My Mother, My Stepmother, and Doris Day
by Robin Talbert
Judge's Choice, 2018 Creative Nonfiction Contest
Etheleen wore a chocolate-brown velvet suit when she married my father. And a little pillbox hat made of mink and netting. I thought it was a perfect outfit for a second marriage of a widow and widower in their early fifties. It was a small ceremony – my two older sisters and their husbands, my new stepbrother and his wife, Etheleen’s parents, and my mother’s sister and her husband. It was December of 1968. I was seventeen.
My father waited a barely respectable few months to begin dating after my mother died. We supported him in finding someone, not to replace her, but to eke out a new life for himself. It’s what Mama would have wanted and those who of us who knew how much they loved each other saw remarriage as a testament, not an affront. Still. Still, it was not easy.
Before my mother died, she and I went shopping once a month, after her payday. We drove to Shelby, fifteen miles away in the next county, where there were several stores we liked. We shopped all morning and then had lunch at a small café or the counter at Rose’s Dime Store. Mama gave me twenty dollars to spend, enough to buy a pair of shoes, or a blouse, or a dress if it were on sale. At the end of the winter my mother would buy three suits at Cohen’s department store and put them in layaway for the fall, so she would have new outfits for teaching. She was buried in one of them, a sedate moss green tweed, despite my suggested choice of a bright emerald green suit and a lime green blouse.
Her breast cancer diagnosis came in October of my junior year in high school. She was in and out of the hospital for the next few months. Shopping stopped. Teaching stopped. Mothering continued.
As she recuperated from the mastectomy and subsequent hysterectomy, she was confined to her bedroom. A few weeks before Christmas, she wanted to help me select a dress for a holiday dance. My aunt’s sister-in-law owned a dress shop and let me bring home a dozen or so dresses. I tried each one on and modeled them for my mother, using her bed as my runway. We picked out a shiny green satin dress with rhinestone buttons. To my surprise, two other favorites appeared under the tree on Christmas morning.
Years earlier, when I was seven or eight, my mother brought home a large three dimensional window display she had rescued from a shoe store. The proprietor was about to throw it out and she asked if she could have it, seeing something special in it that others missed, as she so often did with her students.
About five feet square, the scene had a painted background of a city skyline in pastel colors, and a petite mannequin that looked like Doris Day. Doris was dressed in a trim blue suit made from canvas material that had been lacquered to hold its shape. A matching pillbox hat sat atop her short blonde hair. Her facial features were painted on – exotic long eyelashes and bright red lipstick. She held a leash that was tied to a small white poodle and stood next to a light post like those we saw in pictures of Paris. The display was framed asymmetrically in crenellated paper-mache that looked like the inside of an oyster shell. Mama stored this elegant curiosity in the basement, covering it with an old red chenille bedspread, until she could figure out what to do with it.
I was enchanted with the woman and the scene. When friends would come to play, we would go down to the dank cellar and with great reverence I would pull back the bedspread. We gingerly touched Doris, as if we were violating the rules in a museum. The cityscape provided the backdrop for our imaginations as we pretended to be beautiful movie stars far away from the backroads of rural western North Carolina.
The glamorous model watched our comings and goings, a kitschy conversation piece long before outsider art and retro signs became popular.
When I was eleven, my parents built a new house and my mother selected a special place for the display. We hung it on the inside brick wall of the large screened-in porch, right by the back door everyone used when coming into the house. The glamorous model watched our comings and goings, a kitschy conversation piece long before outsider art and retro signs became popular. There was Doris throughout my teens, a familiar part of the furniture of my adolescence.
Doris was still there when my father remarried. Looking back, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Etheleen to move into our house. Maybe she did it because it was slightly larger and newer than hers. But more likely it was a thoughtful decision made to ease the adjustment of this new blended family situation for me. Even though I had only a few more months left in high school, I would be able to come home from college to my own home, if not to my mother.
Unaccustomed to teenage girls, Etheleen treaded on eggs around me, as we engaged in a delicate and respectful dance of affection for my father. She was sweet if tentative, and sensitive to my mother’s memory. In the spring she took me shopping for a prom dress and helped me pick out a delicate light blue sheath with a tastefully beaded bodice. As we checked out, she stumbled for an appropriate response when the proprietor asked if we were related to the Mr. T. whose wife had passed away a year or so ago, finally saying sheepishly, “Well, this is his daughter.” Somehow her embarrassment endeared her to me, and later we could laugh at the sit-com awkwardness of that day, as my Mother would have done if it had happened to her.
Etheleen and my mother, Helen, shared many common values – family, community, faith, an expectation of civility and kindness. Style-wise, Etheleen was prim and traditional, someone who “colored inside the lines,” as we used to say. My mother, on the other hand, had been just shy of flamboyant, wearing bright red fingernail polish when everyone else wore pale pink, and donning startlingly big hats for church. Etheleen’s home decorating tastes were also more conservative than my mother’s had been. When she moved in with us, she brought with her a formal dining table, and the real butcher block my mother had prized for its nicks and gouges was sold to an antique dealer. But my thoughtful stepmother carefully preserved my mother’s china and my grandmother’s crystal for me and my older sisters to take someday.
All parents change up the space when kids go off to college, so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I came home one weekend to an empty brick wall on the back porch. The unique Doris Day-esque display had been removed from its place of honor. And not just relegated back into storage, but thrown out with the trash.
I was devastated. Angry at both my father and my stepmother. “Why?” I yelled. “How could you?! “Where is she?”
They were surprised and upset at my outburst. Etheleen had tried so hard to keep the things she thought were special, that were heirlooms. Doris, apparently, was expendable. Tacky. Junk.
“It was one of a kind,” I said. Irreplaceable. I wanted it. I wanted to keep it forever.
But nothing could be done. There was no false hope from doctors for Doris’ recovery. No ministers promising a reunion in the clouds. I had to let go.
After all these years, I wish I still had that mid-century modern fashion display. I don’t know where I’d put it though, and I’m sure my husband wouldn’t like it any more than my father had. Maybe just the memory of it is better than the real thing. But it would be nice to see Doris one more time. And my mother of course. I long for her still. And you too, Etheleen. I’d love to see you, too.