My California cousin Dede sent me a photo of our Mississippi Delta grandparents. C.M. and Margaret had photographed each other in the backyard of their Yazoo City home. They were old, but younger than I am now. They were paradoxically arrayed for the Antarctic.
I squinted to absorb the rare air – a snow storm in the Deep South; still it was not the landscape that made me zero in.
My Grandmother was wearing a dress under her coat to which my cousin offered as a lamentation – “I’m so grateful we can wear pants.”
This kind of gratitude will be shocking to my descendants. I must inform them that in my day girls were not allowed to wear pants until the late 1960s. We were notified on the intercom by Principal Black when we were allowed to do so.
Only certain days were sanctioned for the launch. Long culottes were preferred. Let’s be clear, this was public school, not a religious sect promoting the separation of the sexes.
My grandmothers could never roll with it though I begged them both to buy a pants suit and satisfy my curiosity. Today that’s an image that sadly I cannot conjure for their namesakes. Did the open air apparatus of a dress change their behavior, their ability to think critically or make them stinking mad as they departed to an early grave via bone-stayed breaths? I wonder – how did they perform child care, garden, fish or take on the heavy household stretching and squatting and keep their equilibrium.
When my little people play outside, I evoke a puff of steam when thinking about cold legs and a stiff petticoat during recess on the playground of yore. Things were subliminally judged by whether we girlies could remain upright. Sure jump rope and twirl the baton were buttoned up enough. Perilous funny businesses like climbing trees, rolling down the hill, monkey bars and ball were beyond the pale.
What a drag to mention to my young sisterhood that the skills in soccer could only be revealed as a pipe dream just two generations ago. Bummer to update them that individuals were routinely proscribed to live within a certainty mapped out in fear by the way we’ve always done it.
I missed out on a mentor moment when my Grandmother once showed me a newspaper photograph of Amelia Earhart. With shrunken imagination, she elevated not what Earhart accomplished but – “Look – she is wearing pants!” A feminine timidity stemming from the recent right to vote, but a start I suppose.
I reckon my cousin and I should be thankful for more than wearing pants. If no one challenged the status quo, we would still be wrestling with corsets, slips, longline bras, girdles, and spare me the thought and God Bless the change agents… chastity belts.
Can you imagine the drear of schlepping the weight in heavy fabric while cleaning the hearth and then washing said apparel? In the matter of decking, I’m with Martin Luther King when he said that the arch of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Momentarily I once was caught in that arch after breaking free in junior high of cultural restraints. I was aided by a mother who pursued the latest fashion craze at all costs while mixing her timelines. A dance was on the calendar and nothing would do but to replicate the quilted hot pants ensemble that I coveted in an issue of Seventeen magazine. (See Enchantment No. 9)
While constructing the get-up, she brilliantly suggested that roman sandals (leather straps roping up the fragile leg) would finish me off. Oh so prophetically true, I almost fainted while dancing only to be resuscitated when a nearby high stepper doing The Hustle unleashed my legs. Blood supply restored, I live today.
All to say, that when the times provide us with the necessary data that things must change, it honors the brain trust to perk up, consider the freedoms won over tomfoolery and pray for enlightened challenges in the name of things that don’t work anymore.
If it defies the personal identity even better. Rare air will open the mind and the vision quest that will certainly follow will be a reward. And then as the poet Rumi said: you may be cleared out for some new delight.