I want to tell you about my girdles. Well, they weren’t always my girdles. They were mostly borrowed girdles.
A few years ago, I called my husband to tell him I’d be home late.
“Mrs. Coppola died,” I explained. “I just heard this afternoon and her wake is tonight.”
“Mrs. Coppola,” he mused, running through his mental list of obscure relatives. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Is this one of those second cousin aunts of yours?”
“No. She was my babysitter when I was a toddler and she gave me my first girdle. She was wonderful. I can’t believe she’s gone.” Not an entirely satisfying explanation but he’s used to that by now.
After work, I took the long drive to a strip mall funeral parlor two counties over to pay my respects to Mrs. Coppola’s family. It was February. I was bundled up in my grandmother’s old wool coat, one of several I’d taken from the front hall closet when we were cleaning out her house. As I skated my way across the icy parking lot in my sensible heels, I felt the lovely tightness of my control top panty hose and thought, “Mrs. Coppola would approve.”
Mrs. Coppola was everything an old lady should be, my own personal fairy tale come to life. She was short and sturdy, grey hair loosely curled and tucked with pins, horn rim glasses, shirt waist dresses and faded aprons, shoes old black lace-ups. She wore stockings -actual stockings- that she kept rolled down to the middle of her thighs. I used to like to pull up her dress and pat the bouncy sausage roll of industrial grade nylon. She would swat at me and pull her dress down. But my absolute favorite thing about her was her girdle.
I discovered it the first day she watched me. I was three. One minute I was in a shitty Nova with the merest suggestion of floorboards and the next my mother was exchanging me with a Roald Dahl-looking stranger named Mrs. Coppola. She was soft like a feather bed, and I remember I wasn’t so much perched on her hip as I was folded into her, egg-whites into batter. She patted my bottom and said, “There now, we’ll have a nice time. Don’t worry about us,” she said by way of dismissing my mother. I was delighted by this unexpected turn of events, to the extent that I don’t even remember my mother leaving. I do remember sniffing the collar of her ancient crepe dress. She smelled like garlic and baby powder and bread. I was enchanted. I decided right there I loved her.
Mrs. Coppola carried me inside. I was careful not to kick her with my dangling legs, afraid one wrong move would burst this surreal bubble. On the way to the living room, we passed a rickety annex where her husband sat fiddling with his ham radio, surrounded by shelves of dials, tubes, and mechanical curiosities I desperately wanted to play with. His clothes were shabby but formal: striped shirt, bow tie, suspenders, glasses identical to hers. He winked at me, then spoke a strange language into his desktop microphone as I sat, awestruck- on Mrs. Coppola’s hip. Using contextual clues, I decided he must be the Wizard of Oz and began making plans to ask him for ruby shoes and a puppy.
Mrs. Coppola took me to the sofa and cuddled me on her lap while she watched her soap operas. While she watched her stories, I watched her. She had an enormous nose. I decided enormous noses were a good thing, especially if you had giant glasses like hers. She also had several sharp grey hairs jutting from her chin, and I poked them gently.
“What are doing, little one?” she asked, casting a sidelong glance at me.
“I like your chin hairs,” I explained. “They feel funny. What are they for?”
She thought for a moment. “To remind me that I’m old. Old ladies get chin hairs.”
I laid my head on her shoulder and considered my own bare chin as she watched TV. Chin hairs sounded like fun. As I lay there, I became aware that although I was technically on her, I seemed to be suspended above her slightly, with some manner of tension, like a trampoline. I poked her chest.
“What is that? What is that bouncy thing you’ve got on?”
“That’s my girdle,” she replied. “Old ladies get those, too.”
“What does it do?”
“It’s special underwear. It holds you in.”
I poked her again. No matter how hard I poked her, my finger bounced off.
“It’s wonderful.” I whispered. “I want one.”
She smiled and asked if I’d help her hang the laundry. We went outside, the sun a Kodachrome shade of childhood blue, white fluffy clouds, air warm and breezy. She hung baskets of sheets on the line, the wind catching them as I lay there sleepy in the grass flap flap flap the sun and sheets casting shadows on my face as I watched her shake out the wet laundry thwack and firmly pin it into place. Sometimes the wind would catch her dress and give me flashes of her rolled panty hose and the bottom edge of her mysterious girdle. It seemed to end in shorts, just above the roll of her hose.
She must have caught me eying her, because suddenly she said, “I have an old girdle you can wear, if you’d like.” A quick rummage though a closet reeking of mothballs, and I found myself enveloped in one of Mrs. Coppola’s ancient, heavy waist cinchers. I had to tuck the stiff, faded-yellow garment under my chin so it wouldn’t drag on the ground. I ran my hands over it, wishing I could really fill it out so it was taunt and bouncy, like hers.
“How do I look?” I asked her.
“You look just like me!” she laughed. “Let’s go to the store and get some lunch.” She swung me and the ancient girdle up, waved goodbye to the Wizard of Oz and his ham radio, and carried me to her bike.
I’d never seen a bike like hers before. It had three wheels, each of them hugely inflated, with a deep wire basket in the back. She lowered me into the basket, extracting a pinky-swear promise not to wiggle. Then she climbed onto the padded seat, arranged her skirt, hiked up her stockings, and with a great deal of effort began pedaling the ungainly bicycle down the gravel driveway. I rearranged myself and held on to her soft hips, fingers twisting in her apron strings like reins, and peered around her. I remember the wind on my face, my nose turned up towards the sun as we slowly made our way down the dappled street, over a bridge and finally to a corner deli.
She carried me in and together we selected lunch meats (four slices roast beef for her and her Wizard, a slice of turkey for me) a loaf of Italian bread, a wedge of cheese and a quart of milk. Then she dropped me, my girdle, and the groceries into the basket and then we were off again. The promise of lunch with Mrs. Coppola and the Wizard of Oz, and a nap on her sagging couch in my new girdle made me think this was the most marvelous journey, the most incredible day. It’s the first time I remember each one of my senses being blissfully happy, but more importantly, it was the first time I remember feeling content. Everything else in my small world was loud and angry, out of control, but here it was as if I’d found my way out of a storm and into a custom-made daydream.
Years passed, and Mrs. Coppola and her Wizard vanished from my life like many things do when we are young. My own grandfather had retired, and now he and my grandmother had all the time in the world for their painfully shy, anxiety-ridden granddaughter who preferred the company of the elderly to that of her peers. I spent most of my childhood at their house, to the extent that as an adult, when I think of home, I think of their white farmhouse, not my parents home. My grandfather was a retired engineer and amateur carpenter, and I like to spend the morning with him in his workshop. My grandmother worried about how dirty I would get, so she would drape me in one of my grandfather’s old dress shirts, button it up tight and roll the sleeves until my hands peeked out. It hung down to my ankles and covered me not only in permanent press cotton, but in the wonderful smell of tobacco and sawdust, the only scent my grandfather ever wore. I would play on the floor, making little cities out of sawdust and the wondrously long curls that fell to the floor from my grandfather’s wood plane. The largest wood curls I would fashion into a crown and I would happily reign over my sawdust sandcastles until it was time to go back inside.
My grandmother would call us in for a mid-morning snack of hot tea and cinnamon rolls, and after I would stay inside while she cleaned and baked until lunch time. She would wrap me in an apron so I could help, and we added notes of Murphy’s Oil Soap and white vinegar to the scent of tobacco and saw dust. Later, Grandma and I would walk to the corner store for slices of ham and milk for lunch, just like Mrs Coppola used to. But sometimes-and this was the best- sometimes she would load me into a wagon and pull me all the way to the Pick-N-Pay across town for store-bought fried chicken. The mouthwatering smell of fried chicken was usually more than I could resist on the long ride home, and my grandparents would inevitably open the bag to find one drumstick missing its crisp skin entirely.
I was sitting on the counter one afternoon watching my grandmother fry a batch of gizzards for lunch when I told her about Mrs. Coppola and her girdle. She listened, small smile about her lips, quick hands keeping the delicate gizzards moving in the hot oil.
“I wear one, too.” She pulled up her shirt and showed me the smooth white fabric underneath. “It’s just a small one, for my waist. You’ll see when you’re older, it’s more comfortable after you’ve had a few kids.” She paused fussing with the gizzards and held one finger to her lips. “You know, I think I’ve got one upstairs you can have.” She sent me home that day with her extra girdle. I wore it everywhere, over my shorts and tank tops in the summer and under my corduroys and sweaters in the winter. I would imagine myself as an old lady, making cinnamon rolls, riding an ancient bicycle to the store for slices of turkey, pinning my silver hair up, and rolling my stockings. There would be a kind man who would be patient with small children and eat lunch with me every day. I would imagine a life that was calm and orderly, filled with quiet and curiosities, every year a step away from the ill-fitting nuclear family I’d been born into.
I remember the day I raced to Lakewood Hospital, hoping against reason that I would find my grandfather sitting up in a hospital room, shaking nurses off of him, embarrassed by all the fuss. Instead he was lying in the corner of the ER on a gurney, so still he might have been sleeping. The rest of my family gathered around his body, but I knelt beside the trash can where someone had hurriedly cast the curled reams of paper from his heart monitor. I searched every inch of that thin black line, hoping to find the moment just before his heart stopped, that one final second before he left us. I moved in with my Grandma after, because I knew he wouldn’t want her alone. My grandmother and I held each other in bed at night, each of us silently wondering how on earth to live in the vacuum he left behind.
Years passed and I was a young mother, cutting up hot dogs for my son and trying and failing not to worry about my grandmother. I’d spent the afternoon at the hospital after a “small event” with her heart. “I’m fine, this whole thing is silly. Let them run their tests. I’ll be home by tonight and tomorrow you’ll bring the baby over and we’ll all go shopping.” None of that happened. Instead the phone rang, hot dogs were abandoned on the cutting board, and I was racing to the hospital once again. Another long, sterile hallway, a small curtained room. And my grandmother lying so peacefully, her head turned to one side, as if someone had called her name. I kissed her cheek and laid my head on her shoulder, saw the hastily-made bandage they’d used to camouflage a futile attempt to restart her failing heart. And I knew that despite their best efforts to keep her here, she had eluded them and instead, found her way back to him.
In the receiving line at the wake, one of Mrs. Coppola’s children asked if I’d known their mother. “Your mother was my babysitter when I was a little girl. She used to let me wear her girdle and she took me everywhere in the basket on her bicycle. Some of my happiest memories were with your mother.” Her children, old now themselves, smiled as if to say, “Yes, that was our mother.” Her daughter gestured toward a shrunken, bespectacled old man who sat near the casket.
“Do you remember our dad?”
I nodded. “I thought he was the Wizard of Oz, you know.”
I could just barely make out Mrs. Coppola’s magnificent nose jutting out of the open casket, her glasses still a twin of his. I signed the register and left. As I slid my way back across the icy parking lot, tucked deep inside my grandmother’s wool coat and control top panty hose, I closed my eyes for a moment and suddenly it was summer and we were on Mrs. Coppola’s bicycle, her skirts flying as I held her apron strings, laughing together as we headed over the bridge.