I have meant to post this for awhile, and today feels like the right time. This is a reading excerpt of one of the pieces I drafted two summers ago at the Washington University Summer Writers Institute.
In adjusting to life without both of my grandmothers, I have days where the ache for my paternal grandmother, who has been gone for five years, is palpable. On those days, my chest literally aches. There's something about sunny, Indian summer weekend afternoons that makes me miss her most. She gave me so many intangible things that I am carrying through my adulthood without her. Mathilda is one of the tangible things that brings me comfort and makes my grandmother feel close. Without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to Mathilda, an unlikely childhood friend.
Mathilda was a complete bodice: black fabric skin with golden glints woven in. Her neck was collared with gold metal and capped with a black circular handle for adjusting her measurements. Her trunk stopped just below her hips. She was minimally busty, just like Grandma. She rested on one leg attached to a four-footed platform. In childhood Mathilda towered over us, and though she didn’t have a head or face, she seemed complete.
My family of four lived just a few miles from Grandma and Grandpa’s home, Steeleville, as it was affectionately called by the family. We visited weekly, which never seemed frequent enough. Our visits always began with Grandma offering glasses of sweetened ice tea – a necessity in their un-air-conditioned Kansas home—as we caught up on the recent highlights of each others' weeks. My little sister, Sarah, and I would sit awhile and visit, but the possibilities for imaginative play were too powerful to resist for long. Our parents and grandparents would continue to visit as the miniature roll-top desk in the living room beckoned us to play “office.”
Grandma’s dress form, Mathilda, stood still and silent in the upstairs closet. By the time I knew her, she was retired from her duties helping Grandma, who once made clothes for herself. Previously a closet used by two little boys born in the 1940s, it was now a messy container for their mother’s wrapping paper, knitting needles, and fabric scraps. Mathilda’s reign was supreme.
Grandma would take the lead up the steep, red carpeted steps. Like ducklings, we would waddle behind her. She would open the closet door, reach up and turn the switch for the one little sconce on the wall. Grandma would call out a friendly “Howdy, Mathilda!” Sarah and I would quack our own greeting to the dress form.
On those visits when Grandma was entertaining downstairs, I approached the closet and Mathilda with more reserve. The idea of her up there—headless—was a little unnerving. The closet was DARK. The light switch was a reach for us to turn on. Mathilda’s presence in the closet intensified my fear of the dark. But once the light was on, Mathilda was my friend again. She kept us company.
Our family moved to Michigan when I was in high school. Sarah and I grew up and out of playing dress-up, but we visited Steeleville on summer breaks and Christmas vacations. I always peeked into the closet and “howdied” to Mathilda. As a college student with textbook-sized worries about papers, majors, a boy, Mathilda’s presence reminded me of happy childhood memories. A wave of nostalgia would wash over me.
One weekend soon after college graduation, I visited Steeleville. Grandma and I were an unceasing flow of conversation. As we talked and giggled, our memories came in waves. I yearned for a way to preserve them in a tangible way. I was now living in a nearly-empty studio apartment. I imagined Mathilda’s presence could once again keep me company.
“Grandma, what would you think about me having Mathilda someday?” I was reluctant to ask, to take away this long-time friend of Grandma’s.
“Mathilda’s such a big part of my childhood here. If you wouldn’t mind me having her one day, I would love it.”
“Take her home with you tomorrow, Sweetie,” Grandma offered without hesitation.
“Of course! I’m so relieved that someone actually wants her. I always figured she’d wind up in the dump when you kids clean out this old place. It does my heart good to know she’d be with you.”
Sunday afternoon, I carried Mathilda down the stairs and lifted her gently into the back of my grey Volvo station wagon. A new chapter was beginning for Mathilda and me. As with the end of every visit, my eyes filled with tears. Grandma waved to me until I was out of sight.
This is how Mathilda's been dressed the past few months. She's wearing a plum-colored formal I wore my senior year of college when I was on homecoming court. Her newest responsibility is to display my race medallions.
Then two weeks ago, she had a new assignment: to display my maternal grandmother's 1940s nursing cape. I was so proud of how Mathilda looked in this beautiful cape. I was certain both grandmas would be pleased.
I've got to figure out what dress Mathilda is going to wear next. I'll post a picture when I decide.