How poorly adapted we are to change. Depending on the subject under consideration (technology, fashion, manners,intimate relationships) we see ourselves slowly taking note of the fact that people are doing things that we seemed to have done differently in the past. As an example consider that the idea of kings as protectors of our inferior humanity began to die out a few hundred years ago, yet we pay a particular respect to those who lay claim to a monarchy that still exists, if only in the imagination. “Crowned heads” will be well represented at Prince William’s wedding.
I was trying to think all this through last night at St. Mary’s weekly Friday Lenten fish dinner. It must be fifty years since Pope John XXIII published the encyclical that effectively cancelled the Fish on Friday rule. It’s all a memory: the friend who couldn’t stay for dinner because we were having meat loaf, the protestant housewife who liked to buy fish on Friday because that was when the stores had the freshest fish for sale. Friday and fish were as much a part of our culture as left-over roast and gravy on Monday night. Now we have this tweak on an old, honored event. There has been, here in Oneonta and maybe other places as well, a drawing together of the memory of discontinued customs(Friday night fish and Lenten fast) with the fundraising that will help the church carry out it’s various commitments to the poor, the sick, the unschooled the world over. In this case the fundraising is a new wrinkle overlaying the memory of another time, another place. A nice looking eleven or twelve year old boy comes around with a roll of raffle tickets and a money box. Tickets are one dollar apiece or three for five.
The boy says, As long as your arm. He unrolls a measuring tape to measure the tickets and your arm.
You don’t realize how long your arm is until you get charged for it.
The ideas of fasting and sacrifice are not lost, but altered, and it is language that maintains the memory long after the function is gone, thus sparing us the lost feeling we suffer when we find ourselves in short shorts, when every other woman on the street is wearing pedal pushers.
As I continued my thinking after I’d turned out the light last night I got back to thinking again about Easter. About the Easters I celebrated as an only child in a family of some kind of protestants and Christian Scientists. The thinking led me on a funny path to another memory of a long gone custom. We always dyed eggs in our house. I was in charge of egg dying as I was in charge of Christmas Tree decoration, and it did not occur to me until recently that I was not the best one at these jobs, but that the jobs kept me most out of the way. My Catholic friends got out of school on Good Friday afternoon, otherwise I had no idea whether they had any deeper thought about the crucifiction of Our Lord. My thought went no deeper than preparing for Easter Morning, a hunt for candy, a stunning appearance at church in new ankle socks and new white gloves and new spring coat. It seems strange to me now that although I had dyed the eggs myself, I hunted for them as if the bunny had laid them right along with the candy. I do remember having a low opinion of grown-up intelligence, because they always believed me when I told a lie as they did when I ate the frosting off the cake and I heard Mother say there had been a little mouse in the kitchen that morning.
Grown up now with a roster of egg dying children and grandchildren coming up with less and less concern with anything but chocolate chickens and eggs on Easter, Easter is tagged in my memory with its being the date when my panty waist and long stockings were put away for the summer. Does anyone remember the panty waist? It was a heavy white cotton vest that must have been closed with hooks and eyes. It ended at the waist and from it dangled long garters to hold up my long brown cotton stockings. I felt them to be a perfect humiliation. I have no memory of whether or not other girls wore them, and if they did not, what did they wear to keep their legs warm. As I grew older I saved myself my supposed embarrassed by undoing the garters as soon as I got out of sight of our house and rolling my stockings below my knees like a flapper where they tended to slip and slide. At last one summer my mother looked me carefully and then announced, You’re ready for a garter belt The panty waist quickly faded into historical memory, but it did not erase the bits of memory that define my time here on earth.
One time Mother told me that the grown-ups in her life had explained that in that enlightened era (1910-1913) the idea of war was ended. She believed them, she said, and was shocked and disappointed when the Archduke got shot and started WWI, but perhaps that was just one of the beginning signs that war would finally end in the next couple of hundred years, actually be ended and disagreements solved in civilised dialogue.
Well, but that’s what I mean by the changes that take so long to go away. As long as I am alive to remember the panty waist, I can’t fail to find my past that began in the 19th century, so long ago, and I think I really wonder, even after all those children who have passed through my hands, where the panty waist has gone.