Meet my grandmother, the first fashion addict I ever got to know. Now, she wasn’t actually my grandmother, she was my mother’s aunt. My mother and her three brothers were all adopted after their parents died by various members of two feuding families. Feuding because they didn’t approve of my real grandparents marriage. Feuding because one family was rich whereas the other was poor and therefore classed as ‘no good’. Things haven’t changed much in the world?
Both of my parents worked when my sister and I were little, and we were looked after by my step-grandmother. She was a formidable lady. She had two passions: food and fashion. Not to be rude, but you can probably spot the difficulty she had in marrying the two. She was born at the beginning of the twentieth century and never stopped talking about the food and clothing shortages during the war. There was no butter, no pretty fabrics, no new shoes.
‘In the twenties I had a pair of beautiful light brown leather boots, with laces. They looked so pretty under my skirt,’ she sighed, slightly lifting one leg up. My sister and I listened, our eyes wide trying to imagine this large lady with ankles the size of tree-trunks, and one swollen arm, looking young and pretty.
What we didn’t realise was how tragic her life had been. Born to a poor family, but I guess a happy one, she fell pregnant young, and had the boy adopted. (This I found out many, many years after she had died). Then she met a kind man, who asked her to marry him. She said yes, but his family said no. They eloped, and spent a year in Paris, where my step-grandfather studied painting. Instead of a farmer, he wanted to be an artist. Picasso was his hero. His father, a wealthy landowner, disinherited him, and he became a steel worker at the Tampella factory, and a part-time artist. They were never blessed with children together, but had saved enough money to buy a flat in Tampere. That was a lot for someone like my grandmother in those days.
Then disaster struck. My step-grandmother got breast cancer. This was during the Winter War in 1939-40, the first war which Finland fought against the Russians. The hospital was short of surgeons, medicines and equipment. They managed to remove my step-grandmother’s breast and save her life. But after the operation her arm filled with fluid, which the doctors didn’t know what to do with. They told her she was lucky to be alive. To have to live with a vastly expanded left arm and a missing left breast, was a small price to pay.
When my step-grandmother’s brother died after his wife – my real grandmother – had succumbed to a brain tumour, she adopted my seven-year-old mother. She dressed her in pretty clothes and fed her well. But she didn’t know how to love. I guess she’d just had too much tragedy in her life, or then she just couldn’t spare the time with all the cooking that needed to be done.
I remember sitting in her kitchen in Tampere helping her make everything from rye bread, biscuits, Tiger cakes, Karelian stews, meatballs, jams or kissels while my step-grandfather painted at his easel. She talked incessantly, he just painted and said nothing. Sometimes he’d turn around and wink at me with his pale blue eyes when my step-grandmother nagged him about something or other. Usually something he hadn’t done, like take the rubbish out, or something he had done too much of, like pick too many lingonberries from the woods. Though my step-grandmother liked to cook, she didn’t want to be made to cook. She wanted to have the choice of what to cook and when. If my grandfather picked too much of anything, like berries, or wild mushrooms during his many wanderings in the forest, she complained. If he didn’t bring anything home at all, she complained.
When I was younger I blamed my step-grandmother for the fact that my grandfather spent longer and longer time in the forest, instead of painting, and for the fact that he eventually went mad. Of course I now know he had Ahltzeimers, but in those days the illness he was put into a secure institution for, was still called lunacy, or the Kekkonen disease.
But back to the fashion bit of this post. I promised the wonderfully fashion-conscious, Looking Fab in your Forties, that I’d blog about why I could never wear animal print.
As I said before, my step-grandmother was a true fashion addict. Not put off by her rather large frame, or the tragedy of her permanently swollen left arm and poorly fitting false breast, she had several going-out outfits made for her by a seamstress. And she made up for all the war years of not having butter to cook with or pretty fabrics to make clothes from with the outfit for my wedding. What’s not instantly apparent from the picture is that the whole of the get-up is in animal print. Underneath the hat, and the coat, is a tightly fitting shift dress, also made to measure for her from the same fabric. She told me she wanted to have shoes made out of the same, but couldn’t find anyone who could do it.
So, you see, it’s impossible for me to wear anything made out of animal print that would even come close to the effect of my grandmother’s outfit at my wedding. I’ve tried it many a time, but it just doesn’t feel right.