Chapter 3: The Peach Chiffon Cocktail Dress

We went to see my Mother in her Assisted Living facility a couple of days ago and I now know what it would be like to visit “Maggie the Cat” at age 78.  With dementia….

It’s hard, after spending years avoiding your  parents most of your life to be drug into their lives  again.

I thought I had left the family history behind, but I realized today, it sneaks up and bites you when you least expect it.

That scares me.  I thought you could deal with things and move on…apparently, that’s not the case….

I could deal with my Mother, a couple of weeks ago, when she was like Bernice on “Designing  Women”.  Dim, but amusing.

Today,  that was not the case.

I saw a glimpse of the woman  recognized from my youth, at her worst, and it scared the hell out of me.

This might be a shock to some of my Danville friends who knew my parents socially, but I grew up in a very unhappy house.  Once the doors and windows were shut, it was a different world.

I thought I had put that behind me.

A this point in my life, I have a basically quiet, sane, no-drama life.

Steve and I have been, honestly, very happy and stress free for almost 14 years. We don’t fight, we talk.  We are mutually supportive.  It’s so good, it’s almost scary…

Today, I was dragged back into my past.  And I don’t like it.

But she was determined to take us back there…

Let me start by saying, I don’t deal well with crazy.

My Mother had my Father’s Mother committed to the State Hospital for the Insane about a  minute after they were married.  I will never forget the annual obligatory visits to her when we were growing up…I’ll write more about this in the future.

Let’s just say it is traumatic, at six years old, to have crazy women crawling over the car and beating on the wind shield  begging for money to buy cigarettes while Daddy is getting a pass to see his Mother.

Let me also be clear on one point before we delve into this:  My Father’s Blue Blood Richmond FFV Relatives hated my Mother on sight.

She was a very pretty cheerleader from the wrong side of the tracks.  Hillbilly West Virginia background on the make is what they saw.  My Father was already the product of the “family scandal”, being his parent’s divorce in 1932, when “good families”, in Virginia simply did not do that.

That is another story for another time.  Let’s just say my Father’s Rush relatives did not take to her.  They read her immediately.  And she knew it and she always looked for a way to get even….

I will eventually  get to the events of today, but they were a product of the past…

Flash forward to about 1949.

My Mother was a pretty girl in a poor family.  Frankly, the entire family was betting on her being pretty enough to marry out of the Mill Village and into “money”.  She was the youngest.  The Prettiest.  The most Spoiled.

My Grandmother always told me stories about my Mother, who she considered a pretty,  social-climbing fool.

Let me set the stage:

It’s 1949 in a 4 room house in the Mill Village.  My mother is 17 years old and trying to find a rich husband.  She is having a fit for a “peach chiffon cocktail dress” to wear to a party.  The dress is from Rippes, the most expensive women’s shop in town.

My father is back in town from the army and 4 years in Japan.  With a convertible.  Brand new…

I might add, she is a “winter” and “peach” is not even a good color for her….

My Grandmother talked, to her dying day, about the fit my Mother threw over that dress.  My Mother threw herself in the floor, kicking and screaming, when told she could not have that dress.  My Grandmother calmly went to the kitchen, filled a pot of water, and threw it on her.

Unfortunately, my Aunt Goldie still bought her the dress.  And she ended up on the front page of the social section  of the local paper wearing it, with my Father.  At a dance.  What can I say?

It did photograph well in black and white.

And it went into her “cedar chest” with the other prom dresses and event dresses that got her noticed.

Flash forward again to about 1964. “Mad Men” era.

My parents had been married 14 years and had a new ranch house in a new post war neighborhood.  I was about 6 and my sister was two.  (BTW:  My Mother refused to have children until my father met certain conditions:  More to follow)

My Mother thought she was the social leader of Temple Terrace, which ain’t saying much, and she knew it.  But she was the President of the Temple Terrace Women’s Club. She decided to put on amateur theatricals in our backyard.  She had had my Father  build a cinder block stage back there with some  lights, via extension cords, chairs, curtains and the works.

She was determined to lead the neighborhood children in theatrical productions of  Disney Classics.  I do have family films to prove this…

It didn’t last long.  ”Snow White” did her in….

Let me, so to speak, re-set the stage:

It’s 1964.  In Temple Terrace in Danville Virginia.  It’s June.  The Stage is set for our amateur theatricals…

It’s like a “Mad Men” scene in not as nice a neighborhood.

Mother grows tired of dealing with the children and rehearsals.  She decides it’s time to go inside and lie down in her newly air-conditioned bedroom.  And take a couple of more of the newly invented Valiums.  It was so stressful being a Housewife in 1964…

My Mother also never had the longest attention span…

As a last move, she pulls a peach chiffon cocktail dress out of her cedar chest, because she can’t remember why it’s there to begin with, but she thinks it will be perfect for our 11-year-old neighbor to wear as she sings “Some Day My Prince Will Come” at the climax of her production.

She goes in to lie down with Valium and air conditioning,  leaving us on our own.

That was my chance.

I did not like my part as one of the dwarfs.  I felt I was being under used.  I also had decided our leading lady was woefully inadequate.  Therefore, I took it upon myself to demonstrate how the “big number” should be done…

That’s when my Father, who WAS Don Draper, comes home, unexpectedly at 3:30, and all hell broke loose…

His only son is wearing a peach chiffon cocktail dress singing “Some Day, My Prince Will Come” at the top of his lungs in his backyard with all the neighborhood children watching.

His wife is nowhere to be seen….

What followed was not pretty.

Let’s just say my stage career ended immediately.

Daddy pulled me off stage and gave me a “talking to” I still recall.  I’ve never since seen a man so scared…

But I learned three things:

  1. Never wear chiffon before 4:oo.
  2. Never let people see who you really are
  3. Never tell the truth to your Father

Number  2 took 30 years or so to work through.  Sadly, or not, the others stuck.

The next steps involved my Mother.

It was not pretty….

He stormed into her bedroom, with me in tow, and let into her.  In short, he said:

“Goddamnit Lou, I count on you to do two things:  Run my house and raise my children appropriately.  You obviously can’t do either.”

To make a long story short, she agreed to save face by working the “Tobacco Market” for 3 or 4 months a year as a Secretary for “pin-money” and my maternal Grandmother took over the House.  With a salary.  She wasn’t about to deal with her daughter for free.  The maid thing had simply not worked out.  That’s also another story…

And the house was run smoothly for a few years….

Today:  almost 40 years later….

My Mother is at her very expensive Assisted Living facility that my late Father’s money is paying for.  She is not having a good week.  This is basically what she was saying when we got there today:

“Your Father’s relatives were trying to kill me at my house.  They snuck in at night to poison me because they hate me.  You don’t know that they are like! They hated me because I inherited some of their money!  I also have a house I inherited  from your Father’s family, I need to go there, but they want to do me in before I can get it!  But, I guess I’ll stay here for a while where it’s safe…”

The drama, real or imagined, really never ends…

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3 Responses to Chapter 3: The Peach Chiffon Cocktail Dress

  1. Ok, I laughed out loud at this: “I might add, she is a ‘winter’ and ‘peach’ is not even a good color for her….” — As a winter, I note that peach only has any possibility of working at the height of a summer tan, and we now know what THAT does to the skin.

    Love how your details put me right there.

    And something very Sedaris in the “Some Day, My Prince Will Come” moment; I’m a big Sedaris fan. Love it!

    Having spent a few years in Danville myself, I think you’ve got it right.

    Keep writing.

  2. Kim Gentry says:

    I must say “she is a winter, peach is not a good color for her”, had me laughing out loud. I live in Danville, where is Temple Terrace?

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