Art Deco greeting card
You remember the days when a lady never went to church without a hat, gloves, handbag and matching shoes?
My mother was not the glamorous daughter. That label was deservedly bestowed on her elder sister, the statuesque, nearly 6-foot blonde, who could cause traffic accidents by merely crossing the street.
No, my mother was said to be classic, handsome and tailored. She did not, unlike her sister and mother, inherit the clothes gene. My mother’s ensembles were simple man-tailored suits, walking skirts with silk blouses and sensible shoes that were well made and usually considered a long-term investment and that went with everything.
Occasionally, she would step out of the box and attempt to glam-up her look. This would usually result in her muttering under her breath as she stood in front of her full-length mirror, “Lillian, you look like Mrs. Astor’s pet horse.” This remark would ultimately throw her into a frenzy of clothes changing, and she would happily return to her suits of choice.
The ‘boys’—no match for mother
I’m the youngest of four boys with a 13-year span between youngest and eldest. At any given time, and for many years, there would be six males, the boys, as we were always referred to, my father and his father, sitting around the dinner table. You would think, weighing in heavily on the male side, that we would dominate the scene. Not so, my mother was the overseer and would hold court at her end of the table.
We were instructed in dining etiquette, taught how to make pleasant conversation, encouraged to engage in opinions on politics, world events, cultural happenings and to avoid unseemly topics that were deemed inappropriate for dinner-table conversation. In short, under mom’s tutelage, we were well-schooled diplomats.
Don’t get me wrong, we were normal, or at least, normal enough. We all, the boys, sang in the Episcopal Church choir. This was not something that we did for fun or needed to do to fulfill our yearning for Anglican sacred music. Rather, we were paid professional singers, part of a men-and-boys choir that totaled more than 45 singers. We sang at two services a Sunday, the 9 and the 11 o’clock. This meant that we would have to be up early to drive the 40 minutes and arrive on time. Our choir mother, Mrs. Merkel, was a pill about punctuality. She could afflict you with frostbite with one glance if you arrived after final rehearsal had already commenced.
Father rushes, mother futzes
Shirts starched, shoes polished, suits pressed, ties, pretied so we could just slip them over our heads, would have been laid out the night before in readiness. My father would drag us out of bed, point us in the direction of the bathroom, the boys shared one, and disappear to make breakfast. My mother would then begin to lay out her clothes for the day. She’d hold one seemingly identical blouse up against suits that looked remarkably similar to the one before and deliberate on how to put together her outfit.
Meanwhile, we had breakfasted, and my father had gone down to the garage to rev up the Chrysler. He would pull it up to the house, and we would all pile in waiting patiently for mother to arrive. My father was one of those men of infinite patience whose quiet surface was rarely ruffled. Except, he hated to be late. We knew when dad’s patience was being tested when he started to hum some themeless, nameless tune. The humming started this particular morning as we waited for mom to arrive. Oh, and along with the humming, my father would gradually start revving the car by degrees by way of supposedly hurrying mom wordlessly along.
This Sunday happened to be Mother’s Day. My father had laid a gardenia corsage in its plastic excelsiored box by her breakfast place. We were to meet my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and her glam sister at the country club after church. I’m sure, knowing this, my mother was thrown into spasms of delight as she envisioned both mother and sister in creations by Dior or Chanel or Schiaparelli, with the perfect hats, high-heeled shoes with pointy toes, makeup and hair perfect, pearls with a scattering of diamonds, appropriate for the occasion, and scented with Shalimar and Chanel No. 5.
Dior clip earrings
Mom threw on her original suit after changing it four times, slapped on her gold wristwatch, grabbed her handbag and in a streak of what could be called defiance and knowing that the fashion police would have something to say about it, recklessly slammed a cartwheel hat in pale lavender straw, trimmed with cabbage roses and matching lavender bow, on her head.
Mom rushed to the car while she pulled on her gloves and navigated the huge hat carefully into the car. My father, having seen her approach in the rearview mirror, made no comment as he pulled away from the house. We also made no comment as we stared at this confection that we had never seen before sitting on her head.
We had not even gotten to the bottom of the driveway when mom started to ask each of us what we thought of her hat. She started with the eldest and worked her way down to the youngest son sitting in the backseat. “Thomas, what do you think of my hat?” Tom, who was clueless, commented, “Fine.” “Raymer, what do you think of the hat?” My brother, Raymer, equally clueless, said it was OK. “Matthew, do you have an opinion?” “Ah, well,” was his reply. “Christopher, what do you think of my hat?” “Well, Mom, now that you mention it, I don’t really think it works with the suit.”
Early 20th-century card
With each answer, mom made no comment. My father, anticipating the question, reacted by speeding up the car, thinking that with the acceleration, he could dodge the question that he knew was going to be lobbed his way. “Raymer,” my dad was also Raymer, “what do you think of my hat?” My father, who invested heavily in candor, replied, “Frankly, Lillian, I think it looks like hell.”
The temperature noticeably dropped in the car. In a timbre that we boys recognized as “no nonsense” and pronounced in pear-shaped tones, my mother said, “Stop the car.” My father accelerated. “Raymer, stop the car.” Pretending not to hear, he, instead, intensely studied the road as if he was doing a quality-control check on the application of the white lines bordering his lane. With one quick motion, my mother pressed the window button, and as the window went down, she took the brim of the hat with her other hand and threw it out the open window. Without comment, she pushed the button again, and the window went up.
For the 30 minutes remaining in the trip, there was a silence in the car that could only be called cryptlike. My father was not a big laugher, meaning he was not the ha-ha, gusto type. Instead, when he laughed, the laugh would start with his shoulders beginning to shake. Then, the shake would travel the length of his body. By the time, we arrived at church, he could barely stand up he was laughing so hard.
1972 Royal Copenhagen Mother's Day plate
My mother was still silent. Ignoring him, she ushered us in the direction of the choir room. Then she disappeared. My father, thinking that she would drop us off and then proceed into the church as she had done for years, went in and sat in our pew. No mom. The organist began to play the prelude. No mom. The choir, fully dressed in cottas and cassocks, were gathering at the back of the church. No mom.
Just before the opening chords of the hymn were about to start, there was a muffled commotion that started at the back of the church where we were all congregated. The choir parted like the Red Sea, and there was my mother standing in the midst of us. On her hatless head was now a coronet of flowers, courtesy of the adjoining graveyard, consisting of lilacs, azaleas and mock orange that were woven into a halo and placed on the top of her head. With a poise and confidence not unlike a Pope dispensing indulgences or a blushing bride, she walked down the center aisle of the church and quietly took her seat, carefully avoiding the rubbernecking, smiling, and gawping stares she encountered on her way.
1924 Mother's Day card
My father took one look at her, and his whole body began to shake. He shook so hard that mom had to grab his arm for fear of his falling out of the pew into the aisle. She began to laugh, too, and her laughter was of the Wagnerian, Valkyrie type, starting low and working itself up into a crescendo. Soon the whole front of the church was laughing with them. The laughter spread down one side of the church and up the other. Meanwhile, the organist, known for his impish humor, had started playing “Here Comes the Bride” in response to mom’s march to the pew. This got the whole congregation laughing even harder, which was unheard of in an Episcopal church.
Hearing the laughter, the minister appeared and tried to shush the congregation. With the hilarity slightly subsiding, he asked my parents, in light of my mother seeming so bridelike, if they would like to renew their marriage vows. My parents, still laughing, looked at each other and said in unison, “Absolutely.” They sealed 27 years that day.
First edition Peanuts Mother's Day plate
– By Christopher Kent, a member of the WorthPoint board of advisers and director of evaluations for WorthPoint. He is also an antiques and collectibles generalist, fine-arts broker and president of CTK Design.
Want to let your mother know how much you care? Send her WorthPoint’s “Happy Mother’s Day” video compiled from vintage postcards.
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