|Of Pompadours, Chamois Skin, and Jockey Club: Trying to Be Betsy Ray|
|March 3, 2013|
The other night, I pulled a hodgepodge of ingredients from the fridge to make a salad and the lyrics, "Its name is everything pudding, its name is everything stew," immediately came out of my mouth. It wasn't the first time Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy Ray has infiltrated my life. In fact, there was a time when I made a concerted effort to be Betsy Ray.
Just like Betsy, I was always trying to get curls into my stick-straight brown hair. Just like Betsy, I was a weak-ankled-Minnesotan who hated ice skating. (Still do.) And just like Betsy, I wanted to be a writer. So, just like any romantic girl in the 1980s who drowned her room in doilies and subscribed to Victoria magazine, I tried to find ways to be a girl from the 1900s.
As a tween, some of my favorite moments and descriptions in Maud Hart Lovelace's series revolved around hair, clothes, and makeup. Confession: As an adult, not much has changed. I still really want a blue silk mull gown trimmed with insert medallions, a dressing sacque, an opera cape, and pretty much everything piece of clothing porn Miss Mix churned out in her stress-inducing wake. (Also, I'm sorry, but how awesome is it to have a dressmaker come to your house in order to produce an entire wardrobe of clothes just for you?)
Attempting to quell my ardor for ten gored skirts and pink silk party dresses looped with daisies, my mother and I trudged around Daytons' young miss department and came away with ankle-brushing pastel skirts embossed with large white tropical flowers and some cotton mesh tops. Although it was the 80s, this wasn't beach-volleyball-playing, feathered-hair-having mesh, it was more like a delicate knit. Still, I had a sinking feeling it wasn't the "openwork waist" Betsy sported. In the end, I never did have the courage to wear any of it to my Guess jeans and Benneton sweater-covered school, so my weak daubs at 19th century ensembles were sadly relegated to church Sundays.
My straight brown hair was another daily reminder that I wasn't of Betsy's time. Even if I could figure out what a psyche knot was or how to use a jimmy for a pompadour, I had insisted on cutting off my hair in the 4th grade and there was nothing left to pomp. Fine, if I couldn't dress or coif like Betsy, maybe I could smell like Betsy.
For my twelfth birthday, I asked for perfume. I wanted rose, violet, lilac, and New Mown Hay, just like in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. Enlisting the help of my older sister, my mother tried very hard to fulfill that request. Instead of rose, violet, or lilac perfume, they got me two cut glass perfume bottles (one violet purple, one rose pink). Using a tiny funnel, they showed me how to fill the bottles with Laura, a perfume reputedly favored by Prince and created by the Garden of Eden in Uptown, Minneapolis. Laura wasn't close to any of the scents I wanted, but it smelled a bit like fancy apple juice, so I moistened my fingertips with it and touched my earlobes, just like Aunt Dolly.
Betsy's taste in perfume had matured by the time she was in high school and trying (just like every teen has) to reinvent herself. She eschewed her New Mown Hay of her childhood and in favor of drenching herself in Jockey Club, a scent her mother suggested was "a bit heavy." Based on that description alone, I had it firmly fixed in my head that Jockey Club perfume smelled exactly like Charlie or Jean Naté. I didn't want to wear either scent, but I did use my mom's stores of Jean Naté to soak specially purchased green writing paper I kept in a box.
Manicures and Makeup
What I knew about manicures as a kid is best illustrated the afternoon I spent trying to buff my nails "until they looked like pink pearls."
Using Noxema and its accompanying "Buff Puff."
(The fact that rough and spongy Buff Puff and Noxema were both meant for the face apparently didn't bother my fantasty in the slightest.)
Finally, there was the mysterious and enduring "chamois skin," which, according to Betsy "isn't really powdering." However, at some later date, she does actually dip the chamois skin into powder before running it over her face. So, what was this not-really-powdering thing she was applying to her face? Modern-day information sources to the rescue: it was a special kind of porous leather that was known for its absorption properties. It was used to polish jewels, shoes, and filtered fuel, so I think it must have taken the shine off 19th century faces by absorbing oil. We now have facial blotting paper which, while disposable, just don't seem to have the same romance about them.
All Grown Up
I reread the Betsy-Tacy series at least once a year and my delight in them has never dimmed. If anything, it has grown deeper and more profound as I've gotten older. In my most recent re-read, I found even more meaningful parallels to my own life than ever before. Imagine that -- a series I have been reading annually since I was eight, and I'm still peeling away new truths.
A Writer's Life
My stomach still retains muscle memory from the thrill I got when Betsy got that $100 check from Ainslee's for "Emma Middleton Cuts Cross-Country." As a not-yet-writer, how I longed to feel that exact thrill for myself and how faint I believed that hope to truly be. And it wasn't about the money either -- though I am about to have a little sidebar rant on that very subject in a moment -- it was solely the thrill of being published! That one could finally say, "I am a writer" and have the byline and clipping to prove it. That was worth more than any $100 check!
Sidebar: As I am now myself published and living in a jaded world dominated by online writing, it's really quite pathetic in today's climate $100 would be considered good money when the book was written in 1952!
Other Lifelong Tidbits
I bought a long plaid skirt to wear on my Scottish honeymoon to mimic the plaid skirt Joe requested Betsy wear on theirs in Betsy's Wedding.
Whenever I draw our plantation blinds against the direct sunlight our living room receives in the middle of the day, this passage from Betsy's Wedding comes to mind: "It was hot and she did her housework early, then closed the windows and drew the shades as she had seen her mother do. When Joe came home from work, he remarked with satisfaction that their apartment was the coolest spot in town."
"'Roast chicken,' she remarked, covering it snugly, 'and chocolate meringue pie are my company dinner. It's a great help, Betsy, to have one company dinner that you know how to make really well.'" (Betsy's Wedding) Because she pretty much sucks at it, one of Betsy's major tasks in her married life is to learn how to cook. I have also always made sure to have "a company dinner," which changes, but is currently lamb chops, warm shredded Brussels sprouts and farro, green salad, and a purchased dessert.
When Bug is happy, I frequently think and say, "When [Bug] is happy, he is happier than anyone else in the world." (Betsy-Tacy)
As a Minneapolis child reading these books, I actually had a real problem trying to picture the Rays living anywhere but Deep Valley. This might be somewhat due to the fact that Maud Hart Lovelace set the majority of her books in Deep Valley -- spread across two houses, the tiny Hill Street cottage, and the big fancier place on High -- and only gave us part of one book (Betsy's Wedding) to acquaint us with the 909 Hazel house in Minneapolis. Even that was in bits and pieces.
However, as a Minneapolis-raised adult rereading these books year after year, I now love trying to imagine what familiar neighborhoods the Rays, Willards, and Kerrs inhabited. I thrill over the idea that they once "lived" in my world, and the mentions of dear-to-my-heart old stomping grounds like Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, and Nicollet Avenue has gathered Betsy and her world closer to me. It has engendered an intimacy I will never know with Anne Shirley -- my other literary obsession -- who has always been more slightly out of reach, living on a mystical, beautiful island land I still haven't seen.
Maybe the explanation is as shallow as Betsy and I are both brunettes whereas Anne is famously redheaded. Maybe it's as deep as a spiritual recognition and connection to my origins, but I never tried to be Anne in the way I tried to be Betsy. I have lived in six other cities -- and even in another country -- since my Minneapolis upbringing and have no plans to move back there for any permanent amount of time, yet deep in the soul of my bones, I do feel the pull of that state. Season after season, it calls me back. I hear it. I listen. But I give no response beyond, "Yes, I know. Yes, I love you, too."
I am more Betsy than I could ever be Anne.
Now, you must excuse me. It's Sunday night, and I have Bermuda onions sandwiches waiting for me.
Mr. Ray's Sunday Night Onion Sandwiches
1 Bermuda onion, sliced thinly
Softened butter for spreading, salted or unsalted (your choice)
6 slices of bread
1. Toss the sliced onions with salt and pepper until evenly coated.
2. Spread the six slices of bread with the softened butter.
3. Layer three slices of buttered bread with the onion slices.
4. Top the three onion-ladened bread slices with the remaining buttered bread. Cut.
5. Serve, and go "fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world" with your Joe Willard of choice.