Monday, May 20, 2013

Queen Victoria's Birthday and Victorians I Have Known

Here in Canada, we are in the middle of the Victorian Day Weekend or the May 24th Weekend or the The Queen's Birthday or, in more recent years, the 2-4 Weekend, which is as the name suggests - a case of beer.  It is the unofficial start to summer.  Canadians have earned an early start to summer this year.  But not by much.   Buff texted last week saying he was frostbit one day and sunburnt the next.  As the saying goes hereabouts, "Wait 20 minutes and the weather will change."  The lilacs have finally burst open and with their blowsy lavenders and overpowering scent I am always brought back to Victorians I have known.      

Our family attended a small country church.  Lilacs barely held in by a low, white, board fence and lane-way tippled along the church's south side.  A cow pasture and identical lane and fence buffered the north side.  When the wind was in the south we got lilacs.  When the wind was in the north it was cow.  Old Mrs. Norman, who always wore the same black pork-pie hat but with a changing nosegay of flowers, sat on the north side and two pews from the front.  She always wore a black cape like thing or sweater, white high-neck blouse with gold and black pin, and dark skirt down to her shoes.  The shoes were black oxfords with a sensible smallish stacked heel.  I know this because from the vantage point of my mother's lap, I could see her feet when she sat.  Her sons sat with and around her with their families.  The men always smelled of cow.  Mrs. Norman apparently couldn't hear well so the deacons installed into the pew where she sat, some sort of hearing aid device of which I never saw her use.     

Our family sat two pews from the front on the lilac side, behind the organist.   The organist swayed and bowed and bent with her hymn-playing just like the lilacs outside the open window danced and swished in the spring air.   When not observing Mrs. Norman, I was kept curious by the bulging ridges rippling across the organist's back.  As she moved to the music so did the bulges.  They were right above the brassiere line and again at the waistline.  Women said "brassiere" back then, not bra.   Of course I didn't know about brassieres and the organist apparently had long ago gone corset-less. Corsets were something however, I did know about, having found a trunk of my grandmother's old clothing, up in the attic. 

Descending the stairs, I shouted,  "Mom.  What's this?"  My mother busy in the kitchen turned around and said,  "Good.  Grief.  Decadent.  What are you doing?"  Her cheeks flushed and she made some quick low "tt, tt" sounds and said, "Take that old thing off." 
"What is it Mom!?"  I twirled around tangling up a wedding veil while holding the corset around my middle." 
"Take that thing off!"   "Off" and a following word, "bulging" were muttered disgusted and in a low register as though she were afraid someone might wander in and see this spectacle in her kitchen.  Or that I, a six-year old didn't know any better or that she was unexpectedly faced with telling me all about  corsets at such a young age.  "It keeps you from bulging.  But all women did was ruin their livers and spleens and make their back-ends look big."  By this time she was whispering and now when I think about it, sounded very much like Napoleon Dynamite.

This was quite a lot for a six year-old to digest back in 1960-something.  I wasn't sure what bulging meant, and liver and spleen sounded repulsive.  I marched back upstairs and put the corset and veil back into the bonnet-top, but not before taking a good look again at the label boldly affixed to the lid interior - a woman wearing nothing more than a corset and bloomers, black button-top shoes and ribbon in her upswept hair.   

Old Mrs. Norman sat slightly bent over, her face caressed with wrinkles not deep or ragged.  Her soft white hair was pulled back into a swept up roll.  At the back of her head, little curls peeked out beneath the pork-pie's brim.  Genuine granny glasses framed her watery blue eyes.  I don't ever recall that she once looked at the preacher.  Instead, head downward, she held her bible on her lap, gently tapping or lightly running a translucent left hand up and down the open page.  Her small rectangle of a purse with left glove resting on its top sat on the pew to her left.  She held a white handkerchief in her gloved right hand.  And on occasion when the wind shifted, she would raise the handkerchief to her face.    


Julia said...

I love your lilacs pictures but I think that I love your corset story best and the old lady who sat in the front.

Have a nice Victoria Day. We are having rain here in Fredericton N.B.

Terra said...

This is a great portrait of Mrs. Norman that you painted with words.