I wrote this personal essay about eight years ago. It was a writing exercise for which you were to find some old item you've always kept and tell the story behind it.
Things I Won’t Throw Out:
Part 1 of a Potentially Never-Ending Series
Item: a pale pink nylon half-slip, girls’ size 9, white trim with pink embroidered rosettes. Circa 1968.
Actually, it wasn’t circa 1968, it was exactly 1968--the year our cousin Charlotte was married in
. Chicago was a beautiful and elegant young woman whose father was our much-loved Uncle Todd. No expense was spared to turn us out properly for the occasion: Mary, Jean, and I each got a shopping trip with Mom for new outfits and underclothes. Charlotte
I was to be all in pale pink: pale pink square-toed, wing-tip shoes; pale pink “wet look” stockings; a pale pink princess-line dress with long sleeves and white lace flounces at the wrist and throat; and for underneath, the pale pink half-slip. I had fallen radiantly in love with the dress at first sight in the store; it was the only one I would try on. And because I was a growing girl in springtime, I also got a beautiful new spring coat, green the color of Easter basket grass on the outside, but reversible, with a lining of mod-color stripes inside.
For the trip to Chicago, my beautiful clothes were bundled with my father’s suit and the other ladies’ dresses on hangers, covered with plastic dry cleaner bags and suspended from hooks over the side windows in the back seat of our Dodge Polera
. They blocked our view of the smoggy landscape of and the other sights we drove by, but as I had to sit in the middle anyway, it didn't matter. I could see quite well out the front window. I remember Mom didn’t want Dad to smoke his cigars in the car and get our nice clothes all smelly. Gary, Indiana
In Chicago we checked into the motel where we would stay for the weekend. My parents had to leave again almost immediately for some last minute necessity, and Mary and Jean both wanted to go along with them--but I didn’t. This was very unusual, giving my parents pause: could I be trusted to stay there alone, and would I be safe? I was only just turning eleven and this was the big city. I could see by their faces they were leaning toward making me go along where they could keep an eye on me, so I put up a storm of avowals that never would I even think of opening the motel door to a stranger. Satisfied, they finally left.
I was happy to be alone at last. A fascinating wart had appeared on the bottom of my right foot and I wanted to study it with out remarks from sisters. Years later I would read Lewis Thomas’s appreciative essay on warts from his “Lives of a Cell” and immediately relate it to the wonderful plantar wart of my eleventh year. Now, as I noticed, this one had suddenly gone from solid white to translucent—I could see right through it. I wiggled and poked at it for several absorbing minutes. When it seemed there was no more to be learned from it, I took a pair of fingernail clippers and, for the sake of scientific inquiry, clipped the top of it painlessly off.
Never, in my childhood, that I remember, was I ever in danger of getting away with anything. Not with sharp-eyed sisters around. Within five minutes of my family’s return Jean was announcing there were little smears of blood on my feet and shins and some on the bathroom floor. WHAT had I DONE? My parents were rolling their eyes in standard “We should have known better” fashion as I gazed down at my legs in surprise. Gracious, what a fuss they were making! Everyone had seen my blood before, plenty of times. Didn’t I have scars on both legs, and hadn’t they all seen me acquire them? Hadn't I looked much worse the day I tried riding my bicycle no-handed downhill while seated on the back fender? This was nothing. Dad gave me a lecture on the hazards of wart-picking, but I inwardly dismissed it. Anyone lucky enough to own a wart would certainly have done the same.
Well, we survived that evening; the next day was the day of the big wedding, and I finally got to dress up in my beloved pale pink clothes. The chastened wart made a bump in my wet-look stocking and a dent in the sole of my right pale-pink shoe, but I don’t remember it hurting at all.
We were to meet with other relatives at the bride’s home to get directions, and then proceed from there to the church.
There is a picture of Dad, Mary, and me taken at just this hour, standing in front of Charlotte’s house on Sawyer Street. I am in my grass-green coat—you can’t see my dress or my beautiful shoes, unfortunately, but you can see the colors of the mod-stripe lining peeking out at the wrists. I’m clutching Dad’s arm with my head against his shoulder, smiling. On his other side, her arm linked through his, Mary looks self-consciously demure in her navy sailor coat, while Dad appears to be frowning at the photographer’s feet. He does that in other pictures too—he hated having his picture taken.
My ensemble and I are immortalized again in a photograph taken just a few hours later at the reception. All the guests are seated at round tables, which the professional photographer is visiting one by one. At our table, he stands just behind me so that I have to sit sideways in my chair and look over my shoulder to get my face in the picture—not a flattering angle for my square jaw, and my cascade of ringlets is sagging. But I am smiling happily, so I must have gotten over my chagrin at missing the wedding.
That's right, I missed the wedding. Not Mom or Dad or Mary or Jean, just me—Ruth, Poopsie, Weed, Rufus Rubberneck—I, and only I, of our family, missed the wedding. It didn’t surprise me: I was the only bicyclist in the family to be hit by a car, I was the only sleeper in our tent to be stung by a hornet, I was the only family member swimming in the lake to get swimmer’s itch, to get ear infections, impetigo, warts—not that I minded the wart—and, later, acne. And I missed
’s wedding. Charlotte
While we were still at the bride’s receiving our directions, Uncle Elwin and Aunt Winnie invited me to ride to the church with them. Their children were grown up and hadn’t made the trip, so I thought a kid’s presence would please them. Moreover, it was a chance for me to act like the poised and gracious young lady I truly was without interference from my sisters. I chatted most unselfconsciously with my aunt and uncle, not about the wart, all during the drive. But it seemed the way to the church was confusing; my uncle got lost in the side streets of Chicago; we never found the right place. We did find the reception in time, though, and I rejoined my family there. I expected teasing and jeers from my sisters over the mix-up, but to my surprise they offered none—they seemed to feel sorry for me.
However, that photograph reassures me that I am remembering correctly: I really did have a wonderful time at the reception. The circle of relatives at my table was relaxed and happy, the food was tasty and not too difficult for me to cut up by myself, and we ate cake! I had such a wonderful time that I didn’t even give it a thought when Uncle Todd, not knowing about the driving mix-up, introduced me to Charlotte’s new in-laws with, "And here’s my niece Ruth Clement—a wedding just wouldn’t be a wedding without her!”
I had a wonderful time because I got to see the bride, who with her new husband made the rounds of each table of guests to say hello and thank us for coming. And what was a wedding ceremony to me but a chance to view the bride? To see what her dress was like, what her veil was like, her shoes and her flowers and her hair? Was her gown as lovely as the ones on the wedding page of the Sears catalog? Was she as pretty as the models? Well, in
’s case, she certainly was, and prettier still. Seeing her and maybe her bridesmaids was all I really cared about, and see them I did, close up, at the reception. Charlotte
And I had a wonderful time at the reception because I was wearing and being seen in my pale pink dress with my pale pink square toe shoes and my wet-look stockings. I’m sure I never wore that dress again: by 1968 we’d stopped going to church, even on Easter, and I’d have outgrown it before too long. The cherished shoes would have started to pinch, and the wet-look stockings would have developed runs. But I wore the pink half slip a long time: it still fit me in high school, it was not too long for the short skirts I wore then. And somehow it has always found a spot in whatever dresser drawer I keep my stockings in, except for a few years when my daughter wore it. Whenever it turns up, it reminds me of things that happened once, and who I used to be. Someday I may be so unsentimental as to throw it out. But not today.