The dusty, brown Pennsylvania Railroad train clatters along the tracks behind the woods as we approach Grandma’s house. Mame Goss, Grandma’s cousin, sits close to the bay window with a bag of hats. I notice her merry eyes and smile lines, but Mother comments on her wrinkled skin, skin made so by too much makeup. Mame’ll let my sisters and me see inside the bag, but not before she chats with Grandma over a cup of garden mint tea. Mame Goss clerks in Laverty’s Millinery Shop, a store I’ve never seen but which shimmers with forbidden delights in my mind, nonetheless.
Janice, Jean, and I think our older girl neighbors are allowed to express themselves properly. When I go down to see “Howdy Doody” on the Rentzels’ TV (Mennonites didn’t have TVs back then), I notice that Sissy Rentzel has a parade of nail polish bottles lined up on the windowsill of her bedroom: bright red, baby pink, orangey red with Tangee lipstick to match, darker red, hot pink, and a bottle of clear polish like Karo syrup. I’d love to experiment with what’s inside, but I don’t now. I feel uncomfortable asking Sissy Rentzel to try some.
Anna Martha Groff, Sis Groff to us, is another story. And she is so grown-up, we think. I see her palette of lipsticks on her vanity table, one of them Revlon’s Fire and Ice. She’ll probably let me try some on. I could become a siren in red or an ice princess. So I experiment and cavort around in her bedroom with the painted lips of a hussy. Soon I’ll have to rub off the evidence with tissue before I go home and hope nobody, especially Mom, notices. My sisters and I are crazy for color. Out by the rose bushes in summer, we paste bright, velvety petals to our lips. Banned from the world of bright lipstick and matching nail polish, we improvise with natural blooms. We act silly.
We’re back in Grandma’s kitchen again. Mame is one step closer to revealing the treasures in her bag now. Soon we lay eyes on the partly smashed trousseau of hats, left over from the spring season. We fight over who gets what, of course.
“Here’s a straw hat with a polka dot bow, “ I say but cast it aside. Janice and Jean don’t pick it up either. They are eying the red satin bows and lavender netting attached to other headgear.
“Hey, I want this one,” Janice and Jean tussle over a swoopy hat with pink flowers. Jean finally picks up a white thing that looks like an upside-down, flat-bottomed boat with a wad of blue tulle tied in a fluffy bow in the back. Janice’s is flat and round and dark, not my taste, with black-eyed Susan circling the straw hat. I get the best hat, I believe. It is flat and round too, but navy, and studded with azalea pink silk flowers around the edges. Best of all, I can pull a dark blue net over my face. Instantly, I become a woman of mystery and allure.
We take our new-found treasures up to Grandma’s bedroom and indulge in more fantasy. The space between her marble-topped vanity and tall headboard becomes our runway. We take turns prancing in front of her vanity mirror with wavy glass, cocking our heads just so and smiling at our reflections.
Later back at our house, Mom takes a picture of us in front of the garden of peonies and zinnias in the back yard. She holds the black square Kodak camera firmly with fingers plump as the butter she loves. I stare at her blue and white checked feed-bag apron over a matching home-made dress, so I don’t blink. In an instant, the shutter freezes our fashionable images at ages 3, 5, and 8. There’s plenty of time later to coax our long braids into the Mennonite style, pinned tightly to our heads with black wire hairpins.
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