Keeping Up Appearances

By Diane Binder

In the early 1960’s my Grandparents lived on a small farm in southern Ohio about 35 miles east of Cincinnati. After my Grandfather died, Grandma moved from the farm and purchased a small, 1950’s mobile home, placed directly beside her brother-in-law’s slaughterhouse and meat packing plant. It was this tiny trailer, in the village of Nicholsville, that became the backdrop for many pleasant, and sometimes comical, experiences throughout my childhood.

I spent a lot of time at Grandma’s growing up; she was the only babysitter I ever remember having. Living only a short distance away I often rode my bicycle over to visit her while she worked, or to join her for dinner, and many times to spend the weekend. During a stay at Grandma’s, we often had cause for an outing of some sort. These excursions might have included a trip to Nicholsville Store to pick up bread and milk, swinging by the cemetery to check the flowers on Grandpa’s grave, or having dinner at Franke’s drive-in. No matter what the errand was, or where it might have taken us, there were fashion prerequisites to any public appearance.

Grandma commonly wore polyester slacks in cooler weather, but in the summer, donned a similar style that were hemmed just below the knee, that she called pedal- pushers. Before we left, she might exchange the slacks for a skirt with pantyhose or knee-highs underneath, and always, without question, shoes with a heel. Even after she was in her eighties, Grandma would never wear a shoe without some kind of heel, claiming that flats hurt her feet, and arguing that heels in no way would cause her to stumble. Next, she would apply a fresh coat of lipstick in a shade of coral that she undoubtedly purchased from the local Avon representative. She might complete her ensemble by attaching a pair of clip on earrings that were typically a mound of simulated pearls or a variety of baubles. Be assured, if she were ready to walk out the door, she was leaving the house with a clean pair of underpants. Grandma would gladly inform anyone willing to listen that “You never know when you might be in an accident; it’s better to be prepared just in case they have to cut your clothes off.”

One of the many outings Grandma and I would attend together, are what people in our region call “visitations.” Grandma seemed to enjoy attending funerals; not specifically the funeral service and burial, but the one where everyone comes to view the recently departed and share their condolences with the family. Not only would Grandma attend visitations of people she knew, she would also join her sisters if they happened to have a service to attend, in order to socialize with mutual friends. She would walk through the room, shaking hands or giving a needed hug to the grieving family, and then stand before the body and give her assessment. She might shake her head side to side, and in a not-so-quiet whisper state her disappointment with, “Well, that doesn’t even look like her; they sure didn’t do a very good job with her makeup.” Otherwise, she might smile softly, and respectfully, and give the much-approved declaration, “Oh, she looks so natural.”

Grandma was particularly concerned about how she would appear on the occasion of her own funeral. She kept a list of all the specifics of her desired funeral on a piece of paper and would remind me from time to time, “ Now Diney Rae, don’t forget that my funeral list is in my Bible.” She would then lift the Bible from the bottom of her TV stand, flip through the pages and show me once more. The list began with her requested attire, which was a satin lavender nightgown and matching robe. The music to be played included a variety of church hymns with one particular favorite being, In the Sweet By and By. The names of requested pallbearers completed the list, which were her five nephews and her only grandson, my brother Dave.

Grandma even concerned herself about other’s upcoming funeral appearances, and would predict, “You know, Uncle Henry will more than likely be next. He needs to go ahead and get him a good suit so he will have it when the time comes.” We always wondered who was going to be the one to break the bad news to Uncle Henry. This slight obsession of keeping up appearances may have been shared by one of Grandma’s sisters as well, for it was observed at Aunt Lucybelle’s funeral that her hair had been dyed a fresh shade of red, not unlike the color of Lucille Ball’s. I suppose she may have had that detail on her own funeral list.

Grandma was as colorful as the quilts that she lovingly created one stitch at a time. She loved to tell you the stories that were behind each piece of material, such as, “This piece was from a dress I wore when your Dad was little.” or she would point as she reminisced, “This piece was from an apron that my mother had before I got married.” Each piece of cloth was carefully cut out, ensuring that they would fit together perfectly, forming the detailed pattern that in the end would be one of a kind. The complex orchestration of contrasting colors and patterns that she used to make her quilts reflected the love and time she invested in our lives. Some of the cherished ones are stored away for safe keeping, while others cover our beds, keeping her as near to us as her memory.

Grandma left this world at the age of 89, having lived alone and cared entirely for herself right up until the week before she died. At her funeral, sitting in the front row, I stared at Grandma lying in a coffin she would have been proud of, unable to comprehend life without her. Sleeping gowns no longer a popular funeral fashion, we chose a pink and blue dress for her to wear instead, and played all of her requested songs. With only one replacement, all of the desired pallbearers were in attendance, and with this, the list of requests was fulfilled. The coffin was draped with one of her quilts, aptly representing her life. Unable to take my eyes off of her, tears running down my face, I couldn’t help but smile and pray, asking God if He would allow Grandma to peek down and see how beautiful and “natural” she looked.

Categories: Essay, Issue 4 | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Keeping Up Appearances

  1. This took me back to my husband’s death. Like the grandmother, he made requests for his service, and we paid for everything in advance. The only thing he didn’t specify was what he would wear for his burial service. When I told this to the funeral director, she said they could just put him in some old clothes. Since the casket was closed, I figured that would work. Now, I wonder if I should have had him buried in one of his hoodies he loved to wear.

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