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Skeletons in Her Closet

October 24, 2008


Selma in the City has a new blog, Search Engine Stories. Each Saturday she gives a writing prompt for us to use our creativity to write a poem, a story, a non-fiction essay, a photo essay, a piece of artwork, or a song. Be sure to stop in and be inspired! This week, she gave us several colorful prompts. I chose “sex red female.”


I first heard the term, “skeletons in your closet,” many years before it took on a literal meaning. To be honest, my family had many secrets hidden beneath our “average American family” persona.  A manicured lawn, pretty flowers lining the sidewalk, and a porch swing which received a fresh coat of paint each spring all served to disguise family turmoil inside the front door created from alcoholism, manic-depression, and child abuse. Our family secrets were closely guarded and I have come to describe our family as the family who put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Who would have ever thought the one pillar of strength and virtue in our family had a secret life. A life that was discovered shortly after her death at age 85, hidden in a trunk in her closet. Yes, Grandma too had skeletons in her closet.

I, along with my mother, was the ones to unwrap grandma’s secret. As I held the mementoes of her past in my hands, my mind could not fathom the implications they created. From my earliest childhood memories to the day she died, my grandmother was the poster child for the term “grandma.” She was a farmer’s wife who baked bread every morning in a wood-burning stove; who raised chickens and exchanged eggs at the local general store for flour, sugar and coffee; who washed her laundry on a washboard; who gave handmade quilts and ragdolls for Christmas presents; who made a pot of home-cooked chicken soup and carried it two miles to a sick neighbor; who taught all her grandchildren a hard day’s work provided a good night’s rest.  No, these images of my grandmother could not be connected in any way to the shameful find in her closet. No, it was absolutely impossible my grandma had been a bathtub gin drinking, cigarette smoking, hot jazz dancing, bobbed-hair, black-stockinet, painted up, fringed-spaghetti-strapped sex red female flapper!

But, as grandma was known to say, “the proof is in the pudding,” or in this case, hidden in a trunk in her closet. Beneath several scrapbooks, many pieces of material saved for a quilting project, and grandpa’s army uniform was a fairly large hat box. I was surprised to find a hat box as I had only known grandma to wear scarves, not hats. Inside the box was a package wrapped in butcher’s paper that had been firmly taped shut.  Once the tape was removed, we opened the paper to find the contents had also been wrapped in tissue paper. I began to anticipate what could have been so important to my grandma for her to have painstakingly packed it away. As we peeled back the layers of tissue, we found a silver-sequined 12” cigarette holder, a black satin elastic headband with one large and two small black feathers, a pair of real silk black hose with a thick band of elastic at the top of each legging, a small black sequined handbag attached to a very long braided shoulder strap also covered in sequins, a pair of size 9 black patent Maryjane 4” heels, and the reddest of red authentic flapper dress. The dress was a straight line style of silk slip-like material covered with seven layers of red fringe cascading from top to bottom. The spaghetti straps were covered in red sequins. I was stunned and totally unprepared for my mother’s words of disgust to our discovery, “I can’t believe she kept these things all these years. It’s like she was proud of her sinful days.”

Sinful days? Grandma? What in the world was she talking about? I should have known better than to ask, particularly since mom was obviously displeased by our find, but, of course this grandchild had to know how the items I clearly recognized as flapper fashion from the 20’s were possibly related to my straight-laced, virtuous grandmother. And mom was more than willing to share the sordid secrets of a woman scorned, especially if it meant her tale would take my grandma off the pedestal I had placed her on.

As the story goes, my grandma was wed at age 16 to a man she did not know. It was a marriage arranged by her father to cover a debt. Her new husband was from a wealthy, abusive family. She had been married for just over one year, when she found her husband in bed with her best friend the day after they buried a stillborn son.  She had as much as she could take from his physical abuse, and his infidelity and lack of concern for the loss of a child was more than she could swallow. In the wee hours of the night, she packed a few belongings into her husband’s 1923 Buick Roadster, stopped to pick up her cousin, and headed north to New York City. She lived in the city for three years, working as a waitress by day and obviously enjoying the nightlife as a flapper by night. She returned home when she became too ill work. Her husband had moved away shortly after her departure three years before. She moved back in with her parents where she remained until she became the “common law wife” of my grandfather. Actually, my grandparents were never able to marry as she never received a divorce from her first husband. Thus, the reason for my mother’s distaste for what the flapper clothes represented – she and her two brothers were bastard children.

That afternoon presented a bit of insight to my mother’s hateful nature that I had known all my life. I suppose for my mother’s generation, the state of her illegitimacy created many prejudices and heartaches. To be honest, I found myself applauding my grandma’s courage to stand up for herself and walkout on an abusive relationship.  I wanted to keep grandma’s treasures from her days of courage but my mother decided it was best to burn them. Best for whom, I asked myself?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2008 1:43 am

    What an amazing story Cricket and a great take on this prompt.

    I agree… your grandmother was a very courageous woman in an era when leaving any kind of marriage (even the very bad kind) was taboo.

    Really enjoyed reading this. G

    ~~Thank you Geraldine. I find I am not much of a poetry or fiction writer, but I do love writing true stories.

  2. October 24, 2008 6:23 am

    Oh, I wish you had been able to keep the clothes. What a courageous woman your grandmother was. She was one gutsy lady. I take my hat off to her because leaving one’s husband would really have been frowned on in those days. This is a fantastic story made even better because it’s true. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on board at SES. I am thrilled!

  3. October 24, 2008 2:05 pm

    great story, if one courageous woman can change her life for the better, then all the better, sometimes leaving is the only choice

    thanks for stopping and read my story.

  4. October 25, 2008 12:04 pm

    I’m surprised at how we always see people from the time of black and white pictures living black and white lives. Colour only fills the patterns in our lives. It is, of course, a fallacy. Colourful full lives are there for every generation to delve in to. Your grandmother lived a full colour life, how lovely you got to discover it. Sad your mother preferred the BW one.

    Good read, thanks.

  5. October 26, 2008 2:08 pm

    Oh, I’m so glad to have found your writing via Selma/SES. This is a gorgeous rich story that pulled me along from start to finish. The details are wonderful. The entire sequence of unwrapping all the precious items is perfectly paced and so very compelling. Ending with the question also seemed just perfect. Thanks for the really enjoyable read!

  6. October 29, 2008 9:15 pm

    Oh I’m with you! I think your grandma was courageous too! 😀

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