Wednesday, May 30, 2007


This is my grandmother. Glamorous, n'est-ce pas? We think this shot might have been taken to mark her engagement, which would make it 1936 and her about 22. My grandfather was the literal boy-next-door and they were utterly devoted until he was taken by cancer in 1986.

My grandfather was Catholic, gentle, methodical and quiet. My grandmother was Church of England, formidable, articulate and you might have thought she was full of whimsy and spontaneity, but actually she was as methodical and systematic as my grandfather and twice as flinty. The whimsy was part of the glamour, which was both effortless and considered, making it utterly, utterly impenetrable. Or put another way, it was completely real -- she really was like that. She really did have kitten-heeled bedroom slippers with a white feathery puff on the toe. She really did always have perfect nails, gleaming coral. She was the sort of person who could actually address a cab driver as "driver" -- as in, "Driver, Little Collins Street please" -- and make it sound both polite and respectful.

She always wore gloves. She taught me exactly how to angle a hat. She taught me how to get in and out of cars depending on what you're wearing, and my girlhood was peppered with baffling pronouncements like "Don't walk like a Parisian". She could take two white gardenias and a fragment of ivy and put it into the most kitsch miniature horn-shaped bud vase you ever saw and somehow make it the one thing you want beside your bed, every night for the rest of your life. Her taste made rococco look spare. She had a completely matched bedroom suite that was I think walnut veneer with brass beading all the way around the edges. The dressing table was seven feet long (I know this because my mother is now using it as a sideboard in her hall) and had a marble top. Over it was a triptych-style gilt arched mirror as wide as the table and taller than my father which showed you both your profiles as well as the front of you. The table had many tiny drawers, each one delicately beaded and with a tiny brass pull. As she sat on the matching stool (tiny, spindly turned legs with a striped gold cushion on the top) and "put her face on", she would let me look in the drawers.

When I was a child these seemed like an endless sequence of wonders -- because they were. Everything was in a tiny box or soft drawstring bag, many lined with felt or padded with cotton wool. Amber worry beads. A chocolate box from the 1920s containing hundreds of different buttons. Carefully stored boxes of her favourite perfume, brought back from Hong Kong. Tiny shells which my mother had found as a child, inside boxes only a little bigger than their occupants. Embroidered bags from China with loose beads inside. A miniscule, 3" square leather-covered traveler's Italian dictionary with phrases in the back like "Porter, please be careful with the hat-box."

In the kitchen were canisters marked "Tea" and the inexplicable "Sago" and there were silver calling-card trays in soft yellow drawstring bags printed with red ink like a postmark.

Boxes and bags, jars and baskets. They are both magic and reality, safe and adventurous, inhabited by things both found and waiting to be found.

I can never have too many.


Meg said...

What a fascinating sketch! And she's gorgeous. Doesn't look a day older than 16 in that picture.

Xtin said...

Thanks Meg! I'm sorry that she's not here to know me now. My mother assures me I was a delightful child, but I think we'd have a million things to talk about if I could have tea with her today. She took hers black, with lemon. I still have the cup she served mine in.

Puzzled said...

Glamorous and beautiful, yes. What a priceless portrait.

Two priceless portraits, actually, counting your post.

jo(e) said...

What a fantastic description. I read it three times just to soak in all the details.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Echoing jo(e), I left a tab open to this post on my feed reader for about six hours today.

Scrivener said...

It is a beautiful portrait and a beautiful post. I wonder what sorts of connections you see between the end of this post and your "Dissembling" post of a couple days ago.

Xtin said...

Thanks everyone. It's a tribute to my grandmother's enduring appeal!

Scriv, exactly what you said about the connections with Dissembling. I was thinking about the fact that along with god-knows-what metaphorical role they're playing, there are also literally hundreds of actual boxes, bags, canisters, baskets and jars of all shapes and sizes populating my life. It's an ongoing joke with my friends.

So I got to wondering where the box thing came from, and while I was dumpster-diving in my mind, my grandmother's dressing table wandered by.

You never know what you'll find in there.

Heidi the Hick said...

yes yes yes. All of that. Everybody beat me to it!!

There are absolutely no portraits like that in my family. I come from a long line of very practical non-glamorous people...which can't come as a shock!

However, we're also a bunch of packrats and we do love stuffing treasures and other junk into boxes and things. Every day is an archaeological dig just waiting to happen!

Your grandmother's dressing table would have made me dizzy with happiness...

Heidi the Hick said...

You take after her quite a bit, don't you?