My sister and I were sorting through a box of clothing from our childhood the other day, reminiscing about dresses we had worn while deciding which of our daughters would be wearing which hand-me-downs. (Bebe and her cousin are only four months apart and wear the same size.) Part of our reminiscing involved stories about the hand-me-downs we received from our second cousin, Mary Ellen, when we were growing up.
Mary Ellen's clothing was always immaculate. It consisted of tailored wool coats and delicate, frilly dresses. Never blue jeans. Never parkas or playclothes with any sign of wear. And along with that impeccable clothing, which arrived via our grandmother (who always wanted to be called "Gram", but that never felt natural to me - she remains "Grandma" despite her best efforts), came tales of Mary Ellen and her model behavior. Mary Ellen practiced piano every day. Mary Ellen set the table before dinner and helped with dishes afterwards. Mary Ellen did exactly as she was told, never complained, and certainly never talked back.
Even when we reached high school we heard how Mary Ellen was such an obedient young lady who returned directly home after basketball games and didn't go to after-game dances with boys. Mary Ellen was obviously perfect and quite nauseating. To us, anyway.
As we were discussing her, it suddenly crossed my mind that we have never met our second cousin. And I asked my sister, what if Mary Ellen never really existed? Maybe she was an imaginary character, created by Grandma purely to mold (or pressure) us into better behavior? Perhaps Grandma got all that clothing from someone or someplace else, made up stories to accompany the Sunday coats and dresses, and passed them along to us in the hope of encouraging her willful, messy, non-piano-practicing granddaughters to clean up our acts, listen to our mother, and start behaving as young ladies should?
If that was the case, Grandma hasn't given up. Apparently Mary Ellen is living near the ancestral farm in Michigan with her husband and two children. I'm sure her coats and dresses are immaculate. And her children are, too.
So perhaps I should wash the dishes before going to bed tonight, after all. I mean, I'm sure that's what Mary Ellen would do.
(The smocks in the photos belonged to one of my sisters. I think that my other Grandma made them. They're hand smocked and beautifully made, inside and out. I'm afraid to put them on Bebe, for fear that she'll stain or damage them. I think that instead I'll hang them someplace where I can enjoy looking at them, and meanwhile I'll let the kiddo be herself and wear clothes she can actually play in without either of us worrying.)