I’m wearing a forest green, vintage-style dress, and I feel lovely. I may not actually look as lovely as I feel, but I’ve learned that the feeling does wonders for the look. There’s a fist-sized yet faint scorch mark in the middle of the front of this dress, where I tried to iron for a second and then realized I shouldn’t have the night before I wore it for the first time, but I tell myself it adds character to the dress and makes it look even more vintage. I like the shape of the dress and the fact that the green somehow brings out the green of my eyes. I put a little blush on my cheeks, and I look in the mirror and see beauty.
To top it all off, I gird myself with my usual armor: earrings and bracelets and rings from women in my family. When I say ‘women,’ I really only mean my Granny—my dad’s mother—and Patty K—my Granny’s niece (also known as my dad’s cousin). Patty K and my Granny were close—in age, it always seemed to me, but also in taste.
Because Patty K lived in D.C. while I was growing up, I only met her a handful of times before I was in college. When I got to college—which was the community college and then the university near my grandparents—I lived in an apartment in the building my grandparents owned. Shortly after I moved in, Patty K moved into an apartment below me. Her husband had recently died, and she wasn’t in much of a condition to care for herself, at least not without family around. It turned out that my Granny was really the only family she had. So Patty K and I became neighbors.
Patty K had a way of studying me, in a not-so-dissimilar way that older people tend to study younger people who ‘remind them of themselves at that age.’ She would claim I had the flawless skin of my Granny or a gorgeous figure or interesting style. She took to leaving me little gifts outside of my apartment door, sometimes with notes, sometimes just there for me to find. I would occasionally receive late-night phone calls from her: slurred speech, punctuated by tears, telling me about how gifted I was. I was always a quiet, submissive kid, so in a way I enjoyed this admiration, even if it came from my second cousin with an alcohol problem and agoraphobia.
One Christmas—one of the few times she didn’t come up with an excuse not to leave her house—Patty K brought a bag full of jewelry that she spilled on a bed in the back of my Granny’s house and told the four of us—my two sisters, brother, and me—to pick out two pieces each. I have a hard time believing my brother found anything, but my difficulty was that I couldn’t narrow my choices down to just two. While I was trying to decide, Patty K was pushing one particular piece on me, a piece she thought was made just for me and that of course I ended up choosing, because when someone says something like that, how can you say no? The piece was one I wanted anyway: a gold ring shaped like a leaf on a flower with the sharp point sticking out and a pearl set into some black substance. (I wish I knew the more technical terms for the shape of the ring and the ‘black substance’ in it, but I don’t. I just liked how it looks.) One of her husbands had had it made for her, and it was now my inheritance.
On occasion, my Granny—who is still alive and well—will similarly take me to one of her jewelry stashes and give me some bracelets. She will tell me which pieces I will inherit when she dies, sometimes as she’s wearing one of them, and when I lived in their apartment building, she would bring a bracelet for me when we’d go out to dinner. My most worn jewelry is from my Granny and Patty K: rare, exquisite pieces that never go out of style. They are unobtrusively graceful, and they go well with everything. That may be part of the affinity we three shared for each other, a sense of style that started decades before I was alive and will outlast us all.
There are days where I feel nervous or uncomfortable about leaving the house—whether out of particular anxiety for what I will have to face at work that day or just out of a general uneasiness for how people will react to what I’m wearing—and on those days, I am more deliberate in my choice of jewelry. I always choose a ring or a bracelet or even earrings that Patty K or my Granny gave me and put them on as talismans of strength—strength I summon through the generations of women who have worn them. They serve as my protection, a bolstering of my spirit that gives me access to the support these two women have always given me. I feel their unique spirits, however briefly, and know that I can face whatever awaits me. Others may not be able to see, but I have a force field around me—even if, were it to become visible, it is the shape of two older women holding my hands.
So today, with my vintage-style dress, I am wearing that gold pearl ring from Patty K, as well as a gold bracelet with black stones in it and black stone earrings from my Granny. I want to embody the style we three adore, one that could fit in as easily in the 1950s as today. But because of how lovely I feel, today was not a strength-summoning girding. Today is an homage: to the style, timelessness, and elegance of the two women in my family who shaped my own style most intimately– and to the inner confidence that their seeing me as one of them imbued.