Mum was a seamstress, a dressmaker, a tailor of the finest order. She could take any off the rack dress, jacket, pant, gown and make it fit any body assigned. She could make three piece fully lined suits from Vogue patterns, ball and wedding gowns, even curtains and upholstery covers. And, she did all this, from her sewing room at home.
While I was growing up, Mum would often ask me to go to the piano and perform for her customers. I would comply, choosing the flashiest solo piece I’d most recently prepared. All the ladies would rave, and compliment Mum on her daughter’s talent .
Marlene was among the most vociferous.
Her family lived a couple blocks down the steep hill, on East 28th Street, in a brick house with a porch. Marlene and her mother, Emma, were very close, coming to the house biweekly for their fittings. Most of Mum’s customers were from the same extended family of second generation Italian-American ladies, working clerically or teaching but, during my high school years, Marlene grew to become a business administrator, community leaders increasingly recognizing her efforts and accomplishments. All the while Mum dressed her, impeccably, Emma duly proud.
Perhaps a gesture intended to give back to Mum, after the decades she’d spent keeping Marlene looking sharp, whatever the motive the day came when, out of nowhere, Marlene declared her intention to sponsor Betty’s daughter to the Junior League of Erie.
Founded in New York in 1901, the Junior League was formed to instill social responsibility and a spirit of volunteerism among community women. Over the years, however, the charitable organization had become a vehicle for debutantes, a class marker for the up and coming young. Being sponsored to join the League was an honor with huge implications for future social and professional connections, not the least of these eligible men of the same rank and level of social recognition.
The act generated by Marlene was directed as a gesture toward her treasured seamstress. In the spirit of the relationship between Marlene and her own mother I was to accept the gift by joining the order, in turn bringing my mother pride by association.
But, I screwed up.
I said no.
A few months ago, in the middle of the summer, both of my brothers were able to come through town for a single evening. The younger, now a traveling quality control representative in the health care field, hadn’t been home since Dad died ten years before, and the elder, former divisional medical director turned director/consultant for a major diagnostic laboratory, almost as long away. Both were in town to do inspections. Both lived in southern states, raising their families and working thousands of miles away.
I remember feeling ecstatic that they could both be here, at once. I only had two siblings, no sisters, and no offspring of my own, so any feeling of family I’d ever known had to come from my vicarious association with their sons and daughters’ lives. But, having them both actually here together would reunite us as brothers and sister, like when we were growing up.
We’d planned to eat at a nearby Italian restaurant. Both of them loved Italian restaurant food, both having been to Italy – the elder, several times – each of them working on the road; but, my upstairs wall HVAC unit on the fritz, they also booked hotels. They booked hotels because they also liked staying in hotels, don’t get me wrong; but, had the upstairs loft been temperature controlled, I’d have loved having them both here together for the weekend, in my home.
They arrived, entering via the shed door, and greeted each other in my music room. The elder was shorter and greyer than I’d remembered; the younger, wider. I took their picture. Moving to the kitchen, we addressed my need for construction advice on a household addition; then, we piled into the vehicle assigned to the elder, and headed to the restaurant.
For well over fifteen minutes, both of them charmed the hostess. She was most gracious. I have no idea if she needed to do other things, but she remained in conversation with them without even a hint of distraction. I, with my five year history as a hostess and waitress, was proud of her professionalism.
We’d chosen to dine outdoors on the restaurant patio. I sat in the seat closest to the dividing wall, and they sat opposite each other. Once we finally placed our orders, they continued the conversation they’d begun in the front seat of the vehicle en route the few blocks to the restaurant. I watched them, thinking about how the pandemic and age had overtaken us. I spent a lot of time sitting there thinking, before we got our food, when our food arrived, and after we were finished eating. I was able to do this, because they asked me no questions of any kind. I asked them no questions, either, principally because there was no break in the conversation the two of them were enjoying.
After probably two and a half hours, I invited them to present me with any questions they might have. My elder brother said nothing. My younger brother asked me if I had any friends here, and my answer included a reference to my students and their families as my friends – much like Mum’s customers were, to her. Then, I mentioned the elder’s former wife, with whom I’d had a reuniting phone conversation only days before after fifty years of no contact. The response to this offering was a ten minute dissertation directed at both myself and my younger brother on the woman’s character, as expressed in her past behavior.
Thus ended the dinner.
Returning me to my home was swift. We stood chatting on the sidewalk for a few minutes and, dusk settling and mosquitoes emerging, I said my goodbyes. Entering my house, I watched as the two of them stood at the curb for another half hour, talking with each other in the dark.
I’d said no to the opportunity provided me by Marlene, now CEO of a major, burgeoning health care and educational facility in the region and already-former bank president. She didn’t marry until later in life, but had a daughter who would become my piano student. Emily was 10, then, and probably hated those lessons. Maybe she never really wanted to play piano. Or, maybe she just didn’t want to slum it over to my house, on West 22nd St, hauled there every week by Aunt Lena.
No; I never accepted Marlene’s sponsorship into the Junior League of Erie. I was afraid to become an elite member of our community. I didn’t think the other girls in the League would accept me, a daughter of blue collar skilled artisans. And, I wasn’t sure I wanted to become a member of an exclusive strata of society, either.
Had I said yes, I’d have probably met and married a doctor or lawyer, raising my children on Southshore or near the Kahkwa Club. My brothers’ families and I would likely have shared holidays, each of us making sure our children spent time together. We’d have compared notes, throughout our lives, bragging on our childrens’ IQs, their grade point averages, their excellence, their ranking, their accomplishments, their spouses, our grandchildren, and how much the Lord had loved and bestowed His blessings upon us.
But, I didn’t. I married a transplanted, white collar New Englander, a man who would leave me nearly three years hence and continue his rise in the technical world of computerized software. Divorced, I would continue to work, pay off my house and car, establish a music studio, accept performance opportunities with the Union orchestras, and teach public school. My private piano students morphed into cellists, many of both the students and their parents becoming integral to my list of those still endeared to me.
Marlene’s daughter would become a litigating lawyer, and marry a local political figure; Emma would live to be nearly 101; Marlene would continue to oversee the health care facility, long beyond retirement age. And, the Junior League would breed its own, filling the coffers of the needy and establishing multiple community facilities for the arts, for education, for enrichment across the four corners of the region.
I would remain in the periphery of all these, a solitary creative, an observer of the life unfolding among those just beyond my reach. My brothers would recede into the margins of my world, feeling neither obligation nor need with respect to me.
Mum’s mark on the world she served remains. Marlene, at the time of her Betty’s blindsiding death, would stand at the casket exclaiming: “This is not. happening.” So many women would need to find somebody else to take in the seams of their garments, to let the rest out, to form the bodice, measure the hem, and fit them for the stages of the most grandly acknowledged.
From whatever league, as with my two brothers I affect their lives in absentia. Unless otherwise required, I’ll be in my music room, at home.
Copyright 11/9/22 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in whole or part including translation, permitted. Sharing by blog link, exclusively, and that not via RSS. Thank you for respecting integrity.