Patricia O’Donnell was returning to her homeland of Ireland to gather her genealogy. Would there be time for her to attend Relief Society one last time before she caught her train to the East?
From the Relief Society Magazine, March 1952 –
The Wearing of the Gay
By Frances Carter Yost
Granny O’Donnell felt all seventy of her years drag as she walked the four blocks from the depot to her little white and green trimmed cottage. Her old black leather purse under her arm wasn’t heavy any more, and there wasn’t enough money left in the purse to bother clenching it tightly, as she had when she went to the station.
“A ticket to Ireland and return costs as much as St. Patrick probably would a’ paid for the whole of the Emerald Isle,” she murmured. “Why, with prices doubling and tripling, there’s nary enough left to buy the coat and hat me figured on buying in Salt Lake City.”
As Granny turned the corner and caught sight of her home, her pace quickened. The little, squatty house, with its beak of a front porch, somehow reminded Granny of a big Kildare County hen begging her to get under its wing. The evergreens near the doorstep were beckoning Granny to stay here in this dear home forever.
“Begorry, there’s narry a chance a coaxin’ me to stay, pretty house,” she said. “Patricia O’Donnell made up me mind years ago when once me laid hands to enough money I’d take meself back to dear old Emerald Isle for to gather me genealogy. And stir me up for Irish pancakes, I’ll make the trip if I have to go in the togs I been a wearin’ these past twenty years.” Granny shook her fist at the house and the evergreens.
She turned the key in the lock, and as she let herself in, she murmured: “That’s what’s in me craw. False pride is what’s pullin’ me spirits down to rock bottom. Gettin’ too proud to be seen gettin’ on that train at five p.m. this day with me same old plush coat and this old hat with the chicken feather. And me a carrin’ this old carpetbag which is packed for the takin’. Yes, sir, lettin’ false pride swallow me up hook, bait, and Irish catfish.”
Granny gave the door a bit of a slam for emphasis. Releasing the hat pin, she removed her hat. Then she noticed her reflection in the hall mirror. This time she did not address the house or the door, but her own reflection. “Patricia O’Donnell, I’m ashamed of ye. Here this dear old coat has served ye well these twenty years like an old friend, warmin’ yer bones every time ye steps out of the house, and ye wantin’ to kick hat, coat, and carpetbag aside to make a showin’ in front of yer friends as the train pulls out. Now, ya listen to me, Patricia O’Donnell,the important thing is the goin’ to Ireland and the gettin’ the genealogy of your ancestry. The important thing isn’t the clothes ya go in.
“The very idea, considerin’ spendin’ the rest of yer days in Ireland ‘stead of Zion, so ye could have money for extras. Ye’ll get on that train with your head high and a smile on yer face, and ye’ll come back wearin’ the same smile and the same coat, ya understand?
“Course I realize, Patricia, how ye feel. If ye was dressed better, yer relatives over in the Emerald Isle would believe ye when ye tells ‘em what a grand and glorious place America really is. Course, I understand these clothes might give ‘em some wrong notions about how nice Zion’s been to you. But yer wearin’ em, and proud, ya understand?”
Granny hung her coat carefully on a hanger, placed the hat on the hall shelf, and went into the living room. A flame burned low on the hearth. Granny placed a pine bough on the fire and watched a cone sputter. “Begorry, a fire takes away the March chill,” she said.
The old walnut-paneled room, which reflected dignity and an air of its Irish owner, seemed to put a comforting arm about her. She dropped into the rocker by the fireplace. “I ‘spect I’ll just miss Relief Society today. Much better I’d rather spend me last hours here alone than mix with the crowd. Sure and I’ll sit meself here till time to make the train. True, ‘twill be the first Tuesday to see me not attendin’ the society. But ‘tis few will miss old Granny O’Donnell. Why, ‘twas only the day before this that I put meself forward and went strollin’ round to the various homes fixin’ to say goodbye.”
Granny leaned her head back on the rocker headrest, then, as though the clock reversed itself twenty-four hours, it was Monday when Granny had put her coat on and went around the village calling on friends …
The first house Granny had stopped at was Bessie Moore’s, secretary of the Relief Society. Granny rang the door bell, and Bessie opened the door herself. At sight of Granny O’Donnell, Bessie quickly whisked something pink she was sewing behind her.
“Come in, Granny,” she said.
Bessie always washed on Monday, but today she had her sewing machine out. Draped over the table was a beautiful brunch coat of flowered silk.
“Bessie, me girl,” said Granny, “if yer fingers are not busy sewin’ for the Society ye are sewin’ for someone else. Now who, pray tell, is this pretty kimono for?”
Bessie cleared her throat. “Granny, my Bessie Bell goes to college this year,” but her voice was unnatural.
“Sure, and she’ll be a pretty gal when she wraps herself in this flowered kimono,” Granny said with a twinkle. “Well, Bessie, since yer sewin’ ‘stead of washin’ today, and I can’t hang the clothes on the line for ye, ‘twill be leavin’ I will.”
“See you at meeting tomorrow,” Bessie had called after her.
Granny had stopped next at Helen Morgan’s, president of the society. She rang the door bell, three short ones, which Helen knew was Granny’s code, then she walked in. Helen wasn’t washing either this bright March Monday. Funny, Granny thought. Helen Morgan always washed on Monday, rain or shine. She was pressing blouses.
“Good morning, Granny. Nice day isn’t it?” and Helen went on placidly pressing each blouse.
“Land sakes, Sister Morgan, when I seen the line empty o’ clothes me thought ye was sick in yer bed with yer feet on a pillow,” Granny laughed. “Come over I did, to fix ye some soup.”
“Well, now, Granny, a person can vary her life a little. Today I’m pressing.”
Helen Morgan was calm on all occasions, a quality which made her equal to the position of president of the organization. Helen rested her iron and smoothed her dark hair over her ears and into the bun at the nape of her neck.
“Land sakes, if ya won’t look fancy, Sister Morgan, dressed in those colors o’ blouses. White ye’ll be wearin’ on funeral days, pink for Sunday mornings, an’ yellow for Relief Society meeting. Land, but that green blouse takes me eye.”
There hadn’t ever been time or money in Granny’s life to think of fancy blouses and tailored suits. A film came over Granny’s eyes, but her mouth wore its usual smile.
Helen Morgan noticed Granny fighting for control. She quickly changed the subject from clothing. “Granny, we’ll be expecting you to Relief Society tomorrow, same as always. Then I’ll drive you to the station in time to catch the five p.m. train for Salt Lake City.” Helen hung the last blouse on its hanger.
“Now, that’s right nice of ye,” Granny said. “Well, it’s best I push on. Wanted to visit a little today, this bein’ me last.”
As Granny went out of the front door she noticed a gray and a green suit on the hall tree. “Probably Helen’s girls left them there thoughtlessly. Helen waits on the family hand, foot, and heart,” Granny murmured to herself.
Sarah Hall’s home was Granny’s next stop. Granny went around to the back door. “Sarah will probably be in her utility room this cheerful mornin’ an’ won’t hear me a knockin’ at the front,” Granny murmured.
But Sarah wasn’t washing. As she swung the door open for Granny a fragrant aroma of baking cookies rushed out to fill Granny’s nostrils. As they entered, Sarah threw a clean tea towel over a fancy box she was packing.
“Have a cookie, Granny.” Sarah was considered the best cook in the village. She worked quickly between rolling, cutting, and watching the cookies in the oven. “These are a new kind, Granny, called Scotch bread. Try them.” She handed a plate to Granny.
“Sure an I could tell it was Scotch by the size,” Granny laughed. “Sarah, believe me, ye could take the prize for bakin’ at the world fair.” Granny reached for another cookie. “But ye’re too busy to be bothered with a gabber like of me. And far be it from Patricia O’Donnell to interfere with a person’s bakin’.” And Granny started for the door.
“See you at the meeting tomorrow,” Sarah called from the range.
Granny made short calls on Martha Tingey, Hannah Jones, and Mary Stone, the organist of the Relief Society. Queer thing, not one of the ladies had washed this Monday, and everyone had been sewing, except Sarah Hall, and her turning out cookies like for a carnival. Queer thing, too, not one of them had mentioned her taking off for Ireland. And everyone of them had said, “See you at meeting tomorrow,” just as if she were going to be around forever.
Granny came to with a start. It wasn’t Monday, but Tuesday. “If this don’t beat the Irish, me takin’ a nap in the middle o’ the day. And a long time a sleepin’ I been. Faith, the cedar bough’s burned blacker than pitch.”
Had she missed the train? Granny looked at the clock on the mantel. It said 1:50. “Land sakes, if the clock isn’t tryin’ itself to be poky today. It is only ten minutes to two and me with three more hours to wait for the train. The ladies will be congregatin’ at the little Relief Society house by now. Here I was fixin’ to skip on the train without the ladies seein’ this same old black plush coat ‘till me bring meself back from me homeland. But, since it’s not yet two, and I got me best clothes on, why, I best not miss the last meetin’ after all. If I’ve a mind ta step lively I can get to meetin’ and slip in whilst they’re standin’ for the opening song.”
Granny hurriedly put on the black plush coat, pinned the hat on securely, not bothering to glance in the mirror. After wearing a hat a matter of years, the curves fit the right places. “I’ll just pick up me carpetbag on me way to the station,” she said, as she put the old worn bag on the chair by the door.
Granny slipped into the little Relief Society house while the ladies blended their voices, as Mary Stone pedaled the organ to the tune “We Ever Pray for Thee.” Granny was caught up into the familiarity of it all: Sister Helen Morgan presiding and Sarah Hall conducting the services. Sister Bessie Moore sat at the little secretary table. At sight of Granny, Bessie smiled and made a mark of attendance on the roll.
Sister Hall gave a few words of welcome: “We’re glad to see the house full today. We’re especially glad to have Granny O’Donnell with us. We were just thinking about going after her in a car when she walked in. Who but Granny would make time, the very day she was leaving for Ireland, to attend Relief Society? Bless her heart, we are glad she is with us.”
Martha Tingey gave the opening prayer. Granny wiped an unseen tear at the closing, “Go with Granny on her trip, is our fervent prayer, and protect her.”
Granny was glad now she had come to meeting. What did it matter about the old plush coat, or even the carpetbag? These were her real friends, they loved her as she was.
“And now we’ll have a word from our president.” Sarah Hall smiled at Helen Morgan. President Morgan arose, and calmly took her place at the little white pulpit.
Granny kept thinking about the train. What if it came way early today? Her eyes looked past the president and watched the squares of blue sky through the windows. Her eyes traveled about the little white building. Soon she would be speeding away from this place she loved. What was Sister Morgan saying?
“This is a fifth Tuesday, and since we have our welfare completed, we thought we would just turn the hour into a social. We’ll all go next door to my house, and have a little going away party for Granny. Granny and I will lead the way, the others follow us out in twos.” Helen Morgan walked down the little aisle. “Here, Granny, take my arm.”
Things became hazy in front of Granny. One couldn’t see well when the eyes were misty, but Granny smiled and took Sister Morgan’s arm and they led the procession while Mary Stone pedaled the organ to the tune, “A Hundred Thousand Strong.”
As the group left the little chapel, one by one, they started singing the words. Granny’s vision cleared and she sang gaily with the group, in her rich Irish brogue. As they entered Helen Morgan’s long living room, Granny wasn’t prepared for what she saw. At the far end of the room was strung a wire, and hanging on the wire and draped on a sheet, was a complete wardrobe, suits, top coat, hat, slips, underthings, why there was the very kimono that Bessie Moore had been sewing yesterday, and the four blouses Helen Morgan had pressed.
The ladies put up folding chairs in a double circle around the room. Helen Morgan seated Granny in the armchair.
Everyone was expectantly silent, then Sister Morgan spoke: “Granny O’Donnell, I’m not good at speeches, but the ladies of the ward remembered all the quilts and sewing you have done for others in the thirty years you’ve been in our ward, and, well, all of us wanted to make a wardrobe for you, as a sort of going away present. There’s everything we thought you would need, from a good warm coat to dainty crochet-edged hankies. And Sarah, bless her heart, even thought of packing a box of goodies for you to munch on the way.”
Helen held up the gaily wrapped box Granny had seen at the Hall home the day before. “Here’s a large steamer suitcase which Sister Hall is lending you, and a small overnight bag, which is yours to keep. Now, before we pack the clothes in them, the girls want to see you model the clothes, Granny.” Helen Morgan put her arm gently on Granny’s shoulder.
“Speech,” everyone shouted.
Granny O’Donnell was trembling when she arose. Never in her wildest dreams had she expected to have an entire new wardrobe at one time. At length she found her voice.
“Ah, ‘tis I who is lackin’ at speech makin’. But me heart is full to overflowin’ with gratitude. Why, even if I had the money, which Patricia O’Donnell has not, why, begorry, I couldn’t buy such an array of clothes in Salt Lake City tomorrow. And ta think ye dear ladies has sewed ‘em with yer own hands. May the Lord bless ya, I pray.” Granny sat down.
The moment seemed almost sacred. No one clapped. Then Bessie Moore and Sarah Hall took Granny by the arm and took her off to the bedroom, while Mary Stone and Martha Tingey took the gray suit and the green suit from the line. Granny recognized them now. They were the suits she had presumed belonged to the Morgan girls yesterday. Hannah Jones followed with the necessary accessories for each suit.
Granny tried on the green suit first. It fit perfectly. She paraded the length of the room with charm and dignity. Never had a model pivoted on Fifth Avenue to equal Granny O’Donnell. Then back to the bedroom, and helping hands fitted her into the gray suit, with the tailored buttonholes, and trim, good lines.
“She looks beautiful in the gray. She looks distinguished and impressive, but the green suit, with the cocky little hat and feather, is best for her. It’s more like the Granny we know,” Bessie Moore said. Then she added, “She should wear the green when she goes on the train.”
“Yes, Granny, green surely is your color,” the whole group chorused.
Granny studied herself in the mirror. The gray made her look all of her seventy years, but they were good years, with trim and enchanting lines. Granny lifted her eyes from the hem of the suit to the features of her face. She smiled at her reflection. Then, when she spoke, the hum and laughter of the group stopped.
“Well, I’ll tell ya what I’ll do. I’ll be seen wearin’ the gray as I go through the big places: Salt Lake City, Chicago, New York, so as to look distinguished. But ya can be sure when I touch the soil o’ the Emerald Isle, it will be the wearin’ of the green I’ll be a doin’.”
The group clapped, then someone called out, “Good for you, Granny.”
Granny looked again at her reflection in the mirror. The clothes did a lot for her, it was true, but clothes weren’t the most important thing after all. It didn’t matter so much if one was wearing the green or the gray, the important thing was for a person to make sure all one’s facial wrinkles were the kind that turned upward. Yes, the important thing was the smile – the wearing of the gay.