Ruth’s Advice/ My Shopping Mantra
This picture was taken in Key West, Florida in 2003 on Duval Street. Jim and I were on our honeymoon and I was so grateful for the dress above. It is my favorite, or one of them. I bought it in Miami at a store called Miami Twice, a ridiculous pun on Miami Vice. It is made of this very lightweight cotton, like crinkle cloth, with a tan/beige crocheted waist and panel down the front-middle and on the edges. Sadly, I am probably going to have to purchase a new bra contraption to continue to wear it, but oh how I have always loved the halter dress and how I still do, even though it might not be age appropriate (at least according to Stacey and Clinton of TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” but who are they really?).
I seem to write a lot about grandmothers these days, so why stop now? My paternal grandmother, Ruth Marie Strong Cassell, gave me this bit of fashion advice: Whenever you find something truly special, even if you can’t afford it, buy it. That mantra has guided me through many an impulse buy, and mostly she has been right. I certainly had no extra cash when I found myself at Miami Twice, but as soon as that dress was on, it was as if she (Ruth) popped up like an angel (or devil, you be the judge) on my shoulder and insisted that I buy it. So, I did and I was so glad to have that dress when Jim and I honeymooned in Key West in JULY. Yes. I said, Key West in JULY. Mostly, we walked around wet from the pool– that’s how hot it was, but this dress, which I pretty much wore everyday, was just perfect for that trip, and once I get my new bra thingamajiggy, it will be just perfect for this hotter-than-is-right summer we are having in South Carolina.
I keep thinking that with the proper “foundation garments” (as Stacey and Clinton call them) and with some midnight, free-weight arm workouts, I can perhaps wear this halter dress forever. I’ll be that crazy old lady in her garden with her wedged sandals and her halter dress. I bet you a million dollars I will be totally age-inappropriate– at least in my own yard– which, when you think about it is the least this world can give you when you have to put up with all the other crap it throws your way. I’ll bet you I am totally age inappropriate already. So be it.
My grandmother, Ruth, had a very strong sense of her own personal style. She was short, like me, and in fact I have pretty much inherited her figure to a tee (but she would tell you that her waist was smaller than mine ever was, and that was probably true). She, like me, was a fan of the wedged heel, the pre-Spanx “foundation” garments, Wind Song perfume, and the color Robin’s Egg Blue. She once wore wedged heels hiking at Turkey Run State Park and I can recall how impressed we all were that she actually didn’t twist her ankle and how annoyed we all were that it took her forever to get down a set of stone stairs next to a waterfall overlooking a mountain (I exaggerate, but you get the idea). It was dangerous and dumb to wear high heels hiking, but that was her style and she managed, so what’s it to anybody? They were her legs to destroy as she wished.
Ruth also was a fan of the costume bling, and I have some of it still on my dresser. One of my favorite pieces is this Tahitian looking bracelet. It has some sort of totem-looking figures hammered into a thick silver cuff with a black background. I always get compliments when I wear it and I think it is because in addition to looking funky, it also has some mystery to it. She also had a lot of turquoise, pearls (the long kind), and clip-on earrings. She gave me this wonderful Mandarin collared jumpsuit, which I want to have made into a sundress, but never find the time. An artist friend made the suit for her and this is one of the ways I know that I have her figure. Made for her and it fits me perfectly.
Ruth was an artist. She had an eye for the unusual. She liked knick-knacks with Asian themes and seaside landscapes. I suppose you could say she taught me what eclectic was before I knew what eclectic meant. She also used to make the most beautiful Easter baskets. One could call them almost glamorous. They certainly possessed sophistication beyond my realm, wrapped as they were in cellophane and sitting stoically on her table in the patio room. The candy was also special, purchased in downtown Chicago at some fancy store. There wasn’t a lot of candy, but what was there was good s**t (if you know what I mean). She also used to always put a white chocolate Easter bunny in the basket– not an ordinary old milk chocolate bunny from the drugstore, but a pure white chocolate bunny that looked like a real rabbit (as opposed to looking like a cartoon rabbit).
One of the stories my mom likes to tell is that Grandma wore a mink stoll (which I also have, sorry PETA people, but the mink was gone a long time ago) to her June wedding in Southern Indiana when the temperature was somewhere near 80. The rumor is that she rented it for the occasion and then decided that she needed to have it, so her husband bought it and that was that. She must have decided that it was special.
While Ruth wasn’t really the kind to put peanut butter cookies in her pantry, or to coddle you with goochey-goo stuff, she was the kind of woman who possessed a sense of her own style and wore it well. She wasn’t afraid to let you know that you could use a little eye-brow pencil or that your lipstick needed re-application, or that a certain hairstyle suited you. She wasn’t afraid to let you know when you were being too righteous or self-important, or critical of the people she loved.
She so worried that I would never get married. I am glad that she met Jim. She died the spring after we married. She had been in a slow decline with dementia, which was heartbreaking to witness. I can recall that even at the nursing home the last time I saw her, she told me that she had lost some weight. It was a loop in her brain that kept playing over and over (she was always worried about her figure) and I thought, “Ah, geez. Is that crap always going to play in our heads? Even when we’re 90 and in a nursing home?” And the truth is, if we care about ourselves? Probably.
She called her walker her dune-buggy. She was insulted if anyone ever bought her anything in a size over medium. And I’m sure, on that last day I saw her, she was wearing the proper foundation garment.
Not that it matters, but Stacey and Clinton would have approved.