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Wearing Emily Thawley

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Surname/tag: Phoebe Emily Thawley
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Wearing Emily Thawley

by Robin Anderson

In 1968, I went to Julie Nixon’s New York wedding. As it happened, I was in her college dorm. At first I thought her name was just a coincidence. She never said. About six weeks into our freshman year, she finally got around to putting family pictures out on her dresser top. I was in her room and we were talking about curling irons – whether or not they burned your hair – when I glanced down at them. I was in mid-sentence, but stopped, turned around, and walked out of the room, shocked.

A couple of weeks later, I told her of my dismay at being so clueless and apologized. She burst out laughing, and, after that, we were friends of a sort. We struggled together through the lowest level French grammar course that would get us past the college’s language requirement. And she invited me to her wedding.

I had little idea what I was doing. Her father had just been elected President of the United States of America. Her fiancé was the grandson of a former President of the United States of America. I was a scholarship student from the countryside, and my father drove a backhoe, in season.

It started off badly. My neighbor’s mother, a concert pianist who had studied at Eastman, and who came from Old Main Line Money, asked, “Who are you going to wear?”

Who? I reflected on the image.

“You know, Yves Saint Laurent? Pucci? Pierre Cardin? Who are you getting to fit you?”

“Fit me.”

“Yes, you know, they’d fall over themselves for the chance to be seen at THE social event of the season.”

“I thought that Mom would put something together for me.”

Now she stood silently. “Ah,” she observed, entire cadenzas in that syllable. I reflected. Mom had already taken the measurements.

My mother, in fact, was a master seamstress. She could create wedding dresses with layered trains, lacy overlays with nets of tiny pearls and embroidered flowers. She made clothes that illuminated people. They were as individual as the few personalities who found their way our cramped living room. Her clothes fit people.

It never occurred to her to market herself. This was not a calculation in her repertoire. “It’s a privilege to make clothes for special occasions. I like to make them match the people,” she would say. “I don’t need a lot of money for that.” She charged less than minimum wage, after expenses. My neighbor didn’t even know that she sewed for people.

I lived in both of these worlds. Our family house didn’t have central heat, much less air conditioning. My school friends lived on Park Avenue and in Newport.

Sometimes, it felt as if I failed in both of these worlds. I never learned how my mother created designs, how she engineered the drape of fabric just so or matched colors to personality. And I never got the hang of schmoozing with the fabulous or displaying their clothes. I still wear Oxford and The Gap, in men’s sizes.

A friend invited me to stay for the wedding weekend at her father’s corporate suite at the Waldorf Towers. I took the train from Trenton to Penn Station, carrying a suitcase and a garment bag. She was to pick me up. I stood at the curb as a huge limousine pulled up, stopped. The driver jumped out, ran around, and took my suitcase. “I’m so sorry you had to wait at the curb, miss,” he said, “we should have met the train.” I was in the other world now.

The corporate suite was on the forty-ninth or the fiftieth floor, I can’t remember which, but it was the next to the top floor, with views, it seemed, to the Hamptons. The car and driver came with it. And a marble bath, two bedrooms, a living room with what looked like Louis XIV furniture, a maid, and a valet who unpacked our things. Does one tip a valet or is that gauche? My friend and I sent him off. Too hard to figure out.

The wedding was held in the Marble Collegiate Church under Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. As we sat in mahogany pews waiting for things to get started, a man behind me repeated what Adlai Stevenson had once said, “Well, Paul is appealing…” Just at that moment, Mamie Eisenhower entered the balcony to take her seat. She had been sick and no one knew if she would make an appearance. Everyone suddenly got quiet, except for this man. He roared the punch line, “BUT PEALE IS APPAULING.” Now, my friend Julie loved this minister. But the timing was just too perfect. I laughed out loud.

The reception, at the Plaza as I remember, was filled with cabinet members-to-be. I danced with some of them and with the President-Elect himself, my bright blue, custom-made velvet dress, stylishly short – maybe embarrassingly so by today’s standards – swinging gaily. I felt like royalty to be dressed in velvet. The other guests seemed to notice.

“Tell us, WHO are you wearing, dear?”

I was glad to have had my neighbor’s inadvertent coaching.

“Emily Thawley,” I replied, using my mother’s maiden name, “hardly anyone knows her. Very hard to find.” Telling the truth can be fun.

“Intriguing, we MUST get her info.” I turned for more champagne, picturing these women in our living room, staring at the plaid wallpaper my parents had put on the ceiling (they liked the colors).

“Where are you FROM?” they persisted.

“I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania,” I said, and left it at that. Bucks County was the home of James Michener, Moss Hart, Pearl Buck, many famous writers, artists, and playwrights. It was the distant Old Money of Philadelphia society and far enough from Manhattan to have unfamiliar genealogies. I was safe. They couldn’t yet know that I lived in a small bungalow, wedged between a working dairy farm and two historic, but quite diminished, estates, and that this bungalow hadn’t had a full inside bathroom until I was nine years old. Up to then we took showers in the basement, essentially under a hose.

I was realizing that, amazingly enough, I did not feel humiliated to be poor. I did feel squeezed between the discomforts of these separate worlds. I saw my mother’s gracious talent and generous nature while I enjoyed the very different, yet equally gracious, generosity of the well-off. My heart felt their separate anxieties as one, rich or poor, as similar to each other as siblings. So I smiled and danced and I drank a lot of champagne. I ate a complementary dinner at Sardi’s with my friends and rode around Manhattan, party hopping, in a chauffeured limousine. The next day, it returned me to Penn Station where I got the train for Trenton. There, I sat on a grimy curb in the parking lot waiting for my mother to fetch me in her used 1959 Ford.

“How was it?” she asked.

How do I answer that? How can I tell her of the elegance of those people, and of her own radiant elegance, how little distance there was between them. How do I say that their discomforts are the same, how shame and pride form fragile bridges over chasms of low self-esteem in both of their landscapes? So alike each other in talent and damage, and yet, and yet, the immense divide between them will never be crossed; they will never meet as humans because we live in a world where triviality leads. Non-essentials divide us from each other and tie us together. Our own life blood, our souls, for some reason get lost in ridiculous imaginations.

“Mom,” I answered, “I have to say it was fun, and in another way it was funny. But, you know, the dress was brilliant! A hit! Thank you. It fit me perfectly.”

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