A Room I Remember from Childhood and a Garment
When I was young and living in Seattle, we visited Nana’s house in the country about every other weekend and for longer stretches during the summer. She and my grandfather lived in a lovely two-story dark gray clapboard home with white trim and black shutters on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. It was built around 1900, and had been her home from 1924 until her death in 1981. My father and aunt were raised here. It was hidden from street view by a high ivy-covered fence, that also concealed Nana’s large garden of begonias, rhododendrons, and old-fashioned roses.
The upper floor of the house had a large landing/seating area and three bedrooms. Two of these rooms shared the width of the house and overlooked the Sound. The third bedroom upstairs was the “attic room”. This was my favorite and the one I slept in during each visit.
It was on the other side of the upper floor across the landing from the two larger bedrooms, was narrow, and ran the full width of the house. At one end was a twin bed with a pale yellow painted metal frame and white chenille bedspread, a mahogany night table and tasseled lamp, a pale yellow painted dresser with attached mirror, and two similarly painted book shelves full of my father and aunt’s Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and other classic children’s books of stories and poetry. At the other end of the room was a treadle sewing machine, a large oak work table, an oak chest with drawers, and an oak book shelf with magazines and photo albums. The room was carpeted, over the bare fir floors, with three or four white felted wool area rugs with crewel embroidery. There were casement windows at either end of the room, curtained with sheer panels. Pale flowered wallpaper covered the walls, which rose on one side to about six feet then slanted with the roofline to eight or nine feet.
On the other side of the short wall, and behind a small painted wooden door probably no higher than four feet, was the attic. It, too, was narrow and ran the full width of the house and had a sloped roof to the eaves. One was unable to stand in it, but it was clean and well lit and even carpeted with throw rugs, so I didn’t mind crawling and stooping to get to the treasures inside.
My grandmother stored all kinds of things in there. Boxes of photos, old furniture, lamps, luggage, boxes of board games and old toys, and assorted trunks. In one of the trunks, she kept my aunt’s girlhood clothes - formal dance dresses, hats, gloves, purses, shoes, and girlhood memorabilia (photographs, scrap books, dance cards, letters, and pressed flowers).
Aunt Joan’s clothes enchanted me. And the garment I loved most was a pale butter yellow formal dance dress, of soft cotton voile with a very fine silk net overlay. It had a scooped neck and short puffed sleeves. It was slim and might have been an empire cut. The neckline was trimmed with a small ruffle and tiny embroidered flowers, a few of which were also stitched onto the netting. It seemed to me to be the dress of a princess. It was very fragile and I put it on with enormous care and ceremony. My little eight-year old self was transported.
This dress took me out of myself. I was not awkward plain Marilyn when I put it on. In it I was an ugly duckling who would soon and certainly become a beautiful swan - a Cinderella. It was soft and sensual, exotic. It was nothing like my own clothes, things I wore and tossed about without paying any attention at all to their material or construction. I realize as I write this that this was my first experience of the transformative power of fabric and clothing.