. He claimed that the “oohs” and “aahs” we heard must have meant that she was just appreciative of his work. Even at my tender age, I didn’t believe that for a minute. And god forbid any of us had to go to the bathroom while he was “working.” You either had to hold it or use the enameled slop jar kept in the middle room/ kids bedroom/storage area. I was proud that I could hold mine, but the younger kids often wet their pants. The only thing my mother held was her rage, and—knowing her temper—she kept it in check far longer than I would have expected. When the models began hanging out with my father in the living room with a beer, relaxing merrily after their shoot, while the rest of us were still banished to the kitchen, my mother decided that “art be damned!” (My words—hers were a LOT more colorful.) She had finally had more than enough. Later, after weeks of sturm and drang (blood and fisticuffs) and broken glass and spilled chemicals in the darkroom, the enlarger was repaired with black electrical tape, and my father’s “focus” finally took a turn. The naked ladies went elsewhere. That was when we kids became his models.

Now my father’s problem was—well, it was me. I was no Shirley Temple. And try as he might, threaten me as he did, he couldn’t turn me into her. The photo shown here, dated 1950, was taken just after he actually beat the bejesus out of me because I wouldn’t smile, and was wasting his film. The more he yelled, the more morose I became. Twisting my arm only got more of the same, plus tears. The cheap blue nylon party dress I was wearing rapidly lost it’s crispness as he just as rapidly lost his temper. My mother matched his nasty mood and in the fracas my dress got yanked out of shape and I lost one of the bows in my hair. My mother had to iron another dress, the one you see here ( it was in the basket with the towels) so that my father could finish out the roll with me wearing something, at least. She also ironed my hair because my long “sausage curls” had to be fixed. Because I wouldn’t hold still, she pushed the tip of the hot iron into my back and said, “NOW you’ll smile, won’t you?” Still I didn’t. Or couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. She finally gave up and wiped the tear stains off my face as I sat there in my ratty little homemade green dress with the stupid rick-rack, hating them both. But I despised the “photographer” most of all because he had made me wet myself. We finished the rest of the roll, damp little me sitting on a towel to keep from staining the sofa. My mother helpfully said that I was beginning to look like a zombie. The photo you see here was the best of the bunch, and ended up being my “before” shot. You wouldn’t have wanted to see the “after” one, or the smile from hell I learned to perform on cue. Later on that night, while I was on the floor, I found my missing hair bow, pee-stained, under the sofa with the dust bunnies.

My father entered photographs of my younger brothers and sisters in every contest he could find, and I had become old and ‘useless’ as a model at age seven. After a while—as much as I still hate to admit it—his photos got to be pretty good. Several were excellent. But as far as I know, my father didn’t win any contests, or make any earnings with his photography. Money was his criteria for success. But as I’ve learned, art has its own criteria, and the work itself is what drives us. Often, it’s the only reward. Some how—in spite of the fact he didn’t deserve to—the miserable bastard actually became a photographer. Here I’m remembering an incident where he beat me with his fists and a belt. No wonder I thought then that he didn’t deserve to live, let alone be successful at the one thing he loved. But he did live and was successful—at least in a creative way—and life isn’t fair. So just shoot me.

Copyright © 2010 Jacquie Roland.


Shock Jockeys

December 21, 2009

It’s rare for me to laugh out loud when reading e-mail messages, but last week I had one that broke me up, to put it mildly. After I wiped away the laugh tears I quickly asked the sender for permission to change the name of the little protagonist and write-up the tale as a blog post. The sender gave her consent and the story is herewith presented for your reading pleasure.

Recently the daughter of an old friend took her 3-year-old son—I’ll call him Freddie—to the doctor for a regular checkup. The doctor walked into the room and, after some small talk and the normal exam of the lad’s ears, throat, chest, etc., she slipped his pants off. The eyes of the mother and doctor widened when they noted a large bulge in the crotch of Freddie’s brief’s. “Could my little man be having an erection?” the mother wondered. As the doctor pulled Freddie’s briefs down, out sprang this large pink thing. Then another. And yet another—they popped out like those snakes-in-a-can novelties do when you take the lid off. When Freddie’s mom and the doctor recovered from their mild fright, they were surprised to find that he had hidden a selection of his mother’s pink sponge hair rollers in his pants. My friend’s e-mail about her grandson’s interesting horde ended this way: “We may never know why he did such a thing.”

As to why Freddie did what he did, I have a theory. It’s simple. That boy loves his mother. As Freud might have opined, what else could such delightfully funny-strange behavior symbolize?

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


The Falconer Building

October 17, 2009

Bats, Bugs and Drunks

Miss Rita, the middle-aged woman at the desk next to mine, is asking personal questions. That’s something she does every night. I’m 22 years old and this is my first serious job since being FalconerBldgdischarged from the U. S. Army, two years ago. The inquiring Miss Rita and I are clerks in the Social Security Administration — I’m a new hire and she’s my trainer. We are working the 4:00 P. M. to 12:30 A. M. shift on the seventh floor of the Falconer Building at 414 Water Street in downtown Baltimore, two blocks from the harbor. The year is 1959, deep summer, and I’ve made a new friend.

The windows are open, three huge floor fans blowing at full power. If the temperature in the Falconer Building rises above 90 degrees, we’ll be sent home. This happens often during the day shift, less so after the sun goes down. Miss Rita and I sit in the cross-ventilation and flip SS-5 cards and scribble name and date-of-birth changes into huge metal-covered ledgers, delighted with each other’s company. Form SS-5(This photo of an actual Form SS-5 shows a Miss Apgar requesting that her name be changed to Mrs. Lake. Click images for larger views.)

The evening passes to the rhythm of turning pages: flip, flip, scribble, flip, flip, scribble, scribble, flip. Against the background of dirty brick walls scores of other clerks’ bend to the identical task. The oily aroma of Baltimore harbor wafts in the windows and, when the wind shifts, more pungent odors come from the nearby wholesale fish market. The whirring fans cool our necks and blow the occasional card from desk to floor — or out a window. The strange sound of bat wings flutter in one window and out another. There is a gentle rustling noise as rat’s forage for sandwich crumbs in waste baskets, and the buzzing of blood-sucking insects foraging for us.

At the moment, Miss Rita’s job is to introduce me to the mysteries of entry-level clerking in the Numerical Register Section of SSA — and, it seems, to trade work information for personal tidbits. With anyone else her intimate prying might be offensive, but, somehow — I guess because of her odd sense of humor — it’s just harmless fun. Miss Rita’s constant stream of chatter, spiced with sexy double meanings, makes the long evenings of repetitive work bearable. In fact, they are downright entertaining. Anyway, there is not much of a private life to expose — I ‘m still in the process of trying to develop one. Somehow I manage to keep Miss Rita interested by making up outrageous but plausible tales about my exploits. She seems to especially enjoy the lies (these days we might call them “creative non-fictions”) that I tell about the erotic adventures of my mother, a born-again Christian, who would have been shocked if she knew that her son used her straight-arrow life for creative inspiration. Perhaps Miss Rita identifies with my fictions because she and my mother are about the same age.

On my first night in the Falconer Building — one of several rental properties which comprise the original 1936posterSSA headquarters — Miss Rita gives me the grand tour. She points out the freight elevator which, she says, I can use at peak load times during shift changes, when the passenger elevator is often overwhelmed. She shows me the stairs and mentions in passing that they are handy because the freight elevator only goes to the 5th floor. She doesn’t comment on the empty booze bottles in the stairwell, nor does she explain the sleeping drunk. Our “cafeteria” is located by the elevator door on the 4th floor, Miss Rita says. That is, at 9 o’clock each evening an old man gets off the elevator and stands there selling cold sandwiches out of a large cardboard box. Finally, Miss Rita gives me a booklet explaining what is expected in terms of production and conduct. The publication also has a small map showing the location of the men’s room and fire exits. I can use the restroom anytime, Miss Rita says, provided it isn’t too often. “Two often” and it will reflect in my “rating,” whatever that is.

The Falconer Building is clean, at least compared to the steel mill in which I had worked prior to this job, and there is even a bit of external entertainment. As we young male clerks arrive early for the evening shift, we often gather to watch strippers sunbathing on the low roof of the nearby Gayety Show Bar, the keystone of Baltimore’s infamous “Block” of sleazy nightclubs clustered nearby. When the women are up there relaxing between shows we all go a little crazy. The younger clerks in the Numerical Register Section — male and female — are friendly, and I am quickly drawn into a sort of loose-knit social club. After our shift finishes at 12:30 A. M., few of us want to go home to bed — we’re still too primed with youthful energy — so most nights a meeting is called for a party or card game at someone’s home or apartment. Or we go out on a sort of group date, which usually involves bar-hopping, the only form of entertainment available at that hour. Some nights we simply cruise the city and talk until dawn at an all night diner. Often, I drop into bed at first light or later, sleep until two in the afternoon, then get up to start the work/play cycle again. Some of my new friends have been living this way for several years, but the fun will last only a few months for me. I have “EOD’d” (Entered On Duty) at the end of an era. The whole of SSA’s scattered downtown headquarters is scheduled to consolidate in a modern complex in the western suburbs of Baltimore in January of 1960, only a few months hence.

Well before we leave the city, though, it comes to pass that my social life is greatly enriched as a direct result of information provided by Miss Rita. She tells me that a particular young lady, another Numerical Register clerk, is interested in me beyond mere friendship, and before long I am involved in my first “adult” relationship. I reward Miss Rita by continuing my stories, now more fact than fiction, and much more titillating than ever. I even expand the scope of the tales to include many of my young and ever-horny (at least in my telling) coworkers. And I notice that Miss Rita’s interest in our escapades become more intense the closer I stick to real life, which I take as a literary lesson. So as I become a better clerk, I also sharpen my narratives. Miss Rita especially likes to hear my juiced-up versions of our nocturnal forays to various “hillbilly” bars and other hotspots around town, and the house parties that follow into the wee hours, many of them ending in sleep overs. These stories require scant embellishment.

All of this happened a half century ago, late summer until the end of 1959. I spent 29 years with the Social Security Administration, taking an early retirement in 1988. Not long after the SSA headquarters moved to the suburbs, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life flipping pages and scribbling in ledgers, so I took advantage of the Korean G. I. Bill and enrolled in evening art classes. That led to a temporary job in SSA’s drafting department, which in turn got me through what I called “the back door” of their large art department —where my first assignment was to help produce the original Medicare Handbook. Living and working in the suburbs was O. K., but I never again had an experience quite so rich in character or characters, or that made such an intense impression on me, as those early nights in downtown Baltimore, flipping SS-5 cards and trading punch lines with Miss Rita.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

A much longer version of this personal essay was published in the October, 1978 issue of OASIS, a magazine distributed monthly to Social Security Administration employees nationwide.


Legacies

June 1, 2009

By Susan Middaugh

The dress hung in my mother’s attic for over 20 years and in my basement for nearly a decade. Crop4BlurThe heavy plastic, which protected the gown after its one and only wearing, had collected dust and grime from years of neglect. But the contents of the plastic bag, sealed tightly by a local dry cleaner, who may have been a curator in a previous life, retained the same winsome appeal that had attracted me in the first place. It was still a pretty dress, simple but elegant, with a single row of flowers down the front and along the bottom edge. The dry cleaner had even taken the trouble to shape the dress in a female form and fluffed it throughout with pink tissue paper, visible at the neck.

After my parents died, my brother and sisters and I divvied up stuff that had accumulated during our parents’ 45-year marriage. One of the items I became the custodian of was my own wedding dress. Although divorced for many years, I couldn’t bear to toss it. Maybe my teenage daughter, Liza, would want to wear it someday. When I got home, I threw the dress — gently — giving it plenty of room, into a basement closet, containing extra leaves for my dining room table, some curtain rods and an old suitcase, and promptly forgot about it.

With the approach of Liza’s 25th birthday, it was time for me to take stock of this still lovely size-nine dress that had hung in a closet for nearly 30 years. Although there were no nuptials in Liza’s forecast, the prospect of revisiting “something old, something new, something borrowed . . . ” was in my mind, if not in hers. Looking around for a family precedent, I found there was none. My own mother, who had married during the war, wore a suit, flowered hat, and modest furs for the occasion. Mom did not save her wedding garments for me and my four younger sisters — except in black and white photographs. What about my grandmothers, one married twice, the other dead by the time I was seven? With Mona and Nana, the subject of wedding dresses never came up.

As a rule, the women in my family don’t like hand me downs. Except for me, they don’t buy at thrift stores or consignment shops. They like to open a gift and see the tags. They like being first. They like new. Hand me downs weren’t an issue for me as a child because I am the oldest. As an adult, I like finding something of value in a second-hand shop — whether a sturdy bookcase for my office, a sweater in mint condition or a Dana Buchman skirt at a considerable discount. If in the first or second wearing, the clothing still carries another woman’s scent, I don’t mind. I breathe deep and for a moment pretend to be someone else — a woman from a different century perhaps, another race, thinner, younger, wiser, funnier. For whatever reason, this woman has cast off and recycled this garment instead of tossing it in the dustbin or wearing it herself till it is threadbare. I am the beneficiary. Secondhand is not necessarily second best so long as there is life and laundry detergent.

Given my own family’s preference for new, who are the women who pass down their wedding dresses to daughters, granddaughters or nieces and do so with an expectation of receptivity? Certainly there are practical aspects to this tradition. An obvious one is that the wedding garment fits or may be altered to fit the bride; another that she likes the taste or style of her relative. A more subtle consideration and perhaps the overriding one: was the donor’s marriage essentially a happy one? Did the man and woman truly love one another? It seems to me that women who have had happy marriages are more inclined to want to share those feelings in a symbolic way – through the gift or loan of a wedding dress.

What then of former brides like myself whose marriages ended in divorce? According to the statistics, we are one out of every two. Do we do our daughters a favor, do we have their best interests in mind if we expect them to clothe themselves in our past? Because I hope my daughter will fare better in affairs of the heart and in matrimony than I did the first time, I chose to donate my wedding dress to charity. It is my hope that a stranger will see the dress for what it is — gently used and with some history, but no baggage.

I can see her now, a young June bride very much in love and with high hopes, as she raises the plastic covering. “What a pretty dress. Simple yet elegant. Let me try it on.”

Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.

Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Her personal essay, Turning Green, was published on this blog on April 21, 2009. To read it, check out the April archives in the sidebar. Also in the sidebar, under the blogroll, business and writing labels, there are links to Susan’s Have Pen Will Travel website.

Photo Illustration Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


The Lady in the Red Dress

May 27, 2009

By Jake Jakubuwski

Her name was Velma and she rented one of the apartments in the same building in which my family lived. Calling it an apartment is being generous. It was a kitchen, living room and bedroom all-in-one. Like the rest of us, Velma shared the bathroom facilities at the end of the second floor hallway. Each floor had two apartments like Velma’s and one like ours. Ours was a two-room apartment. No bathroom, but we did have a kitchen-style sink, stove and icebox. Note: I said icebox, not refrigerator. The landlord had his place on the first floor which was also two rooms, but he had his own bathroom. I remember seeing it one time and thought it quite marvelous to be able to walk to the toilet withoutRedDressBlur4 going down a dark, cluttered hallway to find that someone else was already in residence. I have no clear memories of the folks that lived on the third floor; or for that matter, those with whom the landlord shared the first floor.

Anyway, I seldom saw Velma—or, as I came to think of her, “The Lady in The Red Dress,” at least not during the day. But in the evenings, just about suppertime, Velma could be heard, her high heels clicking down the stairs. If I was real lucky, I might catch a glimpse of her shoulder-length blond hair and clinging red dress through the banister railing as she went out the front door. I only knew two things for certain about Velma. She was from West Virginia, and—this was important—she was a divorcée. According to the superior intellect of my eleven and twelve year old male friends, divorcées “did it” and they were “easy.” The fact that Velma was divorced and had her own place—and didn’t seem to have a day-job—made her an object of lust and lasciviousness for the guys in my small neighborhood. And not just the boys. Judging from the looks I’d see on the faces of some of the family men when they saw Velma walk down the street I knew—even at the tender age of ten—those men weren’t thinking about church socials and good deeds, either.

Few males were immune to Velma’s charms. I remember one time when my mother found my father and her lingering a bit too long at the bathroom door. That evening there was much shouting and door slamming in our apartment. The door slamming was a real feat since there was only one interior door and four or five cupboard doors in the entire apartment. The slamming doors were accented with shouted words like “slut”, “whore” and “no good tramp.”

On a rare occasion, I would run into Velma during the day. She might be coming home from shopping or the hairdressers or—from who knows where. She always smiled at me RedDressBlur3and called me by name. Velma knew my name! Once, when we ran into each other in the local drug store, she bought me an ice-cream soda. None of my buddies believed me when I told them about it. After that I knew for sure that I was in love with Velma. In my mind she was some sort of a goddess.

It was during my tenth summer that “doing it” took on a full new meaning and I somehow quickly figured out why boys and girls were anatomically different. The backyard gatherings and closed-shed sex education classes among peers had begun to make sense. At that point my goddess feelings about Velma didn’t change—but my imagery of her and I together certainly did. I now could envision us in situations that did not just include shared ice cream sodas or holding hands up on the roof in the moonlight. Beyond that, I still wasn’t completely clear about the exact activities involved, but speculating about various possibilities certainly spiced up my days. Lust and lasciviousness had come to roost in my soul and I only knew that I felt different—really different—about Velma. I was no longer satisfied just being an admirer, a dumb-struck recipient of Velma’s occasional smiles or winks. I wanted to take my place beside her as the one and only object of her affections.

And I was convinced that Velma felt the same about me. She had to. Fate decreed it—Cupid, after all, was not stupid. He was just doing his job to bring we two yearning souls together. RedDressBlur2Together, our souls were fated to fulfill a destiny that was determined before I was born. Don’t misunderstand, in 1948 I didn’t think about it exactly in those terms, but I knew with certainty that a seminal event was about to take place in my life, and Velma—my Velma—was going to be at the epicenter of that whatever it might be.

On Saturday’s I was up early to take my week’s “pickin’s” to the junk yard. I could sell old newspapers, magazines, metal and other junk I’d scavenged during the week. I never made much, usually just enough for movies and candy. As I turned up the alley where we lived, I saw Velma sitting on the front steps, still dressed in her red dress. When I got close enough, I mumbled a “Hi, Velma” and she looked up at me. “Hey, sweetie,” she said. She was smiling but I could tell she’d been crying. The very thought of Velma crying over anything made me want to cry too. I stood at the bottom of the steps trying not to look up to where her dress sort of drooped down and I could see one the garters that held her nylons up. I looked higher still and saw soft white flesh tinted rose from sunlight burning through the red fabric of her dress. I wanted to see more, see whatever there was to see, but felt guilty each time my eyes strayed to the roll of nylon wrapped around her garter. Finally I moved up a step, RedDressBlur1where I could no longer see Velma’s half-hidden treasures. Instead, I looked at her puffy eyes and red-splotched face—and somehow stammered out a query about what was so terribly wrong that it made her cry.

The tears began to roll down her cheeks again. She told me her mother was sick and needed her at home. My heart broke—Velma was going to leave me! She went on to say that the night before she told her date about the problem and asked him for money—money that he owed her—and he got mad and took what little she had in her purse and ran off. Now, she had nothing to buy a train ticket home. I quickly realized that this was my opportunity to impress Velma and win her gratitude—perhaps even her undying love. I asked Velma how much she needed for the ticket. “Ten dollars, sweetie.” A fortune! So I reached in my pocket and gave her all of my junk earnings. I told her maybe my dad would loan her the rest. She said no, because if he did and my mother found out, it would only cause problems. I told her to wait, I’d be right back.

My mother was sleeping (she usually got home from her bar tending job around three in the morning and slept until noon). I went to the jelly jar where she kept her tip money and removed almost two dollars and fifty cents in change, not too much so it would look like anything had been taken. My father’s “junk” drawer yielded a dollar and forty-eight cents. My personal piggy bank gave up thirty-nine cents. In the kitchen Momma’s “butter money” yielded a dollar thirty-five. Along with what I had already given Velma, she was now up to a grand total of six dollars and ninety-two cents. I ran back to Velma and gave her the money, RedDressBlur0and cried over the fact that it wasn’t enough—just the best I could do. She told me “not to worry,” that maybe she could get her brother to send the rest.

Then Velma did the most amazing thing. She reached out, gently clasped my cheeks in her soft hands and kissed me right on the lips! Not like some adult kissing a kid, but like an adult kissing an adult. I could feel the tip of her tongue against my teeth and her lips covered mine in a soft but urgent manner that made me dizzy. Before I could figure out that I should respond in kind, the moment was over. She still held my cheeks in her hands, but now she was looking into my eyes and promising that as soon as she “got settled” she’d let me know where she was and maybe I could come visit her. Visit? All she had to do was tell me where and when. I would swim deep oceans and climb high mountains to get another kiss from Velma! And I would gladly wait for her to reach out to me and tell me she was ready to fulfill our destiny—the fate determined for us by deities unknown, or long forgotten—to consummate a love the likes of which had never been experienced before by mere mortals!

I was thinking all of that (on a ten year-old level of course) as Velma told me she had to go or she’d miss her train. As I watched her stand, smooth the red dress over her voluptuous body, and begin walking down the alley toward the corner where the streetcar stopped, I thought of our future bliss together. I watched her board the streetcar. I watched some tall stranger take her valise and Velma show her appreciation by smiling brightly at him. Then she turned and looked my way. She puckered her lips and blew me a kiss and gave a sad little wave and turned away. I watched as The Lady In The Red Dress left my life forever. She left with six-dollars and ninety-two cents that I would never see again. I watched as the streetcar carried my first love away forever—off into my bitter-sweet long-term memory.

Copyright © 2009 Jake Jakubuwski.

Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label.

Jake contacted me after reading some of my growing-up-in- South-Baltimore-in-the-1950s posts. It turns out that we have a lot in common—some of our experiences eerily similar but at the same time different in the details. For instance, my first lustful crush—when I was fifteen—was on a woman old enough to be my mother. (In fact, she was a friend of my mother’s and the same age. I know, I know—what would Freud say?!) But I never saw my mother’s friend in a sexy red dress. As far as I could tell she only wore cheap print house dresses—and, like a certain movie star named Marilyn—whom she resembled—my mother’s friend disliked wearing underwear. Ah, memory!