Practical and Mystical Lessons in Life and Style Learned from my Grandmother
Shortly before I turned three, my grandmother, who always made a marvelously big deal of our birthdays, asked me what I wanted as a gift. I don’t remember this, but apparently, without a moment’s hesitation, I answered, “green shoes.” (I know. Prodigy.)
My grandma spent the next few weeks canvassing the greater Buffalo area for a pair of green shoes for a three-year old girl. None were to be had.
Luckily, my cousin turned up a brilliant pair of bright red clogs of perforated leather with a little white leather heart stitched on, which I adored -- but for years my grandma openly lamented her failure to find my heart’s true desire. She’d shake her head, chuckle ruefully, and say, “Green shoes! GOL!” Which was sort of her Baptist equivalent of “Oy, Vey!”
Christmas eve, my senior in high school –- a period in which my style wavered somewhere between “Dead-head,” “disaffected preppy,” and anything I thought would make me look like I ought to be in a John Hughes film -- my grandma surprised me with a pair of glossy dark forest green calfskin pumps with a green suede flower at the toe. They were gorgeous. I only wore them a few times – the Christmas service at church, a Valentine dance, a few dates in college – because they seemed almost too special. She was so tickled to have fulfilled my wish, if fifteen years late.
In truth, the lovely green shoes were too sophisticated for me at the time, but I wish I had them right this minute. They’d be perfectly in style -- classic, ladylike in a J Crew way. Jena Lyons would be all over them: with rolled jeans, a boyfriend shirt and a leopard jacket? Yes, please. Sadly, my feet, which never tire of growing, are now, after years of walking around New York, in flip-flops, pregnant, two full sizes bigger than they were in high school.
My grandmother worked outside the home, when most women did not. Before she got married and had children, she was a teacher. When her kids were very young she worked in an elegant shop, and later, in a civil service position, doing job placement for the state.
She had the means to have help with childcare and housework, and to buy nice clothes. She was a well-dressed, conservatively stylish woman. She wore structured dresses, make-up and heels. Her dressing table had a large drawer full of lipsticks, and the hall cupboard outside the master bath contained a formidable stash of beauty products, some dating back to roughly the Eisenhower administration.
For some foolish, selfless reason, she gave me carte blanche at her vanity, and I spent every Sunday afternoon after church getting dolled up, and parading around the house in her pumps and scarves, performing songs and made-up monologues in front of the mirror, and interviewing myself for Merv Griffin.
My grandmother had two clothing closets in her bedroom, and a third, across the hall in the mother-in-law suite that my great-grandmother occupied while she was alive.
The closet across the hall housed dresses -- for work, until she retired, and for church well beyond that. It also contained some wonderful coats, including a black suede wrap coat with a silver fox collar that I inherited. (Note: I don’t buy real fur –- I’m a huge fan of faux -- but 50-year old fur inherited from my grandmother I wear without apology).
The first of her two bedroom closets was full of pajamas, robes and slippers. My grandma had wonderful nightclothes. My favorites were two very similar peignoir sets, one in bright orange and one in pale turquoise. It felt so good to climb into bed and snuggle against her -- either at home, in her king size bed while Johnny Carson glowed on TV, or even better, in a bottomed-out twin bed at her beach house on Lake Erie, with the window open and sound of the waves rolling in. The nightgowns fell soft, cool and slippery over her generous, warm bosom. And the peignoirs doubled as very serviceable evening gowns when I was playing dress up, pretending to be on the Lawrence Welk show; I loved the way her scent wafted off of them – Noxema, Shalimar, Secret deodorant… and Starburst Fruit Chews, little bags of which she stashed away in the funniest places, most reliably, her panty hose drawer.
In the closet on the opposite wall, she kept her everyday clothes. On a high shelf within, (and next to, I am sure, a half-eaten tube of Starbursts), was a mason jar full of buttons. When I was bored, she would get it down for me and we’d look through the buttons, sort them, then mix them up and sort them again another way. They had all come off of old dresses, or as extras in a little pouch sewn into the lining of a suit. There were multiples of only a few; most were single. My favorite was a pinkish beige bakelite button with flecks of coral and blue iridescence. There were gold-toned buttons stamped with eagles, black jet with inlaid rhinestones, and tiny silk- or piqué-covered blouse buttons. They were beautiful, but there was something more; to play with them was transporting. Each one had a history -- secret to me, and in many cases already forgotten by my grandma. To a child of the 1970s, an era of corduroy and felt, rickrack and wooden barrel buttons, they were like little emissaries of bygone outfits, imbued with the glamour and ladylikeness of another time.
In her retirement, which began when I was about seven, and right up until she died in the nursing home at 89, my grandmother subscribed to an astonishing number of fashion and lifestyle magazines. I don’t think she read Vogue, or Elle, but recipes in Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal, and even Real Simple were dog-eared. I distinctly recall visiting her in her assisted living suite and paging through InStyle and a brand new “W” that featured a huge nude spread, which I took as confirmation that she’d never cracked an issue. I think she only got them because when subscription forms came in the mail she took them to be bills, and paid them.
She was, as I said, stylish, but her style wasn’t about fashion. She wasn’t unfashionable – she shopped at better Buffalo department stores like Hengerer’s, and L.L.Berger’s; stores that had a tearoom and a candy counter with fine chocolates, stores to which one still wore white gloves, not long before I was born. She always dressed elegantly. Rather late in life, though, she adopted a very specific personal style, one which transcended trends, but always looked smart on her – dressed but comfortable, considered but easy, enough variety to stay interesting, but tightly curated.
With her sturdy, curvy build, and ample bust, she wasn’t an easy fit. Once, when I observed that she had several identical dresses hanging in her closet, she explained, “When I find something that fits me well and I like it, why, I buy it in every color!”
The daily style she adopted consisted of stretchy straight-leg pull-on pants in a dark shade, usually black, navy or brown, but sometimes burgundy or dark green, with a silky printed tunic, often in a bright hue, and a long strand of shiny beads knotted at the solar plexus. The necklace knot was ingenious because it looked signature, but served a vital purpose – prevention of the boob-lasso effect.
Form, function, fit -- fabulous.
On Sundays, for church, she continued to wear a dress and heels, until her mid-seventies, when she finally caved and began wearing the pants outfit seven days a week, having finally arrived at the conclusion, I suppose, that God probably didn’t care all that much what you wore to worship… at least not in your dotage.
I didn’t catch on to her laudable style system until much later.
I first had to go through a few regrettable fashion stages, such as a protracted Victorian Moment, which in retrospect looked, at best, more “Little House,” and at worst, more “cult wife.”
But in my thirties, as I began to hone my sense, not only of what I liked, but what looked good on me, and what image I wanted to present, I realized that my grandma had introduced me to the wisdom and beauty of Uniform Dressing — not just as a matter of convenience and simplicity -- but as a way of developing and embracing your own look, and letting your “flaws” work for you.
Knowing what you wear well and using that as a template for every outfit can help you define your own unique style. Just as children feel free and secure with firm boundaries, and art comes to life in a frame, personal style can be most creative and satisfying when you have a basic structure in place.
My sisters tease me that I wear the same thing to take the kids to the park as I do to a cocktail party. It's not far from true. But I hasten to point out that that is subtly but significantly different than wearing to a cocktail party what you wore to the playground.
My essential uniform: jeans or slim black pants, a tank or tee, and a little jacket. Motorcycle boots for casual, booties for daytime dress-up, heels for night. Jewelry. Very large scarf. Ditto for summer, but with sandals, and shorts when the NYC heat is intolerable.
In her later years, my grandma suffered from a disease called Myasthenia Gravis. She grew terribly thin, her impressive bust line gradually disappeared, and she lost several inches of height. The uniform however, remained, and always looked sharp.
She had a lavish sense of humor and loved to tell jokes; although she was not Irish, few have matched her gift of Blarney, or her talent for telling a self-deprecating story with good humor. Like this one, which she told me in her mid-eighties:
She’d gone to church on Sunday, and after the service, was sitting in the fellowship lounge, enjoying coffee hour, when the pastor, a dear old friend, entered and greeted her. She rose from her chair, unsteadily, but of course threw open her arms and enveloped him, as she did everyone. Just as they entered the hug, her trousers, now much too loose on her fragile frame, dropped clear to her ankles.
“There I stood, embracing the pastor, half naked! It took him a minute to realize what had happened, and when he did, boy, he didn’t know whether it was better to hang on or let go. And let me tell you, neither did I. There was no question of my bending over to pull them up myself -- I’d go right over! But I couldn’t very well go on hugging him in my girdle. We stood there quite a little while before someone ran over and yanked them back up! Good grief. What a thing. Your grandmother – MOONING! At church!”
A refined woman who candidly, cheerfully tells an embarrassing story about herself is badass. She’s mistress of a winning social hat-trick -- get everyone laughing (herself included), instantly put present company at ease, and thereby confirm status as a generous, gracious, laid-back class act.
I went to Buffalo to spend a few days with my grandma just before she passed away. She was so tiny and frail it was hard to imagine her robust, zaftig attractiveness of yesteryear. She still got out of bed and dressed most days, but sometimes she was too weak, and stayed in her room in night wear. The peignoirs were gone; now she had a couple nearly identical silky blue pajama sets, which, when you think about it, is really a version of her uniform.
On my last day there, she was very feeble, and I could tell she was slipping away. I crawled into bed with her, and stroked her arm, slippery and cool in the silky jammies. My 8-month old daughter clambered over us while we talked. My grandma drifted in and out of sleep, chatting weakly, but jovially, while she was awake. She reached out and patted the baby’s cheek, and said “Great-grandma loves you very much.” I kissed her good night for the last time, and returned to New York the next morning.
Late the following day, she died.
My aunt called with the news. She told me that that morning, my grandma had felt strong enough to get out of bed and sit in her chair for a while. She wanted to get dressed and even put on lipstick. She did not however want to put in her teeth… which was a bit tricky.
So like her to leave us with a hearty, self-effacing laugh.
To her funeral I wore my uniform: slim black pants, pale rose blouse, little black jacket… and a pair of green suede pumps.
A few months later, a few of us got together and went through the button jar. We each chose a few to keep as mementos. Other buttons found new lives on gifts my aunt made for us over the next couple years: some became little snowmen on a Christmas stocking for my son, and a few adorn the cuffs of a cozy pair of slouchy, black, hand-knitted fingerless gloves.
I also inherited some of my favorite things from my grandmother’s personal effects -- a porcelain boudoir lamp and some fabulous bracelets.
Sometimes I wish I’d asked for one or two of her long strings of beads, to wear knotted as she did, but in my case, for a bit of flat-chested flapper flair… because let’s face it, Roy Rogers himself couldn’t lasso one of my little boobs.
Five years later, during a period of big transitions, I wandered through a sort of hope-crushing creative desert. We were living in LA -- which some people, especially New Yorkers, regard as the ultimate hope-crushing creative desert -- but I’m surprised how willingly I trade my New York edge, my black and gray uniform, for SoCal's sun-drenched optimism and insouciance, a pair of cut-offs and a burnout tee.
For me, Malibu, especially, is a magical oasis. I’d go out to Point Dume, talk to the waves, and wait for Someone to send an answer to questions like, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
I remembered a refrigerator magnet my grandma had. It said, “Pray toward Heaven but row toward shore.”
So I began writing a story.
A woman, a mother of young children, struggling to hang on to her creative self. (Sound like anyone we know?) She’s in a loving, engaging relationship, and has a happy, healthy family; she feels guilty for feeling unfulfilled, but feels that way, just the same. Returning home for a family funeral, she visits the beach where she spent wonderful childhood summers with her grandmother, talking, playing games, collecting shells and stones. One day, she takes a walk and talks to the waves and prays for some sort of help finding herself again. Seemingly out of nowhere, an older woman appears, walking along the beach.
“I know you think you need to have it all figured out right now,” the older woman says, “But you don’t. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
One day, while I was working on the story, we took the kids out to Malibu for the afternoon. As we dug in the sand I was going over the story in my head, and probably talking out loud to myself quite a bit.
There were some dolphins playing just off shore, and I went to the edge of the water to watch them. A woman standing nearby turned and smiled, then strode toward me. She was stunningly beautiful, quite regal, probably in her early 60s. She started chatting with me, asking me about my family, my work and so forth. It turned out that she was an actress, married, in fact, to a very famous actor (I’m not telling), and the mother of two grown children.
Within only a couple of minutes she’d told me how she understood what it felt like to be an artist and to feel like that part of yourself had been all but set aside while raising a family. She assured me that I had time, and that I should relax and just be where I am right now and it will come. We discovered we were both yogis. She looked me right in the eyes, put a hand on my arm and said, “Don’t you just feel like the Universe brought us together?”
“I do,” I said. “You have no idea how much.”
Later, as I was combing the shoreline for little treasures left by low tide, my five-year old daughter came running up to me from the edge of the water where she’d been digging for sand crabs, and gathering shells. She offered two closed fists. “One for you and one for me,” she announced.
She opened her left palm, revealing a sparkly piece of sea glass. “This one is for me.”
“And this one is for you,” she said, showing me what was in her right hand --
a tiny green shoe.
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Jenny Sheffer Stevens
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2020 -- All rights reserved.