Saturday, September 27, 2008

The clothes mark the moment

About seven or eight months ago, Doralong posted this enchanting story about wearing a perfect little black dress and meeting Jackie Kennedy. I promised her a story about my own Kennedy meeting and the dress I wore. Then my husband got sick and my life fell apart for a while. But I'm picking up some of the pieces now and trying to get back to some semblance of normal. So here, long overdue, is my little offering.

As you may or may not remember, my maternal grandmother was not my favorite person on Earth. She neglected and criticized my mother, her youngest child, and, by the time I really knew her, she was an alcoholic, drinking sherry out of tea cups in the morning because it looked like tea. (My, what odd smelling Darjeeling you have Granny!) She was also a country-club, debutant-ball Southern woman with all the ugly classism and racism that goes with that territory.

But there was also a lot that people loved and admired about her. She was an early and vociferous champion of women's rights, starting with working to get them the right to vote. Toward the end of her life she was a supporter of the equal rights amendment. She knew Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and worked tirelessly for the Democratic party. My grandfather once sent her a telegram that read: "Gladys -STOP- I loaned, not gave, you to the Democratic Party. STOP Come home. STOP Charlie STOP" And she was a "snappy" (to use her word) dresser with a snappier sense of humor and charm.

And, yes, I did just organize a yardsale/fundraiser and raise $620 for Obama. And, yes, I am aware that I am not entirely unlike her, said the pot about the kettle.

But, despite all my mixed feelings about her, there was one wonderful thing she did that, for me, almost makes up for it all. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to the U.N. as Commissioner for Women's rights. There was to be a small induction ceremony in the oval office where she was sworn in by the president. She was asked if she wanted to bring anyone. "Why yes!" she replied. She sent them a guest list that included her entire extended family - children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws - all of us! And the Whitehouse swallowed their surprise and let us all come. Of course, we were excited and nervous, and the way my mother and I expressed that was to focus on what we would wear. Much fussing about was done, but eventually it was settled that I would wear a fairly sedate kelly green dress with a full, petticoated skirt, a bow in the back, a peter-pan collar, and - fabulosity alert! - appliqued - and stuffed for three dimensionality - tam-'o-shanters! Oh, how I loved that dress. I remember wearing it and joyfully petting those surprising little hats.

I also remember being in the oval office with my great crowd of cousins. There are times when it's a good thing to be the littlest person in the room, and that was one of them. I got to stand in front while the bigger ones had to squeeze in behind. Here we all are. My grandmother is the older woman in the suit on the right of President Kennedy. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

I'm sure my grandmother was duly sworn in, though I remember nothing about that. What I do remember is waiting as the president gravely shook hands with one and all. Finally he stood in front of me and my dress. He seemed about forty feet tall, and I remember him, as if in slow motion, bending waaaaaayyy down toward me, reaching out, and solemnly shaking my hand. For me, the ceremony ended there and memory stops. But I treasure this photo of it and, folded away in a box in my basement, I still have the green dress that took me to the White House to meet a president.

Let me add, in memory of my grandmother with all her imperfections and passions, that I write this now, in part, as a talisman of hope that another young, charismatic senator who is running for office against an old, experienced Republican, will win the presidency and inspire generations to come.


jason said...

Best. Family. Photo. Ever!

yellowdog granny said... so impressed.

sageweb said...

That is a great story how awesome! WHat a great picture too.

Elizabeth said...

Jason - I agree! It's hard to top this one. And we all look presentable too!

Granny - Well, me too, in a way. It's hard to think of myself, now, as the kind of person who shook hands with presidents in, and out of, the Oval office. That's a loooong way behind me and doesn't have a whole lot to do with who I am now. But it is cool to have this memento of that life and one of the amazing things that happened in it. Some time I'll tell you about the day I spent hanging out with Ron Reagan, Jr.!

Sage - glad you liked it!

Sparkleneely said...

Elizabeth -- what an AMAZING story and I am so thrilled that you have a picture! What an extraordinary memory -- I am so glad you shared with us.


a thousand shades of twilight said...

Absolutely terrific story and photo, Elizabeth - I read it twice. It's also amazing that you still have the tam-o-shanter dress - a very tangible reminder of what must seem like another world now! That story about the telegram is priceless too.

Sorry to hear that your grandmother was so hard on your mother. I can imagine that it must have been particularly frustrating to see someone gettings such accolades for their public life while acting less than ideally in their private life. But hooray for the feminist and activist streak!!

Willym said...

Actually it is not hard to imagine you as someone shaking hands with a president in the oval office. From what you have written both here and in the past one thing your grandmother knew was that class is something you are born with not inherit or learn - and you Lady were born with it. It shows in the way you write, in the way your respond and in the way you have faced what's been sent you way in life.

This has been a wonderful way to brighten a cold, cloudy Roman morning. Grazie tanti

Anonymous said...

Dear Elizabeth: This is my first visit to your blog and I just want to mention 2 items:
a) I loved your story of visiting the President! I'm just surprised he did not give you one of those beautiful Kennedy smiles! But, we all know now, the tremendous amt of pain the man was in 24/7! What a hero for our times. If you have not the Dalek bio of Kennedy, I highly rx.

b) I also had a grandma who drank too much sherry out of tea cups, she not only drank, she chased hers down w/these pretty red candies called Seconol! In her day, she was supposed to be a fabulous legend. She was still quite a fashionista as I remember her. I also saw those adorable sketches of hats on your page, and they too, reminded me of my infamous GrandmaAnna! I had the same mixed feelings towards her as you so well described -- embarrased of her, yet learning how many people adored her, she was said to be a fabulous hostess in her time. Your grandma, on the other hand was quite an accomplished lady and what a great legacy she left you!

Elizabeth said...

Sparkle - Thanks! It's a pleasure to remember, and to share.

Mr. Twilight - I've had a very odd life, and it's one of the great joys of the internet that I can write some of it down, press "post," and - poof - people like you read it. (As opposed to .... say.... the glacial pace of the publishing industry, just to choose a random example.)

My grandmother was a piece of work - and unfortunately most of the good work in it was before I was old enough to be aware of it. But her own life wasn't a cake walk either (whose is?). And in the large public ways, she did try to make the world a better place, even if, in the more private arenas, she sometimes failed.

Willym - As always, you are the sweetest and most gallant man. Thanks for your kind words. I'll try to live up to them.

Anonymous - Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting. I love it that your grandmother drank sherry out of tea cups! If you're going to be a drunk, it's good to be elegant about it! Those seconol chasers would add a whole extra layer of numbness.

I guess the big trick with people like our grandmothers is to try to see the whole of them, good and bad, because they're part of us too.

Miss Janey said...

Wow. Coolest cool memory from childhood memory ever.

Why is that so many folks who whose politics are great have trouble with their personal lives?

Elizabeth said...

Miss J - If my grandmother is representative, it was her passion for politics and for women's rights that was directly responsible for her failings as a mother and, probably, her failings overall. She devoted so much of herself to these causes that she didn't have much left over for anything else.

Doralong said...

Elizabeth- I'm so pleased you remembered to post the picture for all of us.. I think your Grandma and my Mamma had a lot in common, in both the good and bad department. I wish my Grandmother was still around so I could ask her if she knew yours, given the common politics and geography, I'm betting.

I've learned the past few years, take what you need and leave the rest... Excess baggage that one can do nothing about tends to get right heavy as one ages. Be well, I'm happy things are easing back to normal for you and I hope KH is behaving himself!

more cowbell said...

I remember you mentioning this event -- love the story, worth the wait. I could just imagine the wee Elizabeth bedecked in her fancy dress. Wonderful story and picture.

Those mixed feelings about our loved ones when it comes to politics or other beliefs ... not always easy.

Rebecca said...

I LOVE you in your dress. You look just like...well... YOU. I love the expression on your face. This was SERIOUS business. Your mom looks beautiful, and isn't that your dad behind the hat?

Strong women of the generations before ours had a harder time I think. My mom, for example, has admitted that she prefers the company of men. I don't think she really enjoyed parenting much, and I guess that's why she didn't do much of it. Yet she was a trailblazer in her industry, a model to a lot of other women, and is still sharper than a lot of us at 89. And she drinks.

There were few or no models of women who could be strong in public life, and be whole, feeling human beings at the same time. Maybe we're getting a little closer to that in our generation?

My love to you, dearheart. And please give my love to your mom when you talk to her. I have such fond memories of her and the times we spent together.