By Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)
Chapter 20 - Decoration
Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010
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Abby Farwell Brown, the poet, once told in my presence of one of her New England ancestors who kept a tryst on the beach with a pirate who took her to sea with him, and Abby expressed her gratitude to the pilferer for that striped sash in her inheritance. So far as we know, we have no pirates in our family but somewhere on the path of my progenitors a primitive must have joined the family procession. At least that seems the most plausible explanation for my inordinate love of gew-gaws and jewels. If my family had not bequeathed me to music early in the game, I might have been one of those ladies with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes.
As far back as I can remember I have strung things around my neck, over my ears, and on my hands. Mother’s Quakerish background made her afraid that we children might be vain so she dressed us with simplicity. In spite of her restraint, I can still hear the laughter evoked by our flamboyant styles of personal decoration. I had great sympathy for Judy, our negro maid, whom Mother discovered was minus the conventional lingerie which society set as the minimum essential for decent ladies. Since it was near Christmas, Mother thought to outfit her swarthy torso and was very happy about her good deed. He joy did a quick fade-out however, when on Christmas she saw the disappointment on Judy’s face. Since it was too patent to pass over, Mother said,
“Judy, aren’t you pleased with Santa Claus’s gifts to you?”
Judy had a kind heart but she was honest as her reply indicated,
“Honey, I could have did without them things and I’m a suffering for a Buzzum pin.”
Though Judy and I presented a contrast in black and white, beneath the surface we were alike, for as a child I was suffering most of the time for a “buzzum pin” of one kind or another. A bracelet on the wrist was equal to two holes in a shoe from my point of view. My sisters had rings but I was considered too young to wear one. One of my playmates at school wore earrings and one day I interviewed her.
“How did you get holes in your ears?”
I asked her completely forgetting my timidity in my eagerness to be grand.
“My mother made them.”
“With a darning needle.”
She said. My spine gave forth a few prickles but zeal triumphed over squeamishness and I led her through the harrowing details of the process. The darning needle went through the lobe of the ear into a potato; then a broomstraw following the darning needle and kept the hole open until the sore spot healed. My stomach turned over but my determination was undaunted. Splendor represented by earrings was worth a few pains. I fully expected opposition from Mother but one day I screwed up my courage and made the plunge.
“Mommy, can I have my ears pierced so I can wear earrings like Rosy?”
I asked, blurting out the request as quickly as I could.
"Certainly," Mother answered
“On one condition.”
"What is that?" I asked. The first hurdle was passed. Things were going better than I expected.
“That you wear a ring in your nose like the other savages.”
She continued without changing expression. The rebuff should have shocked my zeal but it did not. There must be more than one avenue to Beauty.
Mother had a box of buttons accumulated through the years. Buttons were fashionable and varied so I hunted up this glory repository. First I salvaged a piece of broken ‘looking-glass’; then I selected a cut-steel button and held it up to my ear to study the effect. My face was a constant annoyance to me. Every time I looked in the mirror I had a sudden desire to smash at it. I knew that this would only break the glass so I usually ended the inspection by making a face at the one that stared back at me. I longed so ardently to look nice. Now, as I held up the button and liked the result, I had a new idea. Spool cotton could double for an operation. It took some time to get the knots tied in the right places but when I had finished and the thread with jewels attached encircled the lobes of my ears, Mrs. Astorbilt’s opulence would have been paltry beside my elegance. I kept them concealed until supper was served and then I slipped into my place on the sideline, jewels dripping from each ear. Mother glimpsed me first and wirelessed Father. The family cast amused glances at each other.
“Well, well, look who we have here. How do you do, Mrs. Rich,” Maynard said rising to shake my hand, while I glowed with inner satisfaction. For once I felt too swank to mind Brother’s taunts and not even his teasing pulls at my ears dampened my elation.
Lulu Morse had a garnet ring which I admired and several times she allowed me to wear it in school. Lulu had smooth, creamy skin and, to bleach her hands, wore woolen mittens indoors. I thought it was a fine idea so I tried it one night, but I flopped about, dreamed dreadful dreams and was so uncomfortable that I decided to leave the matter in the hands of fate. Lulu’s fingers were stubby and that couldn’t be helped, but she had a wonderful parlor trick that compensated for her splat digits. She could touch her nose with her tongue. Neither my tongue nor nose was long enough to make the connection. This fact increased my admiration for her achievement but, in the last analysis, I was much more interested in the way she posed her hand against her face as if she had a headache. It displayed the garnet to great advantage and that trick I was sure that I could master.
Everyone who knew me was aware of my delight in jewelry and gave me trinkets. Lilly had a pale amethyst ring she had outgrown, so she gave it to me. It was too colorless for my taste, but I scorned nothing. Necessity always stimulated my originality and I set out to improve on Nature. With the aid of blue ink I converted the pale amethyst into a glowing sapphire that sparkled for a week. True, its brilliance dimmed somewhat with baths, but it still drew admiring comments from my schoolmates. The following week my boldness increased. With the aid of Father’s red ink, the sapphire became a pigeon-blood ruby, only to turn to an emerald a week later. Each change was heralded with the effective headache gesture. It was quite a bit of work to maintain the superior standard I had set and finally I wasn’t able to keep the secret. Once the truth was known the glories of the amethyst paled.
Mythical legends about jewels fascinated me and our local jewelers displayed the birthstone of each month in their windows. Mary had her birthstone, a garnet ring that looked like three drops of currant jelly, circled with gold. She had an emerald, too, garnished with chip diamonds. My stone was a diamond, so I was sure that I’d be an old lady before I could advertise my birth. The myths associated with opals, their tendency to disappear mysteriously and they bring misfortune to their owners, fed my appetite for the sensational. Then we had a guest visit us. Guests were a special treat at our house for reasons. We had porterhouse steak for breakfast; Mother wore a teagown; and Father engaged a livery team and carriage and took the company and us all for a long drive, usually to the national cemetery. This peaceful burying ground was some five miles from town and on its green slopes monuments erected to heroes of the Civil War peered above the cannon and the iron gates.
Mrs. Purcell was from mother’s hometown and she had not been in our house five minutes before I discovered a watchfob of fire opals hanging like a lantern from her pocket. I was so hypnotized that Mother asked her if I might examine the bluish milky opals set in a ball of gold.
“You should see them on a stormy day, Una. They look like the fires of an erupting volcano.”
She said, pleased at my attention. I was not fond of storms but I began to hope for a small one.
“Would you like to hear how I came to own them?” Mrs. Purcell inquired and I listened spellbound.
Someone is her family had had a sweetheart who promised to marry him and then suddenly changed her mind and eloped with another man. As a consequence, the discarded suitor sent the bride a set of opals that included a brooch, earrings and a pair of bracelets. Almost immediately she died and misfortunes befell her family, for which the jewels were blamed. The opals were distributed among the non-superstitious relatives of the bride and Mrs. Purcell received an earring whose possession up to then had brought no unhappiness. She was our guest for a week and before she boarded the train a storm came and I was shown the volcanic eruption as experienced by a watchfob. Being cursed with vivid imagination, I thought the conflagration over-advertised but probably Vesuvius itself would have fallen short.
The most exciting guest I remember was Mrs. Mermod. Mother was not very robust so Father, at the doctor’s suggestion, sent her at stated periods to Chylibeate Springs to shake off family cares and drink the spring water which was supposed to possess many virtues. On these vacations Mother met sojourners from St. Louis, Kansas City and other Missouri points and brought home with her a whiff of cosmopolitan life not to mention tales of interesting personalities she had played with during her vacation. The more charming ones were invited to visit us and among the chosen was Mrs. Mermod. Mother had given her an excellent entry, as far as I was concerned, by saying that she was the wife of one of the owners of the second-most-important jewelry firm in the United States, Tiffany of New York being first.
It is not difficult to imagine how illuminated I was at the prospect of beholding a woman whose opportunity for wearing jewels could scarcely be surpassed by a Maharani. I envisaged her loaded with sparklers and could hardly wait until the word was received that she would spend the weekend in our home.
“Does she wear lots of diamonds, Mommy?”
“No, dear, she doesn’t.”
“Mr. Mermod doesn’t like her to wear jewelry. He told her when he married her that he wanted his wife to wear only one diamond. That diamond was not to be large (no rock) but so flawless and scintillating that when he stepped into a room where she was wearing it, he could feel its brilliance compelling his attention.”
My beautiful bubble of anticipation collapsed. He who was able to provide tiaras for breakfast and coronets for teas! It seemed that God might have maneuvered a little better and given Mr. Mermod’s opportunities to more appreciative people.
By the time, Mrs. Mermod arrived I was past the first disappointment and prepared for the plain wedding band which she wore. Her features made little impression on me though she was really a handsome woman. I recall vividly, however, the thrill the swish and crackle of her brocaded teagown gave me as she swung into the dining-room for breakfast. At the time it set my eyes to burning and I crawled quietly into my chair at the table with receiving-set in perfect order to register all waves in the ether around me. Here was food for many a boast to my less fortunate playmates and no doubt I imparted to the tale of her blue diamond solitaire a lurid quality that made it more understandable to avid children for one of my chief functions as a youngster was as a news collector and distributor – a sort of animated true story book. I can still remember how I exulted in colorful episodes and with my fast legs I excelled as the first edition off the press. I would burst dramatically and short of breath on a neighbor’s lawn or disrupt a peaceful scene at home; everyone looked up expectantly and seldom were disappointed. I was the advance runner. The ambulance might roll in later.
Cymric Strain, by Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)
Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapter 2 - Father
Chapter 3 - Dartmouth
Chapter 4 - Killolog
Chapter 5 - America
Chapter 6 - Arrival
Chapter 7 - Gracious Living
Chapter 8 - I Am Born
Chapter 9 - My Name
Chapter 10 - Neighbors
Chapter 11 - The Cyclone
Chapter 12 - The Old Cemetary
Chapter 13 - Music
Chapter 14 - Religion
Chapter 15 - The Circuit
Chapter 16 - Hero No. 1
Chapter 17 - Pageantry
Chapter 18 - Mommy
Chapter 19 - Mental Quirks
Chapter 20 - Decoration
Chapter 21 - Domestic Animals
Chapter 22 - Episode
Chapter 23 - Barn Life
Chapter 24 - Vanities
Chapter 25 - Happy Hollow
Chapter 26 - New Horizons
Chapter 27 - Disciplines
Chapter 28 - An Experimenter
Chapter 29 - Health
Chapter 30 - Murder
Chapter 31 - Misunderstandings
Chapter 32 - Charm
Chapter 33 - Problems
Chapter 34 -Coming Events, Etc.
Chapter 35 - The Wedding
Chapter 36 - At Home
Chapter 37 - Cross Currents
Chapter 38 - A Baby
Chapter 39 - Dr. Winston
Chapter 40 - The Visitor
Chapter 41 - Buffetings
Chapter 42 - Agenda
Chapter 43 - David
Chapter 44 - Exit