Thursday, May 04, 2006

Fact or fiction?

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.

smockMary 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?

smockIf 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.)


  1. Ha! What a hoot! I love the concept of the ficticious and perfect mary Ellen!

  2. Love it - an imaginary Mary Ellen ! What a riot.

  3. Cute story! And cute shirts!

  4. Those tops are so sweet, I would definitely save them. My aunt has some of her girls special things framed in those clear art box thingys. As for Mary Ellen I wouldn't do the dishes on principle: You don't have to be perfect to be good.

  5. The Mary Ellen in our family is my cousin Susan and her sister. We were raised thinking they were perfect, and of course they thought we were. We lived far enough away that we never saw each other when we weren't on our best behavior but saw each other often enough to be very, very envious. (Even as I write this, I wonder. Maybe Susan and Kathy really were perfect. Nah.)

  6. Sooo cute! Well I bet Mary Ellen probably doesnt design such cute skirts or have such an entertaining blog!

  7. I'll bet that Mary Ellen patently refused to wear the clothes that you received. The ones she really wore, her jeans and tshirts, were trashed when she was done with them, which is why you never saw them.

    The immaculate dresses and coats were that way because good ol' M.E. wouldn't wear 'em on a bet....

    Either that, or she was made up.

    We heard all about a better-than-all-the-rest-of-you-slobs second cousin, too. Her name was Emily Ann. Am I detecting a pattern here, with the double name?

    I'm not washing the dishes tonight, regardless of what Mary Ellen OR Emily Ann OR Aunt Florence would do!

  8. great story....

    i love those smocks... i'd save and show them too... for awhile i was dipping kids clothes that i liked in wax... sort of freezing them

  9. Yes, I'd hang those tops up, too. and Mary Ellen reminds me of that This American Life about babysitting, where the girl invents the fictional perfect family? I'll go look up the episode. It's one of the best ones.