The Dancing Crinoline: A story of the Carolina Cherry Blossom

I was reminded of this incident of my misbegotten youth when someone commented on the picture I posted of the Carolina Cherry Blossom:  “What a hellion….I mean, what an adorable child…”  I was both – an adorable hellion.  I was the apple of my papa’s eye, the heart of my grandmother Ninny, the unsolvable puzzle for my mother, and for my two teenaged aunts, I was….hell.

We were a multi-generational family living in the home built the previous century by one of our ancestors.  My bedroom had actually been the bedroom of a family member (young man) who went off to fight the War of Northern Aggression.   He returned home to die of his wounds, in that room.  I would often look out my bedroom window, down onto the ancient gardenia bush below.  In the summer, I would breathe in its fragrance and wonder if he had dreamed of it, while so far away.  At night, I would look down and see the pure white blooms glowing like earthbound stars.  I imagined him lying in the same room, in the heat of his last summer.  Could he smell the gardenias and magnolias?  Did he suffer?  When he was young, like me, did he stay up late at night and look out at the sky?

But I digress.  We were a multi-generational family and to be honest, eccentric.  A southern version of the Addams family, if you will.  Full of all manner of oddnesses and peculiarities, but loving and accepting of each other.  No gothic Faulkneresque cannibalism or ugliness for us.  We were a happy and tight group.  At least, we were until The Hellion would spring forth to torture her poor aunties.

My Aunt Gay was the beauty of the family – black curly hair, coffee bean brown eyes, skin that was roses and milk, full lips and winsome ways.  She was also a little, shall we say, nervous?  Easily excitable?  She was extremely particular about her appearance and dress. Always perfect, in fashion, neat, clean, dainty.  She made many of her clothes and they fit her like smooth kid gloves.  She had several sets of crinolines – fluffy puffy magical undergarments that swelled her skirts and often peeped beneath them.  Pure white, or pale yellow with pastel roses and ribbons, sky blue and pink combination…lovely things they were.  They were also a royal pain in the whazoo to maintain.

Gay would hand wash them and then mix up the perfect starch solution and dip them in the solution.  They would be hung on the line to dry and then, she would iron them to fastidious perfection.  Hours of work was involved.  I loved those crinolines.  I’d pass by the laundry line and gaze and dream.  How my heart yearned for just the plainest one!

My mother dressed me sensibly.  Clothes that didn’t easily rumple, capris and shorts for the summer, dresses that had some pleats but no frou-frou like lace or crinolines.  I pined for frou-frou.  I craved crinolines.  I coveted eyelet.  Never mind the fact that I climbed trees, roller skated down the sidewalks, trained my cats and dogs to do tricks or enjoyed making miniature towns and streets and army bunkers in the dirt.  Forget the fact that my grandfather taught me to box because I was small and the neighborhood kids picked on me (but not very often after the first couple of times). Or that I had imaginary sword fights on the outside steps leading up to the third floor (Errol Flynn had nothing on me!)  And let’s look the other way when I would shinny down the tree outside my window to sneak out at night and roam about the yard.   I wanted to be a lace begarbed hellion.  Sensibly dressed hellions were ordinary and dime-a-dozen.  I had learned the words “femme fatale” and longed for it.

One Saturday, my dreams possessed me.  I could not avoid the laundry line that day.  Every step took me past it.  Every glance flew to the bundles of froth drying in the sun.  With the deep sigh of the damned, I shucked off my little red capris and my oxfords and ran to the line.  Reaching up to the most beautiful crinoline, the pale yellow one with the pastel ribbons and rosettes, I jerked it from the line in one sure motion.  Without taking a breath, it slipped over my head.  I gazed downward, amazed at the beauty, like sea foam, swirling on the grass around my feet. I had been reading Greek mythology and in my mind, I was Aphrodite rising from the foam.   I twirled and tripped up in the skirts.  Picking myself up, I pulled it up under my armpits.  Perfection!  I began to leap about – plie-ing to the best of my short-legged ability.  Going down a bit of slope, I gained momentum.  I was flying!  I was thistledown, I was the Faery Queen, I was a prima ballerina!

Around the house, I leapt.  Unbeknown to me, my aunt Gay had gotten off from her part-time job at the dress shop early.  As her dainty foot hit the sidewalk as she stepped down from the bus, I came around the house.  Horror!  Her eyes fixed on me at the same time mine fixed on her.  Picking up the skirts of the crinoline, I took off at run around the house.  Throwing all to ground, she took off behind me.  Around the house we went three times, each time, she got closer.  Our family watched from their various positions on the front, side, and back porches or the upper story windows.  No one dared intervene.

As she was about to grab the long braid of hair flying behind me, I swarmed up the tree that branched out at my bedroom window.  Like a squirrel I left her and the ground behind.  I settled myself onto a branch and shucked the crinoline down to the ground.  Like a tragic blossom, it belled to the ground at her feet.  Gay screamed at me, “You little wretch, if I ever get my hands upon you, you are going to become knacker meat for Mrs. Williamson’s dogs (a mastiff and a Pekingnese, both of them beasts)”.  I sat on the branch, feet hanging down out of reach.  I was not coming down.  I could ride Mrs. Williamson’s mastiff like a pony and I currently had marks on my ankles from where Huo had latched upon me as I had snuck into Mrs. W’s raspberry patch.  For all his size, he was a fearless watchdog.  His name should have been Dragon.

Finally, my Grandmother was able to stop laughing and come outside to intervene.  Putting her arm around her daughter’s shoulders, she looked up at me.  “Little Love, if Aunt Gay promises not to grind you up, will you come down?’  Gay had muttered under her breath at my nickname.  Ninny shushed her.  “Do you promise not to grind her up, set her on fire, tie her up and drop her down the well, or cut her hair in her sleep, if she comes down?  I need to finish supper.”  Gay stood silent, arms crossed, cheeks red and eyes burning with tears.

“Mama, I was going to wear that crinoline tonight when Frank took me to the dinner dance at the Washington Duke Hotel.  Now, it is ruined….ruined!”  She put her head on Ninny’s shoulder and cried as if her heart was broken, as indeed, it was.  Ninny looked up at me and shook her head.  I wasn’t home free yet.

“Little Honey, I’ll fix up your white eyelet while you take your bath.  Your sky blue crinoline and my pearls will be perfect.  Okay?”  Gay looked up at me and stuck out her tongue.  She hugged Ninny, picked up her purse and went into the house.  Ninny crooked her finger at me and motioned for me to come down.  “And you, you will hand wash this crinoline, make any repairs, starch it and iron it.   Do you hear me?”  I swung down from the tree and solemnly went into the house, forlornly lugging  the bedraggled crinoline.

I took it to the laundry room.  I didn’t have to wait long.  Ninny came and took the crinoline into her hands.  She gave it a swift once over and declared that under the circumstances, it was in good shape.  So, no sewing for me to have to do.  I hated sewing then and I hate it now.  FYI:  My sewing kit is a stapler, some straight pins, and duct tape. Together, we carefully washed the crinoline and treated stains.Starch was mixed and we dipped the crinoline in.  We hung the crinoline and hoisted it to the ceiling to dry.  The warm room would cause it to dry quickly.

Later that evening, I was sitting at the window in my bedroom.  I saw the white Corvette convertible holding my aunt and her boyfriend pull into the driveway.  Carefully, I pushed the screen away from the window and balancing myself, leapt onto the special branch of my oak tree.  I made my way down to the ground stepping quietly, to the side porch where the two lovers were sitting in the porch swing, Frank’s arm around my aunt’s shoulders.  I stood for a moment or so to allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  Just as he was about to plant a kiss, I picked up a small pebble and threw it.  It glanced off the back of his head.  He brushed at his head and went back in.  Another pebble.  Another brush.  Another attempt at a kiss.  Three times.  Just as he was about to whip around to see what was going on, I went behind the hedge out of sight.  About that time, the porch light came on.  “Settin’ time” was over.  I hugged myself as I shook with silent laughter.

Back up the tree to the safety of my room.  As my bedroom door opened, I slid under the sheets, eyes closed.  Gay stood there for a moment.  “I know you aren’t asleep. Don’t even try it.”   She came and sat on the bed.  “Why?”  I sat up.  “Because I want to be as pretty as you.”  She looked at me and smiled.  “You are already prettier.”  And she went to her room.

For my birthday that year, there was a large box from her.  In it was my very own crinoline – white with white satin ribbons, rosettes, and lace.

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