I sewed my travel outfit for a 4-H project: an A-line skirt and matching jacket in blue denim, and a blue-flowered calico blouse. My mother bought white pumps, a white hat that looked like a float device on my head, and a white purse to complete the devastation. There is a photograph of 14-year-old me, suitcase beside my ankles, and my 8-year-old sister Carry, suitcase at her feet. We were both going to spend the summer with my grandparents and my cousins in France.
If you can’t quite picture it, think Julie Andrews when she left the abbey. Only my travels were in 1966 during the Beatles, Twiggy, and Brigitte Bardot. Plop Julie in the middle of that line-up and ask yourself, Which thing does not belong in this picture?
I didn’t know it then, and in the photo I am smiling with excitement and confidence. I mean, look at me! I sewed this outfit myself!
Twelve hours later I am in the Paris apartment of my French relatives, cousins aging 8 years older to 3 years younger. My oldest cousin Francoise has already had her debutante ball photographed in Paris Match, her hair in a chignon with a tiara nestled in her black hair. If you’re having trouble picturing her, think Maria Callas on stage in Tosca. If she’s too old/ you’re too young, try a glamorous version of Dutchess Kate.
We were never cousins. We were “les petites Americaines.” My grandmother arranged for temporary beds to be set up for us in the Grand Salon, and every day our existence was erased by the maid as soon as we got up. The five French cousins shared 3 tiny rooms across the hall. But the four older cousins were never there, only the youngest, an 11-year-old boy who we determined was a rude brat and Carry had to share meals with him in the basement kitchen.
I shared meals with the adults upstairs. I learned to eat a banana with a fork and knife. I puzzled over the French bread that was rarely eaten and always left on the table in a heap of crumbs. I stared at my 21-year-old cousin Catherine who never ate anything but a pile of vitamins on her plate, and still she sat through four or five courses at every lunch, chattering away about her burgeoning career as a model. My strongest impression of her modeling was the filthy bathroom littered with mascara tubes and black cotton balls.
So, like watching the Fab Five, you’re breathlessly wondering what happened to the denim suit and the white donut hat? I recognized immediately, like minute 1, that it was totally inappropriate and it never again saw the light of day. I sewed myself a chic little yellow cotton skimmer, but no one told me that French patterns didn’t include the seam allowances, and so my cute little dress was two sizes too small when I went to try it on. Triste. Dommage. And my chic older cousins were watching when I tried it on.
We were caught in a twilight zone of our family’s own making. We didn’t belong in this world of young ladies entering society and securing good marriages. Maybe I’d read about it in Little Women when Amy married Laurie, but I struggled to recognize it for what it was. I recognized it later when I read Edith Wharton. My cousins married extremely well, and assessing a half century later I can say their French marriage success rates were better than our American ones (2 / 5 France; 1 / 5 America) but hey! winning isn’t everything. Growing up is.