Growing up Victorian

Each April I’m reminded of three events: Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and two family birthdays — my second grandson’s and my mother’s. Though I think of Walt Whitman’s “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed …” and the sorrow that poem conveys of Lincoln’s death, April is also a joyous time to remember my grandson’s birthday and the memory of my mother’s birthday celebrations. It was such a pleasure to honor her who was the source of so much giving to others.

The weather on April 15 in those days in southwestern Missouri was usually fair with more than a promise of spring. As the honoree, Mother was uncharacteristically subdued and a bit embarrassed about a cake that someone else had made just for her. I didn’t realize then what a marvel she was. She was someone I loved who made miracles happen — someone who could do anything with her hands. I had no idea she was a bridge from the late 19th century to the 1950s.

I had an usual childhood, being the youngest by more than a 20 years’ difference between my sister and my brother. My parents were from the Victorian era, my siblings from the Edwardian. In a sense I grew up with my parents’ 1880s and 1890s ways. My sister brought me into the 20th Century as I grew older.

Recently, I came across an odd black object that resembled an egg with a handle. It was a memento from the few personal belongings of my mother’s that I had inherited. It brought back a scene of my mother’s sitting near a lamp, darning socks. She taught me to insert the black wooden egg into a sock and weave thread back and forth to fill the hole. I found out much later that nobody else bothered to mend socks by then, that the “throw away society” had already begun. I had just taken it for granted that everyone mended socks.

Another ordinary object to me was my mother’s “button box.” It was black metal, the size and shape of a fruitcake tin. Inside, was a treasure trove of buttons — all colors and sizes. Some were flat white mother-of-pearl to replace those on my dress coat when they inevitably fell off and disappeared. Some were tiny black buttons to replace those on Mother’s gloves. I particularly remember a set of crystal “tear drops” that adorned a white dotted Swiss dress my mother made for me one Easter. I can still hear the sliding of the cards of buttons when I picked up the box and opened the lid. No one else I knew had a button box, but it was a familiar part of my childhood —a leftover from the time when everyone’s clothes were homemade.

My mother wore corsets — the kind that hooked up the front, with strings and whalebone stays. I used to watch her get dressed. First, she had on what was called a “chemise” of light pink jersey. Her underpants were made of the same jersey that hung on her like loose trunks. Next came her corset; she took a deep breath and held it as she tightened the strings and hooked it up. Over that she pulled on a petticoat that was either cotton trimmed with eyelet embroidery or the same material as her underwear. She didn’t wear a bra; her corset seemed to give her support. Last, she slipped on a voile dress if she was dressing up for church or going to one of her Sorosis Club meetings. She wore starched cotton print house dresses and an apron when she worked in our family’s restaurant, called “Half-a-Hill T House.”

My father didn’t own a pair of pajamas, as I recall. Summer and winter he slept in his Union suit, as it was called – long, cream-colored underwear. My mother’s nightwear was flannel gowns in the winter and printed cotton in the summer. I think they both had discarded nightcaps long before I was born.

Each summer my father wore a straw “boater” to church and to Sunday afternoon baseball games at the White City Ballpark in Springfield, Mo. He used to tell me stories of how he and his friends played baseball in a vacant lot on the North Side of town. It was a part of Springfield that always seemed strange and alien to me because I was born and brought up miles away in the opposite direction as Springfield developed south of its Public Square. All my friends’ parents knew only the South Side of town like me. But my mother and father had fond memories of a much earlier Springfield in the 1880s.

My Victorian childhood included lessons that accomplished young ladies in the Victorian era were expected to have. Since I was my mother’s youngest child, she wanted me to have advantages she didn’t have when she was growing up. No one else I knew in my class at Greenwood Elementary School had to endure “recitation” lessons. I had to memorize little pieces I performed before our relatives and Mother’s friends. These were followed by stressful piano and cello lessons, but I loved classes in ballet and tap dancing. My mother took pride in my recitals. She could whip up costumes in a trice on her pedal-powered Singer sewing machine. I didn’t know any of my classmates’ mothers who made their daughters’ clothes. They bought them ready-made at Heer’s Department Store on the Square.

It was perplexing sometimes when things seemed ordinary and everyday commonplace to me and to find out later that they were long out-of-date or even antique. No wonder I used to feel so close to my great-aunts and their generation. I still do when I look at their portraits on the wall over my desk.

I’m grateful I’ve had the experience of living through almost four eras. It has immeasurably enriched my life.

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