Girdles

April 17, 2020

I want to tell you about my girdles.

 

Well, if I'm honest, they were never my girdles. They were borrowed girdles.

 

A few years ago, I called my husband to tell him I'd be home late because I had to attend a wake.

 

"Who died?" he asked.

 

"My old baby sitter, Mrs. Coppola."

 

"Never heard of her. Is this one of those second cousin aunts of yours?"

 

"No. Just a sweet old lady who had the best girdle. I haven't seen her in 25 years or more."

 

I was working at the library at the time. After work, I took the long drive to a remote funeral parlor outside the county to pay my respects to her family. It was February.  I was bundled up in my grandmother's old wool coat, and as I slid my way across the parking lot ice in my 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. She was short and sturdy, her grey hair loosely curled and tucked with pins, giant horn rim glasses, shirt waist dresses and faded aprons. She wore stockings -actual stockings- their deep tan shade at contrast to her pale Italian skin, that she rolled down her thighs to just above her knees. I used to like to pull up her dress a bit and pat the little roll of her hose. She would swat at me and pull her dress down. Her shoes were old black lace ups, flat and sensible, but my favorite thing about her was her girdle.

 

I discovered it the first day she watched me. I was 3. I remember my mother handing me over (abruptly and without warning) to this large, rather stern-looking woman. I remember reaching my tiny arms out and wrapping them around Mrs. Coppola as she settled me about her waist. She was soft like a feather bed. She patted my bottom a bit and said, "There now, we'll have a nice time. Don't worry about us," to my mother. I don't even remember my mother leaving, I just remember leaning over and 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.

 

She carried me inside. I tried to be careful with my little sandals so I didn't kick her as my legs dangled. On the way to the living room, we passed the little porch where her husband sat fiddling with his ham radio. The room was filled with antennae and machines, dials and pads of paper. He wore giant headphones over his slicked back hair, and he smiled and waved cheerfully at me. Mr. Coppola had a wrinkled little face behind a set of glasses identical to his wife's. His clothes were oddly formal, white striped shirt, bow tie and suspenders. He spoke a strange language into his desktop microphone as I watched from Mrs. Coppola's hip perch. I decided then and there 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 a large nose. I decided large noses were a good thing, especially if you had giant glasses like hers. She had several sharp grey hairs jutting from her chin, and I poked them gently. "What are doing, little one?" she asked. "I like your chin hairs," I replied. "They feel funny. What are they for?" She laughed at me and said, "To remind me that I'm old! And just you wait! Your day will come and chin hairs come to us all!" I laid my head on her shoulder and considered that 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?" I asked "That's my girdle," she replied. "And that comes with age, too." "What does it do?" I said, rhythmically poking her. "It's underwear for old ladies. 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, the air warm and breezy. She hung baskets of sheets on the line, the wind catching them and making them flap flap flap as I lay there sleepy in the grass, the sun and sheets casting shadows on my face as I watched those strong arms shake out the wet sheets and firmly pin them in place. The wind would catch her dress and give me flashes of her rolled panty hose and her girdle which appeared to have legs. It seemed to end in some sort of pants, 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." Before I knew it, I was enveloped in one of Mrs. Coppola's ancient, heavy waist cinchers. Of course, it was enormous, so I had to hold the stiff, heavy, faded-yellow girdle up under my chin, so it wouldn't drag on the ground. I ran my hands over it, wishing I was bigger, so I could really fill it out and make it taunt and bouncy, like hers was. "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 picked me and the ancient girdle up, and carried me out the back door, waving 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, and a wire basket in the back. She set me carefully in the basket and said, "Now, promise you'll hold still." She climbed onto the over-sized seat, arranged her skirts, and with a great deal of effort began pedaling the enormous bicycle down the gravel driveway to the street. I couldn't imagine where we were going. I shifted slightly in my wire basket, turning myself so I could hold onto either side of her soft hips, my hands gripping her apron strings, 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 the corner deli. She carried me in and together we selected lunch meats (4 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. She tucked me, still wearing my borrowed girdle, back into the basket, wedging the food in around me, cautioned me not to squish the bread and then we were off again, her skirts flying as the ancient bike slowly took us back over the bridge home. As we made our way back up the gravel driveway, the promise of lunch with Mrs. Coppola and the Wizard of Oz, and a nap on her sagging couch, in her girdle, made me think this was the most marvelous journey, the most incredible day. It's the first time I remember being completely delighted, but more importantly, 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 blissfully quiet forest.

 

Years passed, and Mrs. Coppola no longer babysat other children, she had her own grandchildren to watch now. My grandfather finally retired, and now he and my grandmother had all the time in the world. 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. I liked to follow my grandfather, a retired engineer and amateur carpenter, out to his workshop in the morning. 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 as it slid across the fresh smelling wood, making it satiny smooth. I would gather even more wood curls up and make myself a crown out of them that he would, laughing, pick out of my hair before he took me back inside.

 

My grandmother would greet us with hot tea and cinnamon rolls for a mid-morning snack, and then I would stay inside while she cleaned and baked until lunch time. She would wrap me in an apron so I could help, and added the scent of Murphy's Oil Soap and white vinegar to the scent of tobacco and saw dust. Later, she would take my hand and her little pocket book and we would walk to the corner store for slices of ham and milk. Or sometimes she would load me into a small wagon and pull me further through the city, past the soaring church she'd helped build, all the way to the Pick-N-Pay, and I would cheer the whole way because I knew that meant store bought fried chicken for lunch. The Pick-N-Pay sold mouthwatering brown paper bags of greasy fried chicken and in my mind there was nothing better for lunch than that and a bowl of my grandmother's cucumber salad.

 

I was sitting on the counter one afternoon watching my grandmother fry a batch of mouth watering gizzards for lunch when I told her about Mrs. Coppola and her girdle. She listened with a small smile about her lips, her hands ever moving the delicate gizzards about in the hot oil, and said, "You know, Dana, Grandma (she always referred to herself in 3rd person) wears a girdle too." Then 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, thinking. "You know, I've got an old one upstairs you can have." She sent me home that day with one of her old girdles and a box of her old blouses and dresses. After that, I wore her girdle on the outside of my clothes, over my shorts and tank tops in the summer and over my corduroys and sweaters in the winter. Alone in my room, I would take out her old blouses and put them on with the girdle, and try to see myself in the mirror as an old lady, making cinnamon rolls, riding an ancient bicycle to the store for slices of turkey, pinning my silver hair up, and calling to a faceless, kind man to come in for lunch. I would imagine a life that was calm, and filled with small happiness's where the things I chose to do, the things I chose to drape myself in, weren't drowned out in the wail of a storm. I kept the girdle at home and never wore the girdle to my grandmothers house because I didn't need to.

 

I remember the day I raced to Lakewood Hospital, hoping against reason that my grandfather was alright. Walking into that emergency room, seeing him so still he might have been sleeping. My eyes were drawn to the trash can in the corner, where a nurse had hurriedly cast the reams of paper from the heart monitor, each inch nothing more than a long straight line slashed across it. The rest of my family gathered around him one last time to say goodbye, but my hands reached into that trash can and pulled out the long curls of paper, curl after curl, searching frantically for the moment his heart stopped, my eyes heavy with tears and image of a little girl wearing a crown of wood shavings. I spent the next few months at my grandmothers home. I moved in and commuted to college, because I knew he didn't want her eating lunches and dinners alone. That despite her quiet life, she needed someone to call to. My grandmother and I held each other in bed at night, each of us silently wondering how on earth to live with the vacuum he left behind.

 

And then another frantic race to another emergency room. By then, I was a young mother at home cutting up hot dogs for my son, planning on taking my grandmother to the mall the next day. Another long, sterile hallway, another small curtained room. And my grandmother lying so peacefully, her head just barely turned to one side, like she was looking over her shoulder to call to someone. I bent to kiss her one last time.  And I saw the hastily made bandage they'd wrapped around her chest to cover their last, futile attempt to start her failing heart. And my eyes blurred remembering the curls my grandfather left behind and I knew that no girdle could ever hold in the grief I would carry. The doctor tried to explain how her heart broke, but I knew he was wrong. It had broken years before, in another small curtained room and today, despite their attempt to keep her here, she had found a way to escape and fly away to a place where she could call him into lunch again.

 

At Mrs. Coppola's wake one of her children approached me and asked if I'd known their mother. "Yes. She used to baby sit me. She used to let me wear her girdle and she took me everywhere in the basket on her bicycle. She made me so very happy, your mother." Their faces were a mixture of bemused concern, raised eyebrows at the crazy woman who must have wandered in. Mrs. Coppola's daughter gestured toward a small, bespectacled old man who sat near the casket.

 

"Do you remember my dad?" 

 

I nodded. "I thought he was the Wizard of Oz, you know."

 

Next to him, in the casket, I could just barely make out Mrs. Coppola's magnificent nose, her glasses still a twin of his.  I signed the register and left. I didn't want to see her like that. As I slid my way 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.

 

 

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    Cleveland, OH   danadmcswain@gmail.com