Catwoman Vs. Antwoman
By Susan Middaugh
In her movie, Catwoman, Halle Berry looks Amazonian fabulous. Her performance is a working endorsement of kick boxing, tight-fitting leather pants and halter tops.The story line supports the idea that felines are not only her friends, but they also possess magical powers to transform Halle’s timid character into a powerful woman.
My experience as Antwoman was different. Unlike Halle’s feline friend, Midnight, who rescues her from drowning, the small brown ants in my kitchen and bathroom may only be described as pests.
Alone and in groups, the ants crawled across my counters, floor and dining room table. Crawl suggests subservience. These ants were bold. If I sprayed them, many stopped dead in their tracks, but others returned another day. Some have traveled down my arm and up my leg. I felt invaded.
My sister, Tricia, would probably say it was my fault. You could eat off Tricia’s floors. Housekeeping is further down my list of priorities. Once a week is fine, sometimes every two. The occasional dish in the sink, a quick swipe of a sponge tends to be my MO. When I asked Scott, my neighbor, a single dad raising three daughters, if he had ants at his house, he said yes, but they went away after he cleaned up the kitchen after every meal. Oh, I thought. Personal responsibility. If he could do it… A change of habits was in order. Out came the bleach, ammonia, and another can of Raid to spray the back door and yard. Not exactly a 12-step program, but I felt I was making progress. The house was cleaner, but the invasion continued. Where were my weapons of mass destruction?
In Catwoman, Halle fights with her feet. She jumps over rooftops, slides down drain pipes and generally kicks butt. Halle also uses a whip with dramatic effect.To get rid of ants, it’s best to use your fingers to squish the critters one by one, a defensive technique when they stroll across the bathroom sink. After awhile, though, this method had limited effect. The body count was piling up. It was embarrassing to see stacks of what looked like raisins in the corners of my kitchen and on the bathroom shelves. I could sweep them away with a broom, but the ants had cousins.
It was time for desperate measures. I went to the public library, then to a local hardware store in Paradise, a section of Catonsville, Maryland, for my new weapon of choice: boric acid. Halle would have snipped the container with her sharp nails. But I used a scissor and started sprinkling the white powder on the floor of the kitchen, on a ledge above the sink, and in the bathroom. It seems to be working.
I’d like to say Halle was my inspiration to get tough with these intruders. But it was really the ant that hiked across my toothbrush.
Copyright © 2012 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. Several of her personal essays have appeared on this blog. To find them, simply type her name in the little search window, or check out the archives in the sidebar, beginning in April of 2009. Also in the sidebar under the Blogroll, Business and Writing labels, there are links to Susan’s website, Have Pen Will Travel.
Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to 500 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. 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 email@example.com
On and On
By Jacquie Roland
I’ve lived to be older than my mother. My most vivid memories of her are from when she was half the age I am now. Little girl stuff. (Memories are funny things, selective.) I didn’t know her as an old woman because I left home very young, moving to that far off country I had been struggling to get to since leaving her womb, I suppose. It’s what a girl does. What this girl did at least. Lately though, just in the past few years, I see my mother — the woman I remember — half reflected in my car’s side mirror, or a store window. Sometimes she’s just passing by as I gaze out the dusty windows of a bus in a town she’s never been to. It’s her. She’s still the same age she’s ever been. We’ve switched places in some way. She’s much younger than I am now, her hairdo charmingly old fashioned, her clothes much brighter than the ones I wear now, as I prepare for old age. (Or pretend to, at least) How strange. These glimpses of her — and it IS her — have made me realize that somewhere, in years to come, I’ll be seen shopping in another town, walking along a sunny beach, or standing on a street corner, under an awning, perhaps, protected from a sudden spring downpour as YOU go driving by. The windshield wipers will “whick” “whick” “whick” and suddenly, I’ll be there, younger than I am now, brighter . . . no longer grey. I’ll be like her — like my mom — always looking for smiling eyes in the rain. Forever. The woman who brought me into the world before I knew what the world was, has returned in some weird way, perhaps to help me leave as my time draws near. It goes on and on. She taught me that. She’s still teaching me.
Copyright © 2012 Jacquie Roland.
Jacquie Roland is a painter, assemblagest and cartoonist. Her past lives include Art Director, Graphic Designer, actor, jingle writer, playwright, photographer and clown. Lately she has been entering HALLMARK Card Contests. Her two wins so far, both of which were chosen to be sold in stores, are also available on their website. Two other submissions, one poetry, one prose, won a place in the Hallmark book THANKS MOM, which will be published next year.
Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces of up to 1000 words, on any subject, in any style — as long as it happened to you. We have a bias for the lighthearted tone, but good writing is more important. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
By Isabel Perl
(Click images for larger views.)
The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method the more frames exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. This feature will appear most Fridays.
Copyright © 2012 Isabel Perl.
As it happens, two of my favorite cartoonist’s are Roz Chast and William Steig. Here we find them together for — as far as I know — the first time. (And what a team!) I lifted this piece from the “Drawn!,” website (to which you can link from the sidebar on this blog). “Drawn!,” in turn, picked up the item from The Paris Review blog, where it originally appeared on September 1, 2011. (You’ll find a link to Paris Review by tapping Ms. Chast’s name, below.) If you love these two artists, you’ll enjoy — and learn a bunch of interesting stuff — from this short essay.
Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies & Clowns
September 1, 2011 | by Roz Chast
I first noticed William Steig’s covers and cartoons around 1970, when I was a teenager and would page through my parents’ New Yorker magazines. His drawings didn’t look like the rest of the cartoons in the magazine. They didn’t have gag lines. There were no boardrooms, no cocktail parties with people saying witty things to one another. His men and women looked as if they were out of the Past, although I wasn’t completely clear as to what era of the Past they were from. Sometimes the drawings made me laugh, and sometimes they didn’t, but I always wanted to look at them. I had a sense that these cartoons were made by someone who had had to create his own language, both visual and verbal, with which to express his view of the world.
His subjects? Animals, both real and imaginary. Also cowboys, farmers, knights on horseback, damsels in distress, gigantic ladies and teeny-tiny men, grandmas, clowns of indeterminate gender, average joes, families, old couples, young couples, artists, deep thinkers, fools, loners, lovers, and hoboes, among other things.
Steig’s drawings seem to flow effortlessly from his mind to his pen and onto the paper. I doubt he ever looked at a blank sheet and thought, “I have nothing worthwhile to say today,” or “I can’t draw a car as well as Joe Shmoe, so why don’t I crawl back into bed and wait for the day to be over.” Steig gave himself permission to be playful and experimental. One of the many wonderful things about looking at his drawings is their message, especially to his fellow artists: Draw what you love and what interests you. Draw it how you want to draw it. When we are children we do this instinctively. But somewhere in our passage from childhood to adulthood, the ability to be truly and fearlessly creative is often lost. To quote Pablo Picasso, Steig’s favorite artist, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
William Steig produced more than fifty books, from early collections like Small Fry (1944) to children’s books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and Shrek! (1990), which he wrote and illustrated late in his career. Unlike many artists who find a style early in their lives and then spend the rest of their careers perfecting it, Steig changed his style over the years. His work from the forties and fifties is fairly conventional. In the drawings of his middle years, his style is more angular and geometric. And in his last decades, his line becomes very fluid and playful, and there is an explosion of color, especially in his children’s books.
Steig, who was a follower of Wilhelm Reich, was deeply interested in psychology. Much of his work looks at society from an outsider’s point of view, observing with humor and compassion the compromises we make when we grow up and try to conform to society’s expectations. His earliest collection (and one of my favorites) was About People (1939). Each page contains a drawing representing a different emotional state, with a caption written underneath in his handwriting. Some combinations of drawing and title are fairly obvious, like the man sitting in a chair calmly smoking a cigarette. Behind the chair is a huge octopus with four tentacles wrapped around the man. The caption is simply “Poise.” But some of the drawings are not of people at all. One contains a roughly drawn spiral, and in the center of the spiral is a black blot with a tiny white dot in the middle. The caption is: “Father’s Angry Eye.”
These are not your typical cartoons, and especially not typical of cartooning at the time. They’re offbeat. They’re also about something otherwise intangible: actual emotions.
Steig’s interest in psychology continued with Persistent Faces (1945), which explores a variety of visual types, like the “Hostess,” who has alarmingly twinkly eyes and teeth, and a worried man’s face, captioned “Straw in the Wind.” The Agony in the Kindergarten (1950), which he dedicated to Reich, is filled with drawings of children and accompanying statements like “I need that kid like I need a hole in the head,” and “Stop asking so many questions.” Perhaps Steig’s most famous cartoon of this period is “Mother loved me but she died,” from The Lonely Ones (1942). These demonstrate Steig’s ear for language, and also demonstrate his ability to look at life through a child’s eyes.
Steig was an exceptionally gifted colorist, and he used color in a luminous, instinctive, and expressive way. Even when the goings-on are terrifying, as they often are in Rotten Island (1984)—my favorite of all of his children’s books—they’re never depressing. His dark colors are about a gleeful darkness, the darkness children feel when they know their most trusted adult is going to tell them a spooky story. The color isn’t over-fussed or second-guessed or muddified.
Steig loved pattern. Rugs, sofas, chairs, wallpaper, ladies’ dresses, and men’s shirts were all miniature canvases where he could make up designs—diamonds or flowers or spirals or something that looks like an upside-down banana peel. Even a sky could be patterned with lines or brick-like shapes or decorative cloud puffs.
In the preface to his collection Dreams of Glory (1953), Steig writes, “We can laugh at the pretense and pose and foolishness of an irrational ideology and at the same time feel the pity and love—for a living being—that should be ingredients of all humor.” Sometimes I think of the Cartoon World as a big house with a Magazine Panel Cartoon Wing, a Newspaper Daily Strip Wing, a Graphic Novel Wing, an Underground Comics wing, a Superhero Comics wing, an Animation wing, and lots of other wings I don’t know about yet. Steig’s drawings throw open a bunch of windows and let in some fresh air, for which I am deeply grateful. He saw the world of human beings as absurd, hilarious, terrifying, mystifying, and infinitely worth observing.
Roz Chast’s cartoons have been published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Scientific American, and Mother Jones. Her next book is What I Hate: From A to Z. A longer version of this essay will appear in Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies, & Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig.
Adapted from: The Craft of the Playwright
The New York Times, May 26, 1985
I like writing women very much. I have shared the confidences of women more than I have of men. Men are more close-mouthed about their real feelings, whereas women, if the situation is right, open up. It’s exotic for me to write about women, because they are so different.
But it always amazes me — when I get a director I like and who likes the play, he understands everything I mean, where the actor doesn’t. The reason I won’t direct a play is that I will watch what a director does and say, “I never thought of it quite that way.”
I have a number of directors that I work with frequently. I haven’t worked with Mike (Nichols) in a number of years, but I did do four plays with Mike, and I did four plays with Gene Saks and other people. You find someone that you have shorthand battles with — you know, you don’t have to have long discussions about it, because they know what you’re looking for. I don’t like to sit at rehearsals all day long, so I like to feel that I am being well represented.
I was going to say that as good a relationship as you can have with a director, and maybe even having had great success with him, it still depends on the play you’re doing. It’s like casting and acting.
I find that actors relate much more to the director than they do to me. I tend to sit back quietly and occasionally will throw in something to the director — less often to the actor. The actor is to me a peculiar person. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s one I don’t fully understand. They have a much different approach to the material. In the first place, most of the actors that I’ve worked with, they open the script, take the yellow pencil and go through all of their lines — which means to me that that’s what they think the play is about — the yellow lines, their part.
I just have to watch that process, and I see the director able to communicate to them in a way I can’t. I am much more direct in my attitude — if it were up to me, and they said, “How was that?” I would say, “Well, that just stunk. I thought it was really lousy.” I have to say that, because I say it to myself about my own work. It’s hard for me to be diplomatic and hands-off and know how to work with the actors. So I tend to shy away from them.
I’m naive and optimistic enough to think that plays will always be here despite the fact that it’s been a fairly grim season, and we’re losing more and more playwrights to films and to television — places where they’re guaranteed to make money. And the price of tickets makes it so difficult to put on certain kinds of plays that don’t promise to be a big smash hit.
Whenever I go to speak at a school, it’s rarely for the drama class. It’s always for a film class. There are so few drama classes that are interested in the theater. There’ll be about four kids in the group who are interested in plays, but most of them want to know about films. And they all want to direct — the cliché.
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.
Birds of New York
By Isabel Perl
(Click images for larger views.)
The “Hip Shots” series of Doodlemeister.com photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise being to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting—a related series that can be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own pictures, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. Meanwhile, click on these images for a larger view, and click the “Hip Shots” tag above for more examples. For another post in the series, tune in next Friday.
Copyright © 2011 Isabel Perl.
By Jim Sizemore
If you love the images produced by famous street photographers such as Lee Friedlander, Bernice Abbot and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among many others, I think you’ll at least like the work of recently discovered Vivian Maier (1926-2009) — until now a completely unknown Chicago woman. As someone who places the first three people named above in the genius category of street photography, and who, in my own modest way, has done a bit of this sort of work myself, I’d be willing to bet that you’ll be as impressed as I was by her images. Vivian Maier is the real street photography deal. Whether or not learned critics will eventually rank her at the top of the genre only time, and the close study of her complete body of her work, will tell. For this short essay I’ve selected four general categories in which she worked to illustrate the range of her accomplishments. Three of the four categories, Self Portraits, City Kids, and Ladies, are common to just about all of the best street photographers — the fourth, which I’ll save for the end of this essay, may be unique to Ms. Maier. (Click images for larger views.)
One Chicago newspaper critic wrote — in prose edging on the purple — that Vivian Maier’s streetscapes managed simultaneously to capture a “redolent sense of place and the paradoxical moments that give the city its jazz, while elevating and dignifying the people in her frames — vulnerable, noble, defeated, proud, fragile, tender and often quite funny.” Other critics — to paraphrase the original quote — damn her efforts with faint praise. Colin Westerbeck, the former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the country’s leading experts on street photography, said, “She worked the streets in a savvy way . . . . but when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out.” Westerbeck explains that Maier’s work lacks the level of “irony and wit” of some of her Chicago contemporaries, such as Harry Callahan or Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and unlike them, she herself is often a participant in the shot. The greatest artists, Westerbeck says, “know how to create a distance from their subjects.”
It’s true — she did do a number of “self-portraits,” using reflections in plate-glass windows, mirrors, etc. — but I don’t understand how that minor vanity detracts in any way from the bulk of her work that I’ve seen so far — or indeed if it automatically disqualifies her from membership in the pantheon of great street photographers. By the way, Harry Callahan was not, for the most part, a street photographer. His best works were formal, beautifully composed pictures that were anything but the kind of dynamic, grabbed-on-the-run images for which Ms. Maier is now becoming known. She may not “stand out” in the company of street photography icons, but I believe that much of her work would rest easily in a gallery show with the likes of Friedlander, Abbot and Cartier-Bresson. It takes little effort to find examples of the use of self-portraits in the work of many of the great street photographers. Some of them seem absolutely obsessed with their own images, far surpassing Vivian Maier’s use of the technique. And technique is all it amounts to — the self-portrait is just another category at the street photographer’s service in her/his search for images that speak to what is unique, yet common, in the lived experience of us all. Whenever possible I use the technique myself (mostly by accident) in my modest attempts to make “art” from random “found” images in the streets of Baltimore.
In the first example above, I noticed my reflection in the window behind the sleeping homeless lady only after I loaded my pictures onto my computer. Ditto for my shadow in the second image. My criteria for any “made” photograph, though, is that to some degree it is anticipated and arranged, composed, intended, by the person behind the camera. More importantly, is it a dynamic image? Which means, has the composition — the arrangement of elements within the frame — been taken into consideration, even if only by training, experience and instinct? And does the subject, human or otherwise, somehow express a human emotion, some subjective thing to which we can all relate? — for example, happiness, sadness, fear, humor, etc.
This next category of Vivian Maier’s work is one that held my own interest for sometime, too, mainly in the 1970s. As she photographed street kids in the 1960s and 70s in Chicago, I was out around the same time, grabbing shots of what I’d come to call “free-range kids” — kids like me, who had little or no adult supervision while growing up in Baltimore. We were free to roam the endlessly interesting urban landscape almost at will. It is very unusual these days to witness this kind of freedom for kids, but it was not uncommon when I was growing up in the late 1940s and early 50s. I’ve come to think of them as “lost tribes” because they seemed to move in packs. To illustrate this section I’ve selected several images by Vivian Maier and paired them with several of my own. The idea here is not to suggest that my work in any way measures up to hers, but rather to speculate that very often the sorts of emotional pulls on folks attracted to this form may have similar origins. The one above is by Ms. Maier, the one just below of older girls, which I call “Chilly Willee,” is one of mine.
What drove me into the streets with my 35mm camera in the 1970s, I’ve come to believe, was my memory of the lonely individuality of my childhood in the 1950s. And I’m also speculating that perhaps an emotional trigger of the same sort may have been working on Vivian Maier when she walked out the door with her twin lens Rolleiflex camera to capture street life in her neighborhood and beyond. Of course, we’ll likely never what know for sure what motivated her, but whatever it was I’m grateful we have her wonderful work to think about, and perhaps also wonder why the images have such an emotional tug on those of us who love them, no matter what our own background.
One minor quibble I have with some of Vivian Maier’s images is that she often centers her subject in the frame, as in this one. But I like the powerful horizontals, and how close she is to the horse and rider, and the overall detail and sharpness of the image captured by the large, 2-1/4″ x 2-1/4″, negative produced by her Rolleiflex camera. Actually, I’m envious.
My Urban Cowboy, on the other hand, is pretty blurry . . . and much too far away . . . and, as you see, almost dead center in the frame . . .
This beautiful dual portrait of two children —likely a sister and brother, or perhaps cousins — by Vivian Maier, is neatly framed by the car window. Street photographers are always on the lookout for natural frames for their subjects. And note that Ms. Maier must have had to squat to line herself up at the eye level of her subjects, something good photographers do when the subjects are children — out of respect for their point of view. Also, I really love that square format produced by her camera, the solid strength of it. Below is similar photograph by me in the rectangular 35mm format. And notice that I shot it from a disrespectful standing position. Self-taught, and not having Vivian Maier’s nanny instinct — if that’s what it is — I didn’t know any better in the 1970s . . .
In her photos, Vivian Maier displays a deep interest in all human beings, but I think it’s safe to say she has a special affinity for the daily lives of women and girls. Indeed, some of her strongest pictures are candid shots or informally posed portraits depicting her own gender. I especially like this grab-shot of the woman with plucked eyebrows wearing an elaborate fox fur coat collar. (The fox pelt retains its claws, and I can’t help but imagine — perhaps perversely — that they were used to pluck those eyebrows.)
This is my favorite posed portrait by Ms. Maier — I love the hat with the interesting pattern, and the stylish coat — and especially the bemused expression of the woman, her left hand resting softly on her cheek, as she makes direct but relaxed eye contact with Vivian Maier’s camera lens. As urbane and beautifully dressed as this sophisticated woman appears — and as self-reliant — still, she calls to mind for many of us that famous Dorothea Lang image of the dirt-poor Dust Bowl mother and children taken for the WPA photography project during the worst days of the Depression.
And for a small example of Vivian Maier’s penchant for visual humor/horror, note the intense (crazy?) stare of the older woman standing across the street from a movie marquee announcing the 1978 film “Diary of a Mad Housewife.” And I’ll end this section with the two enigmatic images below — what are these nice ladies up to?
AT THE BEACH
After viewing only a small sample of Vivian Maier’s large body of work, I’ve been impressed by the quality of many of the images, by the range of subjects, and by the commonality of her work with that of many other — usually famous — street photographers of her generation. Some of her best images are clearly influenced by those working the same sort of territory — but so what? In my experience, all great street photographers were smart enough to “borrow” the ideas of others and recast them in their own way. They all focus on the dynamic life to be found on urban streets, at carnivals and amusement parks, etc. — and, of course, at that special place to study the human body in all it’s near-naked permutations, the public beach.
ASLEEP IN PUBLIC SPACES
The above photograph is unusual because it manages to incorporate three of the four categories I’m talking about in this essay: Asleep in Public Spaces being the last, At the Beach, and a mysterious shadow “Self Portrait.” Asleep in public is the category that I think may set the work of Vivian Maier apart. As you saw in the first of my pictures included in this essay, I’ve been attracted to that subject myself, and I’ve seen examples of it in the work of many of the top street photographers, but none seemed to be attracted to the extent that Ms. Maier was. My own interest stems from the fact that I can’t figure out how they do it, how they can be so relaxed and let their guard down and just nap any time, any where. I’m too paranoid to even consider doing that. What follows is a group of strong and varied examples of Ms. Maier’s work in this strange — and foreign to me — category.
The bulk of Vivian Maier’s work is still being archived and dribbles out on various blogs and websites. The strange fact is, even Ms. Maier herself never got to see a large section of her own work. At her death, in 2009, there were still scores of rolls of undeveloped film discovered amongst her belongings. It is not known if many — or for that matter, any other — people saw her work while she was alive. It seems that in life she was introverted and shy about her work, and shy about her self as well. A French Catholic, Maier had apparently arrived in New York as a young girl in the 1930s, where she worked at various menial jobs and learned English at the theater. Eventually, she settled in Chicago and worked as a nanny for three boys in one family. Recently, one of those boys, grown up now and responding to an interviewer, said, “She had a peculiar personality. She would bring home a dead snake to show, or convince the milkman to drive us to school in his delivery truck. We loved her.” She had no family that anyone knew of, and never took a single personal call at the house where she worked for a decade. “She wore big hats and coats, and men’s shoes, and thought of herself as a film critic.” As the children grew up, Maier moved on to nanny for other families, but by the 1990s, she was homeless, and fortunate that the three boys she had originally looked after were able to help. They bought her an apartment and paid her bills until she died.
The story of the discovery of Vivian Maier’s work is absolutely fascinating, one that begs to be captured on film as a fictional drama or a documentary. (See the sidebar tab “Photography” for links to several of the blogs and websites which offer more details of the story, and more photographs, altogether much more than I could hope to cover in this short essay.) But I’m sure, based on what I know of her work so far, that the day will come when Vivian Maier’s work is considered to be at or near the level of other great street photographers of her era. One of the three brothers she took care of when he was a child recently said that Vivian Maier was a hoarder: newspapers, magazines, rubber bands and all kinds of other stuff. Now, thanks to the good work of the folks who discovered and are cataloging and displaying her work, she’ll be remembered not for being a bit eccentric, but for her work as an important street photographer. We now know that during that era the other things she collected were thousands of beautiful and emotionally rich images — and now, shy or not, she’s sharing them with a much wider world. Lucky us.
A special thank-you goes out to my New York friend Jacquie Roland for alerting me to the camera work of Vivian Maier.
Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.
By Susan Middaugh
The dress hung in my mother’s attic for over 20 years and in my basement for nearly a decade. The 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.