Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago at the end of the Second World War. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress (that’s another story!), an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, a playwright and screenwriter, director of development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director, a psychoanalyst in private practice and a mother. Eighteen of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and she was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize in Fiction at UCLA.
Dolores Our Lady of Sorrows
The aunts from Toledo stood outside the sliding door of the bedroom closet, staring disconsolately at the dozens of stacked hatboxes. It was 1971 and American women had stopped wearing hats.
“Perhaps we can give them away to the coloreds,” she said to her sister. “They still wear hats to church, don’t they?”
They had flown out together from Ohio to Los Angeles for their sister Lois’s funeral and since her husband Walter was too distraught to be of any use, they took over the onerous task of clearing the house of Lois’s possessions. They assumed Walter would need to sell the house in the upcoming months and it would be easier to show it to potential buyers if it was empty. Practical women, they managed their grief by focusing on the tasks at hand—funeral arrangements, catering needs, the obituary announcement, the death certificate, the medical bills. And the hats.
Lydia, the younger sister, a plump little woman with a soft, sweet face and bird legs, opened one of the boxes and reached into the crushed tissue paper, withdrawing a black velvet cloche adorned with a deep red rose.
“Remember this one?” she asked her sister Cecile, her voice quavering.
Cecile’s eyes widened in recognition, her mouth set in a solemn straight line.
“We’d better not,” she said, turning her head away.
When Lois’ daughter Jenna arrived after a seven-hour drive down from San Francisco, the hatboxes were already piled high in the entryway, confronting her like naphthalene ghosts as soon as she cleared the door. Months earlier, although weakened by the cancer, Lois had come out into the driveway in her flowery bathrobe to greet her daughter. Now it was only her hats.
Jenna felt a fleeting impulse to open one of the boxes but thought better of it. Whatever specters escaped would probably be too much for her to handle at that moment, and so she passed into the living room where her stepfather Walter was asleep sitting up on the beige satin sofa. His head was tilted back and his mouth hung open, creating strangled snores in his throat. Almost none of the bottle of Mouton Cadet on the coffee table in front of his knees remained.
Jenna, a small, boyishly slender psychologist in her late twenties with dark eyes and the plush cheeks of an infant, walked through the hallway toward the sound of voices, discovering her aunties in the master bedroom going through her mother’s clothes.
“Long drive,” Lydia said by way of greeting, taking her niece in her arms and hugging her warmly. “You must be exhausted.”
“Are you hungry?” Cecile asked. She was tall and stout and her face had the hard marble sheen of a lifetime of dutiful service. She had famously told her daughter, a glamorous daytime soap actress, “Life is not about having fun, Lisa.”
“No,” Jenna said, “I ate on the way.”
“We’ll all go out for dinner tonight,” Lydia said, “as soon as we finish sorting through your mother’s clothes.”
“Did you know she bought eight new pair of shoes last month?” Cecile asked. “Never even took them out of the boxes.”
“She must have been frightened,” Jenna said, feeling queasy. She had spent her childhood fending off her mother’s anxiety, developing a nervous cough, diarrhea and chronic stomach aches which the pediatrician said were “signs of stress.”
“She probably convinced herself that she wasn’t dying by buying the shoes,” Jenna said, thinking out loud.
“Did she do things like that?” Lydia asked, looking distressed.
“Sometimes,” Jenna said, sorry she’d brought it up. The aunties were fiercely protective of their sister and would not tolerate any suggestion that she was unstable, even if they suspected it. There was no way for Jenna to tell them what it had been like as a child to watch her parents fight so violently that she was afraid they would kill each other. And even if she tried, they would just blame her father.
“What size are your feet?” Cecile asked.
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Your mother was six and a half.” She bent down and lifted up four of the shoeboxes, putting them next to a stack of dresses. “We’re bringing all of this to Hadassah Thrift tomorrow. You should take a look in case there’s something you want.”
At dinner that night—a seafood shanty with an Italian name in Redondo Beach —- they discussed the funeral and catering arrangements. It would be a closed casket of course, Lydia said, because the cancer had left little of their sister but tumors and bones. Jenna could not imagine her mother, who had plowed through life like an army of red ants, brought to such a merciless halt. Even having a conversation with her had been a challenge because she almost never stayed still.
“Could you write something?” Cecile asked her niece. Jenna nodded yes although she had no idea what she might say. “The rabbi will speak, and then you can give the eulogy.” She turned to Walter. “Do you want to say something?” she asked.
“Well. . . ,” Walter said, his mind foggy with alcohol and sorrow, not only for the loss of Lois but of his first wife Sonja, who also had died of cancer. “I suppose I should, she was such a great gal. . .” He had forgotten the times he hurled dining room chairs at her, shattering the sliding glass doors to the patio, and still she would not stop enraging him, her sense of self-preservation trumped by her compulsion to criticize and humiliate.
“That’s all right,” Cecile said, deciding for him. “We need you to greet the guests and help get them seated.”
“Do you think there’ll be a lot of people?” Jenna asked.
“Of course,” Lydia said. “Your mother was very beloved.”
Later that night, Jenna looked through the clothes, the bright rose pink and sherbet orange chiffon dresses, tweed suits, fur coats and high heel shoes, her nostrils assaulted by her mother’s waxy scent. She had volunteered to transport everything to the thrift store early the next morning so the entryway would be cleared when the mourners came back to the house afterward. How sad, she thought, that her mother would not be here to feed and fuss over them; she had loved to entertain company. And she adored being with her sisters, they were like three teenage girls when they were together, laughing and teasing each other and retelling the same stories so often that Jenna knew them by heart. “Remember when Lydia was driving and asked, ‘Is that a red light or a green light?’ And I said, ‘Let me out of this car right this minute!’” —followed by shrieks of laughter. It was one of the few times Jenna remembered her mother being relaxed and carefree. And at these times, Lois would chide her bookish daughter, “Why are you always so unhappy, so withdrawn? Why can’t you laugh and dance and play with the other children?”
Jenna had saved the hats for last, gingerly opening one of the boxes, which instantly loosed the toxic reek of mothballs. Enrobed in tissue paper there was a wide-brimmed black straw cartwheel with a black satin bow that women wore in the forties with their shoulder-padded suits. Like a movie flashback, Jenna’s mind returned to Chicago at the end of World War II and for the first time in twenty years she remembered Dolores.
Dolores the milliner had lived in a modest house on the west side of Chicago, but not as far west as the apartment where Jenna’s family lived. Lois and her daughter had to take two buses to get there because Mr. Chenoweth was busy at the Furniture Mart selling bedroom sets. He wouldn’t be available until after dark, picking them up in the old Chevrolet that no longer had any paint color to speak of and vibrated with what he called ‘the death rattle.’
It was always light when they went into the house and dark when they left. And Jenna was always hungry at Dolores’ because it took so many hours to create a hat.
There was a parlor next to the entryway of the house but it was dark there and dark also in the adjoining hallway. All the light was reserved for the next room, an enormous studio with huge mirrors along one wall. Beneath the mirrors was a ledge lined with stuffed blank heads for the hats, spools of colored thread, pins (Dolores always had pins in her mouth, sticking out from between her lips), and chiffon, lace, velvet, satin ribbons, feathers, netting, cherries, flowers, and sequins, as well as scissors, hand mirrors, and pink and gold metal ashtrays, the same cheap metal from the five and dime that Dolores used for cold drinks, tall pink and gold tumblers with rough edges that raked your lips and gave a funny taste to the soda pop, which was what people used to call it.
In front of the ledge there were five black wrought iron chairs, each one a foot apart from the next, without cushions. The chairs had backs and legs that twisted and curved around sensuously. They looked like the chairs in Jenna’s little children’s book about Madmoiselle Fifi, a milliner like Dolores except that she was very glamorous and lived in Paris with a black French poodle. The hats and the poodle were fuzzy on the pages and Jenna found it soothing to rub the tips of her fingers on them as she read.
Lois would sit in the second chair, and Jenna would sit in the third until the metal which was cold and hard beneath her six-year-old bottom made her restless and she moved onto the floor, lying on her belly with a book, always a book, in most instances one from Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series.
Dolores would begin with a shape. Sometimes it was a floppy circle of straw and sometimes it was a stiff triangle of felt that swooped up into a curl and sometimes it was a fedora, or a toque, or a pillbox—that’s what Dolores and her mother called it although it wasn’t anything like pills or boxes or pillars or boxers or pillows, but something in the shape of a corsage container for orchids or pink and white carnations which Jenna would save up to buy for her mother on holidays.
Things would be wrapped around the shape, then draped, adorned and pinned with the pins from Dolores’ mouth. Jenna’s mother would tilt her head to the right and to the left, with pursed lips in an experimental smile. Then she would sigh and the pins would come out of the hat and go back into Dolores’ mouth and another fabric would be draped or wrapped or hung, in another color, from another position, at a different angle, until it became inky outside the windows that were reflected in the mirrors. Dolores would have to stop and feed her children who were always quiet and younger and not at all fun for Jenna to play with. Dolores’s husband worked nights and slept during the day, so he was never around when they arrived at Dolores’ house in the late afternoon after Jenna’s mother had finished teaching.
“I don’t think he makes much of a living,” Lois would say to her husband in the car driving home, although the same could be said about Mr. Chenoweth as well. “I don’t think Dolores wants to work anymore,” she would add, “but she hasn’t any choice.” Then Lois would think about having to get up and teach 32 public school fifth graders the next day and the thought would make her sigh.
The most wonderful hat Dolores made for Lois was a peacock blue pillbox. It sat on top of Lois’s black hair like a small, arrogant bird, and had little purple berries along one side. Bird food, Jenna’s father called it, but told Jenna they must not say that in front of Lois, who was very sensitive about her hats. Still, every time Lois wore this particular hat, they would sneak a look at each other, mouth the words bird food and stifle their secret laughter. It was a wonderful hat.
“Dolores is a very talented girl,” Lois always said, except once when she didn’t like a hat after she’d paid for it and thought that Dolores had pressured her into it. But Dolores wasn’t really a girl. She was thirty-five with a plump little pig’s face, a bouncy beach ball-shaped body and a fringe of blond hair that was always the same length but never any particular style. There was, though, something girlish about the way Dolores talked because she couldn’t pronounce her r’s which came out like w’s, and even her l’s were odd, they got caught too far back on the roof of her mouth and hung there like uvulas. To Jenna, her little girl way of pronouncing words made Dolores seem very adorable.
Dolores was also a good cook. One evening, Lois began to cry because Jenna’s father had gone and got drunk again and ended up in the psychiatric ward at Michael Reiss Hospital. Dolores brought them back into the kitchen, where there was a little breakfast nook, and warmed up some dinner.
“The doctor humiliated him,” Lois told Dolores. “Can you imagine a psychiatrist telling a man in a public hallway that he is a disgrace and a failure? He started to cry. He begged me to take him home. But how could I? He’s liable to hurt himself. He has no judgment when he’s drinking. He fell from a curb the other night and was almost hit by a car. The whole side of his body is bruised. Oh, Dolores, I’m so ashamed to tell you this. I’m so ashamed.”
Jenna was also ashamed. It felt as if her mother were showing pictures of her in her underwear to strangers. She wished so hard her mother would stop that she bit down on her top lip until the tinny taste of blood reached her tongue.
Dolores served them macaroni and cheese, which was warm and creamy and salty and something Jenna never got at home, because they were meat and salad eaters. But Jenna had lost her appetite. And her mother keep lifting her fork to her mouth and then forgetting why.
There are photographs of Jenna’s mother in many of the hats that Dolores made for her. She is wearing a floppy tan straw hat with a yellow polka-dot scarf on her honeymoon in Miami Beach, leaned up against Jenna’s father in a flirtatious pose. On a boat ride to Catalina Island, taken when she and Jenna visited her brother in Los Angeles, she wears a dark green bonnet, holding it down on her head with both hands against the wind. At the exorbitant all-orchid wedding with carved-ice swans that Aunt Lydia threw for her oldest daughter Jillian, Lois wears a purple toque with a sequined veil to go with her silk pansy-print sheath dress. Six-year-old Jenna, wearing a yellow dress with a crisp white pinafore, stands next to her holding a basket of flowers. Jenna’s grandmother is on the right, wearing a pale gray satin gown, her jaw set in stone and her face as frozen as the swans. Way in the back behind a crowd of people is Jenna’s father, leaning against a pillar and looking sardonic.
Lois usually has the same experimental smile on her face in the pictures, as if she is saying Why-are-you-taking-this-picture-of-ME and Oh-heavens-hurry-up-and-TAKE-it and What-do-you-think-of-my-HAT and I-don’t-CARE-what-you-think-of-it. When she really smiles in a few of the pictures, the I-don’t-CARE part takes over and she looks like Carmen Miranda.
In the Los Angeles pictures, taken after she and Jenna moved there, Lois wears no hats, because nobody in California wore them. But she brought them all with her from Chicago, precious objects protected as much as possible from the ravages of moths and mildew, as if she thought time might circle around like a boomerang and give her and the hats a second life.
Jenna was nine when her mother, by this time divorced, learned from a friend that Dolores had died. She’d had a massive heart attack and was dead on the floor of her studio when the husband woke up to go to work. Jenna had wondered if Dolores had pins in her mouth when she had the heart attack and whether she had swallowed them. It made the muscles in her throat ache, as if she could feel the pins sticking her as they went down.
“I never knew she had a heart condition,” Lois said, slicing an orange into quarters and then eighths for Jenna’s dessert. “She never mentioned anything about it. I wish I hadn’t argued with her about the last hat. What a tragedy. Thirty-nine years old, with two young children.”
“What will happen to the children?” Jenna had asked, feeling little flutters of fear in her stomach. She closed the book she’d been reading, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which she had hidden inside a Misty of Chincoteague cover. Years later, her mother would donate the book to the school library in Lawndale where she taught, only to learn—much to her horror —of its secret identity.
“The dad moved in with his sister in Skokie. The sister’s taking care of them,” Lois replied. “Dolores was the same age I am,” she said, handing the bowl of orange slices to Jenna. “She was still a young girl,” she added, giving her daughter a nervous little smile.
Then she scooped up the dinner dishes and took them over to the sink, immersing them in soapy water. “Well, honey,” she said, “it just goes to show you.”
“What will happen if you die, mommy?” Jenna had asked, picking at the orange with her fingers.
“Oh, listen, kiddo,” Lois said, rubbing the plates vigorously with a dishrag. “I’m not going to die.”
What had she meant by “it just goes to show you?” Jenna wondered now, examining each hat carefully, her fingers alive with the sensations of the contrasting textures, lush and crisp and lacy and woven and silky smooth. What did it show? That life was short and death could be sudden and merciless? That today was all we could count on? Memento mori, they used to say in medieval times, their pale, pious faces looking up toward heaven in hope of God’s mercy.
And now Lois was dead, a mere four years after Jenna’s father had succumbed to leukemia, and Jenna, orphaned with no sisters or brothers to help shoulder the losses, was left to ponder what she should do with the hats. Pack them into the car and drag them back to San Francisco, let them languish in another closet until she, too, died? Her fingertips searched for an answer as if she were reading a Braille message from another dimension of time. What came was the memory of elephants she had seen on the Discovery channel reverently stroking the bones of a departed loved one, and the low, nearly inaudible rumblings of grief and goodbye.
Aunt Lydia came out into the hallway in her blue satin quilted robe. “How are you doing, honey?” she asked, her voice hushed and tender.
“I’m okay,” Jenna said, trying to smile.
“Are you seeing anybody?” the aunt asked, the inevitable question when a young woman in the family wasn’t married.
“I was, but it didn’t work out,” Jenna said, thinking about her ex-lover Robert, who was always on the verge of leaving his wife but never did.
“It’s going to be very hard without her,” the aunt said, thinking that she was intuiting her niece’s feelings.
“It was very hard with her, too, for me at least,” Jenna said, feeling immediately anxious about how her aunt would react to her candor.
“She loved you very much,” Lydia said, and Jenna knew then that she mustn’t continue. The price of her aunties’ love was Jenna’s silence. “Have you decided what you’re going to say at the funeral tomorrow, sweetheart?”
“Yes, I guess so,” Jenna said, feeling the depth of her loneliness as she walked with her aunt toward the bedrooms. She knew what they wanted her to say—how hard Lois had worked, how good a person she was, how much people had loved her. She could say all that, because it was true enough. But it was so much less than the intense experience of her mother, the glamour, drama, and terror that were her essential and indelible signature.
This was the woman who had screamed at Jenna, “Nobody will ever love you except me!” This was the wife who’d picked up a heavy Bakelite telephone and slammed it into the back of her husband’s head, running to him afterward weeping with remorse. This was the girl who couldn’t bear to read serious books or watch sad movies or listen to the atrocities on the nightly news and was mystified by a child who was exactly the opposite. This was the mother who had longed for a playful son named David who would always be her baby and instead gave birth to a studious daughter named Jenna who preferred solitude and her father’s company. And no living soul would ever know the real truth.
“I want to give away her hats at the funeral,” she suddenly announced to her aunt, and felt a rush of joy at the idea, as if she were a thousand feet up in a plane about to release them into the wind. “And then I want to tell her favorite stories, mostly about you and Auntie Cecile, because I loved seeing my mother happy.”
She was crying now, at last, choking on tears that felt like pebbles and wet sand in her throat, while mucus gushed from her nose in explosive bursts.
“I’m going to open up the boxes,” she said, forcing the words out between sobs, not asking for permission any longer, sounding a little crazy even to her own ears. “I’m going to set the hats free.”