Fran Braga Meininger
The Land of Ladyhood
It’s 1966 and I’m 11 years old. My favorite cousin, Andrea, has arrived unexpectedly to see my mother and I’ve been sent to the yard to play. I’m sitting in an apple tree taking one bite out of each Gravenstein to prove to myself they’re not ripe.
I’m disgruntled to be excluded from the adult’s conversation and wonder what they are talking about. I slither out of the tree, determined to get close enough to hear without being discovered. Just as I reach for the door to the screen porch, I hear my cousin’s high pitched laughter, they’re coming. I bolt for the side of the house to pretend I’ve been in the hammock the entire time.
“Francie, Francie, where are you? I want to talk to you.”
I canter casually back to where my cousin is waiting, concealing my breathlessness. She squats down to get close to me and holds my shoulders gently in her hands.
“Francie, Joey and I are getting married.”
That is good news. I like Joey. He’s fun.
“And I want you to be in my wedding.”
I instantly conjure up images of me standing among Andrea’s best girlfriends, all dressed in matching bridesmaid’s gowns, bouquets poised at our waists, hair twisted high upon our heads in fancy updos. I beam at the prospect.
“You’ll be my flower girl.”
Flower girl? No, that’s not right. Being a flower girl is like sitting at the kid’s table at Christmas dinner. You enjoy the same delicious food as the adults, but the conversation is far less
“Will I get to wear makeup?” I grab for the consolation prize.
“We’ll see.” My mother interjects. She knows instinctively where I am headed with this line of questioning and wants to shut it down before I pick up speed.
“We’ll see, Francie.” my cousin reiterates, but her grin and the sparkle in her eye tells me she’ll work on my mother for me.
I look up at Joey my cousin’s newly anointed finance. He’s a giant; literally. I’m sure he qualifies at 6’7”; his broad shoulders making him even more intimidating. But he’s gentle and quiet with a silly side he shows only to me. He winks at me and I giggle. Even if I can’t be a bridesmaid, I’m excited to be in my first wedding.
Andrea and I seal the deal with a hug.
Andrea is the beauty in our family. Her fine features unique among the cousins, as if she comes from some other, unworldly place, not sprouted from the same Italian American tree we all came from. She is petite, as we are, but her hair is raven black, straight and thick. She has the most bewitching eyes, which she accents with a thick eyeliner applied with a surgeon’s precision, complete with tiny tails at the outside corner, creating the illusion of even longer upturned lashes.
Andrea wears lots of makeup. My mother disapproves. But she is now 19 and soon to be a wife, so she has spread her womanly wings lately.
My mother’s family is all about approval, disapproval, allegiance and rejection; all the passionate and primal emotions associated with a dysfunctional, hot blooded, Southern Italian family, ruled by a matriarchy. You are either on the inside or the outside of this family. There are no degrees in between the extremes.
The tight knit, opinionated sisters, whose business it is to know each other’s business, thrive on gossip and petty jealousy. Andrea's family lives in a lavish home, a four story, glass fronted modern structure with a view across the bay, grander than any of the cousin's homes and of which all my aunts are quite envious.
I’m envious of Andrea’s room. It’s the epitome of femininity, every surface slathered in pink, the same cotton candy pink as her lipstick. She has a record player and a record collection; a sweetheart vanity with a big round mirror and a puffy cushioned seat where she sits surrounded by dozens of tiny bottles, brushes and other instruments of womanly wonder. It’s a magical place in my eyes. Andrea’s world is where I want to live.
In late September, I convince my parents to let me spend the weekend there. I get to visit quite often during summer vacation, but during school I can only come down on weekends. I spend the entire visit tagging along with Andrea. Joey doesn’t seem to mind that I come on their dates. He usually takes us to a movie at the drive-in and I sit in the front seat, scooched in close to Andrea, who is tucked under his arm. Occasionally, he tugs on my ear and then professes his innocence when I protest.
Andrea has Joey’s car while he is on National Guard duty. Joey rebuilt it in his brother in law’s garage, dropping in a big block engine and doing a little modification to the exhaust to make it even louder. It’s a hot rod, according to my father, with its wide tires and the rear end jacked up at an unnatural rake. He would not be happy to know I am in it, but I’m thrilled to be riding shotgun, as Joey calls it.
“Hang on.” Andrea warns, obviously nervous, as she eases out the clutch and the car lurches backward up the steeply inclined driveway and promptly stalls. I laugh and she glares at me.
She finally gets the car on the road and we careen down the hill into town.
“Where are we going?” I inquire, not really caring, happy just to ride around in this cool car.
“I have a surprise for you.” She replies, looking pleased with herself.
I like surprises. I settle in by the open window and let the wind catch my long hair, whipping it wildly as we speed down the road.
We pull into the parking lot of Modern Eve, a fancy women’s department store. My mother shopped here before she married my father, but no longer. They can’t afford it now.
As we step into the pleasantly air-conditioned space, a tall, slender older woman, immaculately dressed in high heels and a fitted silk suit, greets us as though we are important. I like that. I square my shoulders and pretend to be older and more sophisticated than my years. I want to fit in.
“We would like to see some nylon stockings, please.” My eyes widen looking up at Andrea, holding my breath.
“Certainly, Miss. What size do you wear?”
“Oh, not for me, ma’am, for my cousin here, she’s going to be in my wedding.”
It’s true. They are for me. I’m ecstatic. I take Andrea’s hand and jump slightly up and down in my excitement. She shoots me a look and I remember, I’m supposed to be sophisticated. I regain my composure although my insides are still jiggling.
“We’ll need a garter belt as well.”
That sounds ominous but I decide to trust the fancy saleslady and follow her to the dressing room. I slip out of my pedal pushers and Keds, standing knock kneed; my skinny, tan legs extending from my little girl panties with pink bows all over them, feeling quite out of sync with what’s happening.
The saleswoman slips the contraption around my waist and it falls unceremoniously to the floor.
“Oh, my, please excuse me. We’ll need a smaller size.” She exits the fitting room, my cousin and I stifling our laughter through pinched lips.
A suitable size is acquired after a few attempts and the nylons are secured. I inspect my reflection in the mirror, not quite sure what to think. From the waist down, I appear to have grown up a bit, but the rest of me is most certainly still 11. I look to Andrea for approval and she gives me a nod. I guess I pass.
The stockings and garter belt are wrapped in ecru colored tissue and put into a white box with Modern Eve’s logo embossed into the top. I carry the small bag containing my treasures proudly, swinging it by my side in hopes that people walking by will notice.
I’ve just passed through the gates of a very important place for an 11 year old girl; the land of ladyhood.