Friday, May 05, 2017

The Air We Breathed

We know that each generation influences the next with its physical DNA, passing on predictors of appearance; health; gifts; interests and propensities. But there are other things less tangible that invisibly and strongly, guide the actions and attitudes of the next generation. It's almost as if it's the air we breathed.

I considered this recently as I went through the clothes in my cluttered clothes closet. I thought about my mother's clothes closet, which stands in my mind as a symbol of something about her, and about me. 

Firstly it was not a closet really, but a wardrobe. In England, where I grew up, we did not have bedroom closets but wooden wardrobes.
My parents had a 1950's, shiny, walnut veneer wardrobe, from which wafted the faint smell of moth balls. It had two sides, each with a curved door, ornately patterned metal handles, and locks that held keys, but were never locked. 

The top of the wardrobe held all sorts of things that had nowhere else to be stored, including a cardboard box that contained a photograph album with black and white photos of my mother's youth, and many envelopes containing loose photographs, which I loved to look through. 

Image result for brownie cameraMum's side of the wardrobe had some shelves and among other things her black Kodak Number 2 Brownie camera was kept there. At 11 years old my own love of photography developed and I was allowed to use this simple, sturdy camera that took great photos. I haven't stopped recording life in pictures since then. 

When it came to clothes though, there were not many in Mum's wardrobe. We were probably no poorer than other families in post-war England, but what little money there was, did not go towards clothes, except for school uniforms and sturdy, serviceable shoes, always bought with room to grow into. As a result, I can remember every non-essential item with clarity--a white dress splashed with a pattern of big deep pink roses, with a pink waistband that tied in a bow at the back--black patent leather shoes, and the white shoes with a bottle of whiting--that strong smelling liquid that you had to shake well and then apply with a sponge. New shoes spent at least their first night beside my bed being cherished in their pristine shoe boxes, ensconced between sheets of tissue paper, smelling "new" and wonderful!

My mother's items of clothing seemed to last many years. She had a suit that she wore only on special occasions, such as when we traveled to Holland to visit our maternal family. In it she looked even more beautiful than usual. It was of soft brownish fawn cloth with pin prick polka dots. The jacket shoulders were slightly padded, it had lapels and a fitted waist, and the skirt was flared. Below it in the wardrobe was a pair of high heeled brown suede open toed shoes, worn as rarely as the suit, and a handbag. Normally Mum simply used a series of practical canvas shopping bags to carry her wallet, Polo peppermints, clear plastic rain-hat, smaller shopping bags rolled up and secured with elastic bands, and handkerchiefs. 

When Mum got an office job, she suddenly needed clothes to wear to work and so she bought two outfits which she alternated. One skirt was of Black Watch tartan, with a cream blouse and green cardigan. The other pleated skirt was of a blue based tartan with a white blouse and blue cardigan. When I was 13, I was invited to a friend's 13th birthday party and having nothing to wear, borrowed Mum's blue outfit. I was tall for my age, and a little chunky--and must have been the least stylish teenager ever!

Other clothes landed in Mum's wardrobe from two more glamorous sources though. One of these was one of Mum's best friends, whom she'd met in the 1940's and with whom she remained steadfast friends all of her life--Auntie May. Auntie May lived in South Shields, near to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and spoke with a soft Geordie accent. Mum, with blue-gray eyes and abundant glossy, dark brown hair was a natural beauty. Auntie May had honey blond hair and was similarly gorgeous. She has had a life-long passion for clothes and would often pass on beautiful things to Mum--who still however wore the clothes she felt comfortable with, which she called her, "office clobber." "Clobber" is British slang for attire! When I grew older I would often find things of Auntie May's that I loved. This photo is of Mum with Auntie May. :)

The other source of lovely clothes was Tante Corrie, Mum's eldest sister, and more financially well off than we were. From Tante Corrie came really pretty things. I remember a flouncy grey flowered chiffon skirt that had an attached underskirt. We never actually wore it, but I loved to try it on and admire it occasionally.

Mum continued her thrifty, utilitarian approach to clothing all of her life. She put other things and people ahead of her own needs, and clothes were not her priority, ever. 

Maybe in reaction to this bare bones up-bringing, I had a bit of an obsession with clothes for much of my adult life and more than made up for any early scarcity. Now I find myself more closely in tune with Mum's approach, especially since I spend much of my life these days at home. 

We were in Mishkeegogamang, a First Nations reserve in North-Western Ontario last year when one of our friends there told me that the belief of the older members of their community is that goods coming in as donations or gifts to the reserve should go to the younger people. They won't take from them because they have all that they need and no longer need so much anyway. That freedom from perceived want and need, and their contentment, resonates with me across cultures and it reminds me of my own mum. 

Good air for the next generation to breathe.

2 comments:

Marilyn said...

"That freedom from perceived want and need, and their contentment, resonates with me..." And me! it is a glorious freedom. I observed it in my parents and parents-in-law, and I feel it myself now. I find it extends beyond possessions, to aspirations and pursuits. So much I might have, at one time, thought I need to grasp....seems of lesser and lesser importance now. It's not a grief, this change in thinking. It's a freedom.

Thank you for these thoughts as you compared two closets. You gave me a lot to ponder.

Belinda Burston said...

Oh, Marilyn, I loved your words of response, prompting my own reflections further! Yes, this season is FREEDOM!! :) And I find it needs to be guarded. :)