Tag Archives: mothers

NEVER EVER AGAIN

By Marguerite Quantaine 5.16.17

When I was five, we lived in a drafty, 1860’s, two story, white clapboard farmhouse insulated with wads of newsprint dating from the Civil War. It had a coal furnace to heat the water pumped into cast iron radiators for warming in winter and bathing year round, wafer thin linoleum covered floors, and a narrow pine brown painted staircase just inside the front door vestibule with nine stark steps heading straight up before snaking left for three more and leveling off to a thirteenth step at the top.

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Facing directly ahead was the bedroom I shared with my two sisters. To the left, at the end of a hall papered in remnant rolls of Depression era patterns, was a bedroom for my three brothers. And at the right, flushed with the wall, was the entry to a closet containing a second, much smaller door leading to an exposed beams, no floorboards attic.

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“Never, ever, under any circumstance open the door inside the closet at the top of the stairs,” my mom instructed us, “because, if you do, you’ll fall through the ceiling.”  To be clear, she never added the words “and die” to the edict. So, I opened the door.

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It wasn’t that I was a bad little girl, or even an overtly rebellious one. I simply had a ferocious curiosity which challenged every easy, accepted, purported, and fabricated reason given to blindly follow orders. And, anyhow, it was all Alice’s fault — she being Alice In Wonderland from the animated Disney film that Mom had taken us to see when it came to our town in 1951. Our subsequent incessant playing of the film’s score from a set of eight, six inch, 78 RPM Little Golden Records ensured I knew every word and melody, making it Alice who implanted the lyrics to Very Good Advice in my mind as a mantra, and Alice who told me to open the door and search for a lavender and white striped Cheshire cat in a garden of talking flowers.

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But unlike Alice, I needed no key to unlock the door, nor mushroom to shrink myself for passing through, since even though the inner closet portal was half the size of a standard door, it wasn’t nearly as small as me.

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I might have opened it to a virtual sea of history if only I could read the papers packed in layers there. But since I couldn’t, my focus was on the solitary object sitting in the slanted roof room — a flat top, oak slatted, seasoned pine steamer trunk wrapped in one inch black lacquered tin ribbons, Moiré Metalique corner plates, and latches on each side of the lollipop-looking lock hanging open.

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My feet were smaller than my age and fearless. I scurried along the beams like a ballerina on a tightrope, reaching the trunk with ease. Opening it proved somewhat of a struggle, but the anticipation of releasing a fat lavender cat far outweighed the weight of the lid. I pushed it up and it plopped backwards as I fell forwards, landing on a black jacket with brass buttons the color of dirty mustard. Standing and stepping back out, I took care to balance on the beams as I reached in and pulled the jacket after me, dragging it across the crumpled insulation, out the Alice door, through the hallway door, and into my bedroom.

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The jacket was found fortune from a treasure chest. I marveled at the buttons, their background bumpy to the touch, with a spread winged bird standing atop a broken cross in it’s claws. I had heard the word ‘war’ without knowing what war was, could not conceive of what war did, and wouldn’t comprehend what the swastika signified for many years to come, so these beautiful buttons appeared as gold to me. I’d found gold!

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Certain my mom would feel as thrilled as I about my find, I put the jacket on and, with the sleeves dangling down long over my hands and the bottom of the jacket threatening to trip me as I shuffled along, I scooted down the stairs on my butt, one step at a time, shambling through the dining room and into the kitchen where my mother was standing at the long, white porcelain, wall hung cast iron sink washing breakfast dishes.

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She stopped, turned towards me, and stared as if stunned before asking, “Where did you get that?”

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“Through Alice’s door,” I beamed. “Inna trunk!”

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“Upstairs? In the attic?”

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I nodded, vigorously.

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After a moment she reached for my grandma’s black handled sewing scissors and approached me. Kneeling, she gently removed the jacket from my shoulders before sitting back on her bent legs and slippered feet, systematically cutting off each bird button. Upon finishing, she checked the pockets and found a folded scarlet band with the broken black cross imprinted inside a white ball. She scissors-shredded that, too, before doing something she’d also told us never, ever, under any circumstances to do.

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She descended the basement stairs, opened the heavy iron fire door on the coal furnace, and tossed in the buttons, the jacket, and the remnants of the band.

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The knob of her nose was red and her eyes were wet when she returned to the kitchen. “Go play now, honey,” she urged.

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I often wonder if a daughter remembers the first time she made her mother cry.

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Mine is of then and of there.

 

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Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.

Never Ever Again © 9.29.17

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IMOGENE’S ELOISE : Inspired by a true story by Marguerite Quantaine

is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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MY LITTLE BLACK DRESS IS PINK by Marguerite Quantaine

is due for release in October 2017 on Amazon in paperback and Kindle

 

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SEEING RED

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My mom hated to have her hair touched. It prompted her to enroll in beauty school for the sole purpose of learning the best way to style and care for her own thick, black, naturally curly locks. I still have the leather bound 1930s textbook from her beauty school days that she abandoned upon deciding to coil her hair and pin it atop her head like a crown of glory. It was very attractive, even enviable, and she never fashioned her hair differently from then on until the day she died, decades later, three weeks shy of age ninety-three

     I suppose that’s why it came as no surprise in the summer of 1958 — when I was still eleven with shades of natural auburn and blonde streaking throughout my wispy thin, straight as straw, mostly mousey brown hair — that mom suggested I choose one of the three colors and dye it.

     I chose auburn; Clairol’s Sparkling Sherry to be exact. It perfectly matched my auburn undertones and duplicated the color my older sister, Sue, chose to dye her hair a year earlier. It cost 85¢ for a glass bottle of the dye and another 25¢ for a bottle of peroxide. You mixed them before applying, waited 45 minutes, and then washed the residue out with Halo shampoo before rinsing with diluted Heinz red cider vinegar.

     “The dye coats each strand. It doubles the thickness of your hair,” Mom promised.

     “Do I still use vinegar?” I questioned, even though I already knew it untangled wet hair and kept it glossy.

     “It prevents the color from looking unnatural.”

     That fall I began the seventh grade as a redhead, just as Sue had the year before me. Whenever anyone asked us why our brother, Michael, had black hair we’d confess, “He dyes his.”

     The new school was larger with thousands of students. None of the kids I knew in elementary were in my classes, nor friends of mine in junior high. Consequently, everyone  I met from then and since has known me only as a redhead.

     That includes me.

     Because, even though Clariol has changed the names of their colors, I’ve remained true to those streaks of natural auburn chosen as a child and have never sought to discover the adult dominant color of my hair. Through junior and senior high and college, a stint as a kosher camp drama counselor, New York City careers, a Florida business,  and wherever I traveled or settled on living — once every month I’ve found a place to be alone for an hour for the solitary purpose of denial in dyeing.

     I’m 70 now. I have never let my hair grow out, but if I did, it would be an all-over silver — the same as it is at my temples — which I leave untouched so the age of my face won’t drastically contrast my crown, sporting a hairstyle I haven’t changed in decades.

     I am my mother’s daughter.

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Marguerite Quantaine © 2016
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Copyright by Marguerite Quantaine © 2016
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Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.
Her novel, Imogene’s Eloise : Inspired by a true-love story
is available on AMAZON, in paperback and Kindle.
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THIS DIAMOND RING — GIVEAWAY

"It's a dainty little ring."

“It’s a dainty little ring.”

I don’t know if it was so for my three brothers, but whenever we three girls asked my mom what she wanted for Mother’s Day, her birthday, or Christmas she’d invariably say, “A diamond ring, a fur coat, and a trip around the world.”

Nowadays, such requests may not seem that unreasonable, what with seven year olds pocketing iPhones, college students making pilgrimages, and fur coats being faked well enough to warrant splattering by PETA paint.

But back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, these were all big ticket items for the vast majority of American women.

Since my mom wasn’t elitist, extravagant, or pretentious, I didn’t take her wish list seriously. She had a mink-ish stole she dearly loved and wore from time-to-time. She managed to travel to every country and place she ever dreamt of going before she passed away nine years ago at ninety-three. And, she appeared satisfied with wearing her wedding ring during 31 years of marriage and 37 years of widowhood — a wafer thin band of gold, originally mounted with 7 miniscule diamond chips, two of them missing from forever ago.

“This diamond ring doesn’t shine for me anymore,” she’d chime along with Gary Lewis and the Playboys back in ‘65.

“Are you planning on taking it off and selling it?” I once asked.

“No,” she admitted. “Remember, dear, the first ring represents your beginning and shouldn’t cost more than what you can safely afford. The last ring shows how far you’ve gotten. It may weigh more and the stone will  be bigger — but that ring is less about who you are, and more about who you just think you are.”

Mom's wedding ring.

Mom’s wedding ring.

Costume jewelry was more my mother’s style, mostly sets of necklaces and bracelets with complementing clip-on earrings, cloth flowers with pin backs, hair combs studded with rhinestones, and watches with exchangeable bands. It was while rummaging through these, kept in an old cedar box stamped Souvenir of Gaylord, that I detected the faint fragrance of her Yardley Lavender still lingering there as I matched each pretty piece of paste to memories of the outfit she wore and the special occasion that warranted the wearing. That is, except for one out-of-place, unfamiliar, etched gold band with a solitaire diamond setting that seemed a perfect starter ring for a young (or young-at-heart) someone who hoped to commit, or celebrate a first anniversary, or wear on the pinky until presenting it as a simple act of friendship to another.

It’s a dainty little ring, perfectly capable of stirring up tender emotions — but one I’d never wear since it wasn’t given to me by my lifelong love.

So, I decided to let someone else create a warm memory by giving the ring away. No strings attached. No expectations of return. Quietly and without adieu, certain my mom would approve.

 

Besides, it’s not as if I’m giving her wedding ring away.

Never.

That tarnished band of holes and chips has resided on my pinky since she passed, and it will remain there until I do, as a testament to the woman whose namesake I am, and the cherished memories of her I wouldn’t sacrifice — not even for a diamond ring, a fur coat, and a trip around the world.

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Copyright by Marguerite Quantaine 2015

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DRESS REHEARSAL : TAKE ONE

Mom & Me Kiss
A week after my father died in 1969, my mom bought her burial dress, a long-sleeved bevy of beige chiffon accordion pleats with contoured organdy hemlines and cuffs resembling parched petunias.

The collar was fashioned into a multilayered sash, cresting the shoulders and flowing down the back to veil the neck and screen the zipper. A peach taffeta sheath shimmered underneath.

“Everyone knows a wife dies seven years after her husband,” Mom declared.

“Is that the law?” I asked.

“It is,” she assured.

“And, if you don’t die, what then? Do they give you a ticket?”

Mom flashed me the look of admonishment that every parent keeps ready to actuate in times of insolence.

“It’s a glorious dress,” she said.

“Yes,” I conceded. “A veritable work of art.”

My mom was never as thin as she thought she was, or planned to be. After 56 years, six children and a passion for chocolate, she arrived at widowhood 20 pounds heavier than ideal for her 5-foot frame.

Still, she was striking. Her ivory-streaked ebony curls were invariably fastened atop her head like crown jewels. Her posture was precise. Her apparel was meticulous, with a penchant for pastels, fabric flowers and contemporary styles.

The exception being, that dress. Where other designs died on the rack and emerged in time as retro vogue, her burial dress remained permanently detained in 1969.

I don’t know why Mom never saw fit to keep the dress in a garment bag. Perhaps she just preferred the convenience of instant viewing. Regardless, she carted it, unprotected, through five dress sizes, three homes and 37 more years.

“She makes me put it on, you know,” my sister, Sue, disclosed one day.

“The burial dress?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Whatever for?” I wondered.

“So she can imagine how she’ll look in her coffin.”

I guffawed.

“She’s serious,” Sue cautioned. “Every visit, she makes me put that dress on and lie down. Eyes closed. Hands folded. Perfectly still. She makes Kate do it, too. Every holiday. But Kate lies with arms stretched wide, like wings.”

(Kate’s our kid sister. Both she and Sue are 5 feet 7ish.)

“Wings?”

“Yeah. When the sleeve pleats open, they look like angel wings.”

“Why hasn’t she asked me to try it on?” I almost pouted.

“Because you resemble a younger, thinner her,” Sue teased. “She characterizes you as her little dolly.” I scoffed at her remark, but took it as true.

“So? How do you look in it?”

“Puh-lease,” she chortled.

Maybe I spurned the dress because Mom acted ageless by never appearing seriously sick. Sure, her gallbladder dealt her a fit before she gave up doughnuts, and she wrestled seasonal colds. But her heart was strong. Her wit was quick. She was ever valiant and resourceful.

Nevertheless, I phoned her every day after my dad died. And gradually, what began as a daughter’s concern for her mother’s well-being turned us into cronies.

As we aged, I called more frequently. Mine was the first voice she heard most mornings and the last each night. In between, we’d chat over coffee, prepare meals via speakers, trade views of the news and laugh at English comedies before retiring. An entire day’s dialogue was condensed into less time than it takes most people to commute.

It was a fracture to her left leg that finally forced Mom to forfeit her independence for the security of Sue’s care in Texas. Plans for our move to there were delayed so she could visit Florida once again.

“I’ll be there on my birthday whether you like it or not,” she vowed.

“Only 21 more days until you arrive,” I grinned into the phone. “Are you feeling festive yet?”

“Actually,” she said, then paused. “The strangest thing is happening right now. I’m watching my brain leave my head.”

“What do you mean, Mom?”

“I’m not sure,” she said quietly. “It’s so odd. I don’t know where it’s going, or why. It just is.”

“Like you’re floating outside yourself, looking in?”

“No. I’m here. It’s my brain I’m seeing go.”

“Mom,” I said. “You know I love you very much, don’t you?”

“I . . . know . . . you . . . do,” she echoed. It was more of a blessing than a goodbye, those final four words of her life.

Three weeks later, on the morning of what should have been Mom’s 93rd birthday, a package arrived from Texas.

While we’d been engaged in a dance of denial that she’d ever die, Mom added “cremation in my birthday suit” as a codicil to her will. Afterward, she painstakingly wrapped and lovingly labeled one last gift to me.

The dust of 37 years has darkened the chiffon, but each pleat remains crisp.

The organdy binding still echoes the contours of petunias. The taffeta slip still shimmers like skin. The sleeves, now raised, still mirror angel wings.

I encased the dress in glass and placed it as a watchtower over my desk.

It’s treasured there as a testament to my mom, who always was what this dress truly is.

Glorious.

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This essay © by Marguerite Quantaine first appeared in St. Petersburg Times, on 11/5/2006.

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