My mother always did everything with style. She was a gentle and refined Auntie Mame with a special talent for creating beauty in the most barren of circumstances. It was more than fashion-awareness; Mother was born with an innate sense of color, design and good taste that kind of bubbled out and spilled over on to whatever crossed her path. She was tall and stately like a Vogue mannequin, and the big-brimmed hats she wore became her trademark, drawing admiring glances wherever she went. She was an elegant and classy lady.
To look at Mother, nobody would have guessed we were as poor as church mice during the depressed '30s. Her ingenuity and style never allowed my little sister or me to look shabby or feel impoverished. My father's untimely death, followed by some bad investments and the crash of '29, forced Mother to sell her beautiful home in Orange County and go back to Detroit where her parents lived.
Leaving our playmates, bicycles and backyard behind, we watched our California life style melt away as we headed east on the Union Pacific. Mother, refusing to give in to the heartbreak of leaving her home and garden with its verbena, heliotrope and oleanders reaching to the second floor windows, referred to our new life as an "exciting adventure." "You'll see real snow, girls, that makes the city look like fairyland with gobs of white frosting on every tree and bush," she said.
Our new home turned out to be a drab little four-room apartment in an unfashionable section of town, where the rents were cheap and the schools good. It was a dingy building with long, white-tiled halls that smelled of other people's cooking, but once you stepped into our apartment, there was a feeling of warmth and California charm. Mother's talent for creating beauty with yards of fabric and a can of turquoise paint could turn a warehouse into a decorator's dream.
She borrowed a saw and cut off the legs of our old Philco so that it looked like a fashionable commode instead of a radio on sticks. Our apartment was filled with pots of growing plants and geraniums which she coaxed into bloom in the dead of winter. Colorful chintz replaced the window shades so that what we lacked in privacy was compensated by the airy sweep of sunshine-filled rooms. There was a tiny, windowless dinette connected to the kitchen, but we ate most of our meals in the sun room where we had a view of the tree-lined street framed by the jungle of Mother's plants. We used to pretend we were looking at the rows of orange trees that lined our Santa Ana driveway.
Dinner was usually served in the dinette, its tininess made cozy by flickering candles. Franco-American spaghetti always tasted better by candlelight.
Mother's prized possession was her Western Electric sewing machine room whence came our dresses and coats. After completing a course in French dressmaking, she set up shop in the sun room, earning enough to pay the rent and buy the groceries.
The lack of a car didn't stop her from broadening our horizons. We rode the streetcars everywhere--to museums, church and to visit friends--Mother in her silk print and big hat and my sister and I in matching outfits. In winter, dressed in warm coats and galoshes, we often chose to walk to our destination, stopping for hot chocolate on the way.
Many years later when we married, Mother's newly acquired sons-in-law, captivated by her charm and elegance, dubbed her "Bubbles"--a name chosen for its very inappropriateness. Somehow "Mom" didn't quite fit this paragon of style, and she took to her new name with good-natured delight. The hilarity of the name took the edge off the dark war years and the illness she never discussed.
The large cartwheel hats and high-necked dresses artfully disguised the fatigue in her face and the gauntness of her body. Mother became ill before she became old, and she never returned to her beloved Orange County. She faced those long, debilitating months of suffering with typical grace and courage. One morning she slipped away from us, and our world lost some of its brightness. For years afterward we would run into old friends and mere acquaintances who would reminisce about the tall woman in the big hat. "She was sure an elegant lady," they would say.