I was hanging laundry out today, as it was breezy and sunny here on our hilltop, and I have a nice long roll-out clothes-line, stretching from the raised deck by the house to a tall pole in the side yard. Half way into the task I got to the stack of panties in their varying pastel colours—bought this way, not faded from former fire engine red, cobalt blue or Kelly green ones— although I will confess that I’ve been there, and done that too. I like to sort my wet laundry as I remove it from the washer into categories, much like my mom always did when she line dried laundry too. Then with my basketful already sorted and ready to pin up, I am able to hang it out in much less time. This only matters, of course, in finger numbing frigid weather, but our habits stay with us, even at times when the reason for them is gone. Today, with sunshine, and bird song, and row upon row of bright yellow daffodils to gaze on, I should have sorted on the deck. Wordsworth certainly would have.
Whilst pinning them up I started reflecting on the fact that I would be mortified if a Hydro meter-reader or the propane delivery guy should happen by, and gawk at this frumpy chorus line of practical panties flapping in the breeze. I remembered the first time that I ever felt this way about laundry on the line, and I laughed at the irony of it all. You spend the very earliest part of your life as a woman, mortally embarrassed about your undergarments, and after fifty years pass here you are again, fretting over the same old same old. I was 11 years old when my sister Marsha and I first graduated from undershirts— young for then, but not so much in today’s world where girls are developing much earlier. Marsha never said so, but it must have been a bit of a downer at times that I, the younger of the two of us, was the early bloomer, reaching some of the big milestones in life ahead of her. I was exactly the same size as she was from age two ’til eleven, which tempted my mother to frequently dress us like twins; we were such cute little head–turners in our matching outfits. Then suddenly I shot up by six inches— so I was the cause of our hasty visit to the lady’s underwear section of Simpsons Sears to try on brassieres.
Suddenly, one bright and shiny morning as I leaned over the table to pour milk on my little brother’s cereal my mother looked at me with an expression of surprise on her face. I suppose it was the kind of reaction a person sometimes has to an unexpected early spring— one day nothing, the next day you’re racing to the store for a bag of onion sets.
The initial thrill of choosing those white cotton brassieres, (nobody called them bras back then) and the anticipation of getting to wear one for real, as soon as we got home was exhilarating. This, however, wore off very quickly; it was August and it was hot! I was in misery when pink gouges began to appear in my tender shoulders, and I could constantly feel the metal clasps digging into my back. Apparently my choices were only two. I could wear the thing tight to keep it where it belonged, straining in a tug of war against the shortened straps which Mom had adjusted for me to the degree of snugness she thought they should have, or I could wear it loosely clasped. If I wore it loose, with those Mom-adjusted straps, it would slide up very nearly to my throat every time I lifted my arms. In the end I decided to not wear it at all, a situation I got away with for only a few more blessed weeks of childhood.
This dismal outcome to a highly anticipated moment in my life was followed very quickly by another huge anticlimax. That wonderful cartoon presentation with the singing birds and beautiful butterflies that we got to watch in school, while all the boys went outside to play baseball, the one that glowingly implied all the joy we would experience once we joined the sorority of womanhood, well, it was a big scam as far as I was concerned! If this was one of the benefits of joining the sorority of womanhood you could keep it— a different undergarment for a different purpose, but with the same old threat of unfathomable embarrassment. These were the memories that surfaced today as I pondered my increasingly drooping clothesline.
When I thought, in those early years, that I had already experienced just about all that I could endure in regards to unfamiliar undergarments, along came our very image-conscious Aunt Betty from Pittsburgh. She was one of my mother’s older sisters. Although she was very sweet most of the time, and very concerned with keeping us all on the straight and narrow concerning our personal appearance, sometimes we suspected the altruism of her motives. When it came to one of her loud proclamations (which I remember word for word because I was so personally mortified by it) I suspect that it was actually meant to embarrass my mother, rather than to improve my sister and me. My Aunt Betty was good at making my Mom feel like she was the Country Mouse being honoured with a visit from the City Mouse quite often when she visited.
Perhaps she was simply trying to embarrass her attractive, trimmer, much younger sister when, sweet side hidden for the moment, she boomed out for all to hear, “Jean, just look at those girls of yours; they need girdles! Look at those little stomachs poking out; we have to fix this before they get any worse and it’s too late to do anything about it! I’m going to take them shopping this afternoon, and I’ll buy them what they need! ” I was eleven years old and almost my full adult height of five feet six inches at the time; I weighed in at somewhere around 100 pounds, and yet somehow I was in need of a girdle? Apparently a short-legged floral printed latex girdle with built-in clasps for holding up nylon stockings!
Of course, we were far too young for stockings— that alone should have set Aunt Betty straight as to the appropriateness of the whole purchase. Nevertheless, for the two remaining weeks of her visit we had no choice but to wear the girdles to try to improve our “pot bellies″ .The only time we weren’t wearing them was when we were sleeping or when they were hanging out in full view of my grandfather, my dad and my brothers as they passed under the clothes line! The younger girls thought they were wonderful— Marsha’s yellow and gold one, and my purple and blue one, gloriously printed in floral prints, but then, they didn’t have to sit on those hard metal clasps with the rubber buttons poking through. They didn’t have deep impressions of the torturous tabs on their upper thighs every time they got up from a chair.
The girdle wearing routine came to an abrupt halt after Aunt Betty’s departure, much to our great relief, but in reality, she had done us a big favour. As girdles were meant to be stretchy, they still fit us very well a few years later when we unboxed them again. That was on the day that we were finally allowed to wear nylon stockings for the first time to a special occasion, the wedding of a cousin. Unknowingly, our Aunt Betty had helped us to enhance our femininity in a way that was far more appreciated than her attempts were the first time around. She had borne the significant expense of providing each of us with a very useful article of underclothing for a later time when we would actually require it.
As the day drew to a close I went out to the deck again to pull in all the wonderful fresh smelling laundry from the line. I think that I figured something out today— Sometimes the gifts we are given are not the least appreciated at the time, but somehow we grow into them, or get comfortable with them, or discover that they are better gifts than we at first thought. Sometimes we may even have boxed them up and put them away. It is these gifts, that sometimes surprise us when we find them again later on in life, at a time when they prove to be just what we need for the person we have become.