Sunday, April 15, 2012
Of Lilacs and Aprons
The value of history expanded
Of Lilacs and Aprons
Women of a special generation
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
I walked out into the dawn this morning and smelled the clusters of lilacs emerging just outside and a few steps from our bedroom door. I had to share the discovery.
I got Kathy’s attention and she and our big Golden, Freddie Mack, joined me in deeply inhaling that fragrance. There may be nothing more powerful and reassuring that the smell of lilac blossoms...
Always the same
We talked about the same things that are always prompted when those first clusters emerge in the spring. It has always started with the memory of my paternal grandmother, Sabre Wilmeth, who dearly loved lilacs. She, like so many ranch wives of her time, had few material things. Her special joys came in little capsules of delight that had nothing to do with spending a penny.
In succession, my lilac journey then jumped to the big bush just south from the house at the Inman Place on Mogollon Creek. Always stressed from lack of water, that plant produced the most beautiful and fragrant blossoms. Every time I was there, I would always try to go and inspect it in hopes that there may be a lingering bloom.
Its hardy constitution was no different than the many other counterparts that remain in memory. They are all associated with settings of limited water and mighty and abundant struggle. Perhaps those memories are becoming more hit and miss as to actual locations, but they are lovingly tied to the memories of women who blessed our lives variously in blood … or faith … or respect.
From blooms to aprons
I never saw Grandma Wilmeth in jeans. She wore only a dress. Of course there are many memories, but one that always bubbles to life was her hoeing in her melon patch where it lay between the corral and the milk pen. I was with Grandpa at the milk pen ‘helping’ him milk his white milk cow, Easter.
She called to us to come see the melons. She was dressed as usual in a long sleeved dress and a big sunbonnet to protect her skin. She protected her dress with an apron.
Her appearance was no different than the majority of women of her generation in that setting. They had few clothes and those clothes were protected by an ever present apron.
Ten miles due west of Grandma’s melon patch that day Provy McCauley would have been dressed exactly the same. Mrs. McCauley had arrived in the Gila Valley of New Mexico four years after my grandmother was born in Missouri in 1900. Provy was a southern lady and she remained so until her death.
Her life was spent caring for her family in one way or another and that equated to work schedules that today cannot be comprehended. Her material pleasures were few and her indulgences were fewer yet. Like my grandmother, the protection of her skin was a priority that modern women would find curious and even obsessive. She seldom stepped from the house without her sunbonnet, and … she always wore an apron.
Provy’s aprons were significant enough in her life that a section in the McCauley book was devoted to them. She developed a particular pattern preference of simple design. It always had a pocket and she preferred the color gray although she wore different dark colors and prints in chambray, percale, and gingham. Her daughter did not remember her wearing a white apron.
As you read about Mrs. McCauley or talk to the few people who still remember her, you are struck with the notion that aprons were one of her few excesses. If she splurged on anything personally, it was a new apron to add to her collection. When she dressed, her decisions were probably not the dress she selected, but, rather, the apron she would wear that day. What would a modern woman think of such extravagance?
The color white and the implied comforts
Although, I suspect Mrs. McCauley’s aversion to white related to the practical matter of covering the accumulation of stains during a day’s work, I believe other ranch women sought white. My maternal great grandmother, Mary Belle (Shelley) Rice always wore white. Her dresses and her aprons were white.
Starched and pressed, her white apparel was as much a part of her as her speech and her personality. Although, I can’t remember, family members still talk of seeing her from great distances working in her garden and yard and knowing exactly who it was because they could identify her white garments.
There will likely be those who disagree, but I believe ‘Ma’ Rice’s preference to white was a matter of elevating order into her life. She had arrived in New Mexico in 1884 amidst an outside world that was primitive by any standards. In surroundings that were harsh, dangerous, and raw, her life was made more tidy and organized by her ultimate choice of white in her dress.
She made it more precise by starching and ironing everything she wore. Like Mrs. McCauley, it was her escape into a private place of personal sanctity.
What those women didn’t realize was how their consistency and habits affected others. Even though Ma Rice died when I was only two years old I remember her. I remember the physical image of her and that image is comforting.
Her apron simply has to be part of that relationship. As kids, we existed in that world, too. Everything outside was a blend of excitement and yet scarcity … opportunity and yet difficulty … hope and yet stark and often unkind reality. By no means was Life always happy and secure.
The world centering on the aprons was largely different. The world of the aprons was associated with the warmth and smells of the house and kindness. The house was normally a place to escape harshness. Likewise, breakfast, dinner, and supper were always part of the apron world. There was normally joy in those occasions.
Moreover, tears dabbed with an apron always seemed to diminish the pain after being held down and having mercurochrome applied to some scrape or puncture. Fresh eggs collected and deposited into a waiting apron were part of the next great meal in the house. Having your face wiped with the apron was also much preferred to the screaming from others who protested your appearance, and, too often …your presence.
Words of a poem
I must admit the words of a recently read poem didn’t prompt the imagery of aprons as much as the smell of lilacs this morning, but the words did hit the mark. The fact is fewer and fewer folks will have heart strings tugged by memory responses of aprons.
The poem set forth the use of aprons to clean dirty ears, substitute the use of a potholder to remove a skillet from the stove, wipe the sweat from a hot, dirty child, and carrying all kinds of stuff out of the garden. These were all precious reminders of image that is profound. What the poem missed was the importance of the apron on a grander scale. It is akin to the smell of those lilacs. It is about the courageous women in our past who indeed contributed to our lands and our lives.
Those women, and their aprons … the apron … you didn’t have to reload it in the heat of battle, and it offered a continuing shield of immense proportions. That combination is supremely important.
As a descendent and child of those women, I have a perspective that is most important to me personally. Yes, all the images are there of the cutesy stuff, but there is something more important.
When Grandma Wilmeth took her apron off, she shed the stains of life. Symbolically and practically she continually separated the trials and tribulations of living from everything else. In more ways than one, she did that with her entire life. She did it for everyone around her as much as she did it for me. We were more important to her than she was to herself. We don’t have enough of that, and I am fearful the majority of people don’t even know what I am trying to describe.
To them, I suggest to go find a lilac cluster to smell. For the rest of you … go find a lilac cluster and savor the joy … and remember the aprons of your past!
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “The essence of a lilac bloom is indeed profound … it always rings nostalgic.”