Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ursula Maud

(N.B. A slightly different version of this article may appear in the Worn Fashion Journal Zine: Everything I Know About Fashion I Learned From My Mother.)

I grew up not knowing very much about my grandmother, Ursula Maud. Until I was 7 or 8, my parents and I visited my father’s family in England every second summer. I remember her at home in Cambridge: in the kitchen, watching me play in the yard, or in my grandfather’s garden, a veritable Secret Garden full of lush flowers, stretching far above my small head.

I called her Nanny, and my uncle Ralph tells me, interestingly, that she switched between being known as Ursula or Maud at times, which he thought was utterly adventurous of her. She was Maud when raising her children, and decided in her later years to be Ursula, saying she had always preferred it. Ralph remembers that, around that time, she started taking care of her own appearance. She always looked fashionable to me, but in an uncomplicated way: she was never much for glitter or fuss. I remember being proud, as the only granddaughter, to go out alone with her, to visit her friends or to shop, when we visited Cambridge.

Nanny died when I was nine, in 1989, just a few months before my father died. I remained in sporadic contact with my uncles, Michael and Ralph, and my cousins. In 2005, my cousin, Kielan, visited Montreal, and brought Nanny’s sewing box with him. It had been found by Judith, a friend of Michael’s, while she was cleaning out his garage after his death. As Judith wrote in a note to me that she slipped into the box, there was little of (monetary) value in there, but she felt the memories would be precious to me.

She was right. The box is a touchstone for me to Nanny’s everyday life. Looking inside is like looking into a part of her world.

The box, uncared for for years, smelled earthy and musty when I first opened it. It was well worn, with a large crack splintering the floral design on the lid. Inside was an insignia for Chadwick’s Sewing Cottons, and, beneath that, a mishmash of stuff.

Along with sewing supplies, there was some costume jewelry, a picture of my Granddad from the 1920s, and a picture of me, around age 7. Oddy, at some point, my uncle Michael (a long-time Quaker) had stuck his own Book of Common Prayer in there (inscribed the year he turned 18).

A well-worn piece of fabric, onto which Nanny hooked her spare needles, lay neatly on top of the sewing supplies and photographs. The care with which she had threaded each needle— easily close to thirty years ago now— moved me. I slipped my thumb into her thimble and imagined her sewing, mending things for three boys, slipping a keepsake or two into the box over the years.

I delicately opened a slim box emblazoned with the label “Cash’s woven names,” only to find shirt labels in my father’s name, probably from his days at school. I did some research: Chadwick’s, I discovered, was a sewing machine company from Lancashire, managed by Thomas Chadwick in the late 1800s. Cash’s, founded in 1846 by two Quaker brothers (ha!) from Coventry, is still around and woven names from the same period as my father’s are still traded online on antiquing websites.

The box gave me a better sense of who my grandmother was: it filled in the fuzzier edges of her image in my mind. It gave me a further sense of her as someone who was mostly deliberately unshowy: her sense of fashion evolved after her children left home, but she remained restrained, sensible, uninterested in baubles and fads. In many ways, I am the same way. I usually prefer more traditional, uncomplicated looks: functionality, an avoidance of the flashy or ostentatious. Having the box reminds me how times have changed: fewer people mend things, instead buying new. I don’t sew, but while I may have not inherited the skills she had, I embrace the sentiment: I’m often (badly) patching things up, or (more likely) bringing things to a tailor, which is even becoming a lost habit these days.

Once I got over the initial emotion of receiving the box, of holding in my hands items that Nanny had treasured and tucked away, I began to think about what I could wear. She had a slight build, as I do; in her wedding picture, which she and Grandad hold in the photo below, she wore a simple slip dress and flat shoes, looking not unlike I did at my wedding (minus the veil). Fashions of the time changed, and her sewing box contained everything from a delicate iron necklace with a small snowdrop pendant (vaguely 1920s), to a triple-strand of large plastic bronze, green, and brown beads (evocative of the 1960s). Whenever I wear something of hers, I proudly tell people that it belonged to her. I’ve repaired or re-strung a few things, too. They are tangible links for me, however tenuous, to her. The box, to me, is memory: it fills the gaps in the memories I have, and gives me a sense of who I am, and how I express myself. I feel like Maud and I are similar; my own sense of fashion, my own tastes, are placed in context from knowing her better. I will never be able to repay Judith for rummaging through that box in the garage, finding the box, thinking of me, and somehow knowing what it would mean to me to have it.

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