In fairytale terms, my Grandma Melba’s life was a Cinderella story. She was the youngest child in a large family—the baby born after most of the other children were grown. Unfortunately, her childhood home was not a happy place. After thirty years of marriage, Melba’s mother couldn’t take the physical abuse any more. One night, she grabbed the baby—my Grandma Melba—and fled.
With money she had inherited from her father, she bought a little house and opened a business in the back rooms, working as a seamstress. Melba grew up, playing amid the yard goods, building castles out of thimbles. She enjoyed helping her mother sew and watching “the fine ladies” who came for their fittings. After they left, she amused her mother by pretending to walk and stand and sit “properly”—the way the fine ladies did. Melba described those years as some of the happiest in her life. Unfortunately, they were few. When she was nine years old, her mother died, and her father didn’t want “the brat back.”
On the afternoon of her mother’s funeral, the family discussed “what to do with her.” She overheard the whole conversation. Times were hard. Nobody wanted another kid. Finally her older sister, already married and with kids of her own, agreed “to take her in” on one condition. She was to get the inheritance that had been left to Melba—the house and money that had finally freed Melba’s mother.
Melba felt like a servant in her sister’s house. She remembered hard work, second best, and never having a dime to call her own. Then, one day, her prince, my grandfather, arrived, literally riding a white horse. He was the youngest son of ranchers who were known for their fine white horses.
This is often where we finish telling this story, but there’s more.
To understand my Grandma Melba, you need to know how she felt as a child, and then you need to multiply those feelings by the fact that she never felt accepted by her husband’s family. Never mind that her grandfather had earned fame and fortune on the frontier (it was his money that finally freed her mother) and that one of her brothers was a US Senator. To the her husband’s family, she was forever the skinny girl who used to live in the little house across the street from the sugar factory. She went from one “unwanted” situation to another, and because she was never accepted, she could never stop being the orphan child, the little girl playing amidst the yard goods “looking up” at the fine ladies who came for their fittings. Consequently when she dressed up, it was always dress-up. Pretend. Acting like she belonged.
No wonder she got good at it.
The day I bought my first pair of high heels. My mother told me that I had to take them back. I was too young. The proof was in how I wobbled when I walked in them. Grandma Melba watched me trying to negotiate my first, long-legged strut and then proceeded to tell me exactly how to carry it off. To this day, I don’t put on a pair of heels without also assuming several inches of attitude.