Wednesday, February 1, 2017


The breathtaking blue of a bottle on Meme’s Corner yesterday kindled a whole delicious cascade of memories of another time.   A windows-open sunny late afternoon in a hot, close house, with the odors of recently fried fish, a cut lemon, a sweet flurry of Coty face powder.

It’s my very favorite shade of blue, for it's the color of the little pointy bottle of Evening in Paris with the small tassel, which the neighbor girl (a senior when I was in first grade) let me dab behind my ears a couple of times.   The bottle, scarce half-size of my Mother’s fountain pen,  was quite the most covetable, incongruously luminous thing in that dumpy little house.

She lived in a small room off the little hall, in a most unusual house.   Her Daddy was a retired railroad foreman, and he’d taken two boxcars, set them on those lacking-a-point concrete pyramids which formed the supports for so many of the small houses in every town I knew, and made a kitchen/dining room/living room down one side, and three bedrooms and a bath down the other, with windows cut and framed and glassed, and no doors on any of the inside rooms but the bath.    They’d put a sort of peaky roof on the thing, and the roof and entire structure were covered in that sandy, several-shades-of-brown fake brick stuff with the texture of a super-coarse emery board.

Her room was the smallest, for when the long space was divided, parents and brother got kind of equal shares, with the last space split into her room and the bath.    Her bed took up most of the space, and was placed squarely across the closet---the only place in the room that wouldn’t block the door.   She had to stand on her bed, or pull it out enough to stand behind it, butt-bumping the bed, in order to hang up or get down any of her clothes.   She said she was really little when they “built the house” and I suppose the menfolks in charge of the design gave no thought of that small girl’s growing up to need more than an 8x8 room.

The only other item of furniture in the room was a dresser---one that I longed to duplicate, for it was immensely beautiful to my girly-girl heart.   My own room had a bedroom “suit” consisting of bed (the one I later took a saw to and shortened the posts), chest of drawers, and dresser in that old thirties style of the big mirror set between two little wings, with a center shelf thing that allowed no foot or knee room to sit close to the mirror.

Helen had made her own dresser, of a wooden box on its side, opening facing out for knee room and access to shelves, with a curvy piece of plywood (also cut by her with her Uncle Booster’s hand-saw).   She’d taken the satin and net of her Aunt Maude's big pink evening-dress skirt from her Eastern Star Installation, and tacked it somehow around front and sides of the curve of plywood to form a lovely dresser-skirt. 

I’m sure the vision in that country-girl’s heart was possibly straight from this:

which caused her to tackle hammer and nails and make herself just One Beautiful Thing in that cramped gingham room.   Her small homemade version shone in such dull quarters, and a seat on the bed was the only access to the table.  

  How I loved those words---Dresser-Skirt.   I yearned for the wonderful crackly pink cloud to cover my own old brown dresser, and also mightily wanted some of the ribbon and tulle from the couple of dozen dried corsages festooned around her bulletin board with pearl-beaded pins.  

Despite the small size and meager décor, I thought her room to be absolute heaven.   And she never seemed to get impatient with my presence---she let me watch her wash her hair on Saturday mornings, standing at the linoleum-covered kitchen counter with a small white red-rimmed pan, filled from the battered old “tea-kittle” of the same pattern.  She rolled her wet hair onto cigarette papers bobby-pinned flat onto her head til she resembled my rubber-flowered bathing cap.   By evening, the curls had dried, and were combed out into a shining do around her head---a perfectly smooth, satiny cap in the back, with a halo of luxuriantly bouncing thick hair curved just so, and a finger-waved flip of bangs on the right.   

I was surprised when I googled "permanent of the fifties" and got this old magazine ad.  I'd noticed back then that she looked so much like Virginia Mayo, but this---this is Helen to the life, right down to the forehead wave, eyebrow arch and perfectly-blotted lipstick.   Exactly as I remember her.
She'd let me watch her get ready for a date---pulling on her stockings with the little snub of the rubber clips on her garter-belt, putting on her lipstick, smoothing all around her mouth with her little finger and a blot of toilet paper, and THEN the opening of that fragrant padded box where the "perfume" lived. 

  The box was an ashy-pink quilted satin thing, with little compartments inside, where she kept a couple of lipsticks, a tangle of earrings, a bottle or two of Cutex red-red polish, and that enchanting cobalt blue bottle of Evening in Paris, with the small silky tassel draped up and over the divider of the box. 

That exotic little bottle was elegant and dainty, cool and smooth and regal in my hand, and the simple honor of holding it was a thrill of my little-girl life.

The delicious scent was doled out sparingly, precious as frankincense.   Just a fingertip pressed tightly to the tee-ninecy mouth of the bottle, then touched behind both ears while the finger was still damp.    I don’t think I had any concept of feeling “grown up,” but I felt like the very best ME, transported from those end-of-day grubby shorts and shirt, filthy bare feet from who-knows-where, hair flying and nails bitten, to someone made welcome and worthwhile by that kind young woman, and feeling elegant and lovely in that sweet-scented aura.

I’d love to smell that beloved fragrance again, or hold that cool slim blue bottle in my hand.

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