From the Relief Society Magazine, July 1959 –
Blue Voile for Dreams
by Norma Wrathall
At four o’clock that summer afternoon, Janet Davis pulled from the oven a pan of her famous butterscotch-pecan rolls. Little rivers of melting brown sugar crusted over the luscious mounds of nuts, and the fragrance of buttery caramel and browning yeast-raised dough drifted through the kitchen. It tantalized Janet’s nostrils and her mouth became moist, for she was hungry, having eaten nothing since morning. She pressed one finger lightly into the syrup and licked it.
M-m-mm – she knew that the rolls were at their crunchy best when fresh from the oven. She could eat one or two and still have enough left for the bake sale next day, as promised. Almost without thought, she opened a drawer and took out a spatula. Then she flung it back, shoved the drawer shut, pushed the pan of rolls back onto the counter and covered them with a clean towel. She would not, she simply would not, eat one more sweet thing. If temptation assailed her, she had but to recall her own image in the full-length mirror at Mina Dee’s Dress Shop that very forenoon. She could remember all too clearly how Mina had looked standing there, a black-sheathed blonde willow, her lips pressed into polite silence, as they both watched Jan’s efforts to pull up the zipper. She could hear again the smooth little voice – “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Davis. I don’t have that dress in your size.” This, as Janet, having pulled up the zipper at last, stared in dismay at the bulges above her girdle. Just in time, she had stopped herself from saying, “But this is my size …”
Jan now glanced at the clock and sighed. Time to start cooking another enormous dinner for her husband, Hal, and their two teenage sons. Hal would soon be home from his work as a machinist, and the boys from her father’s farm where they were working during the summer vacation. All three were as lean and muscular as race horses, and they ate like horses, too, she thought, and never gained an ounce. The boys were tall and rangy and tanned; Hal was tall and thick-shouldered and brown, his large face always ruddy and pleasant. Usually, Jan thought of her menfolk with affection. But this afternoon, a tiny line of annoyance was between her eyebrows. How could she diet when she was everlastingly preparing food?
She decided that she would simply go all day each day without eating. Then, when night came, she could sit down and eat a reasonable amount, so that Hal and the boys would not comment. She shuddered to think of the jokes, the laughter, the remarks, if it became known that Mother was dieting. Then she thought of her sister, Elizabeth, who worked in an office in town. No wonder Liz could stay so trim; she was not exposed to food all day; she had no one but herself to fix for, and could eat what she chose. Liz had been a widow for many years. She lived alone in her apartment in the city, now that her daughter had married and moved away. Often she would drive out to see Jan, who lived at the edge of town, and remark how nice it would be to have a place of your own and a garden, and that big walnut tree to shade the lawn in summer.
As Jan scrubbed the potatoes and put them into the oven at the side of the meat loaf, she reflected that it would be best to make a green salad. She could eat a large plate of it, with cottage cheese. Her smooth cheeks glowed like pink satin as she worked. Her brown hair had a natural fluffiness that she secretly bemoaned because she could not make it lie flat and “groomed” the way Liz’s hair always looked. Jan was pleasant looking, with a quick smile, color that flared warmly in her cheeks, and the easy, effortless grace sometimes noted in plump people.
While the food was cooking, she went into her bedroom and rummaged around at the back of the clothes closet. There in its plastic bag, hanging safely out of the way, was the blue voile dress. She shook it carefully from its wrapping, holding it in front of her, and posed before the mirror. It was what one might call a love of a dress, with tiny ruffles down the front of the blouse and cascading down the full push-up sleeves. Her gaze went on past the mirror and into the day, three years before, that Hal had given her the dress for her birthday. She had put it on, and modeled it for him, turning and laughing, her cheeks flushed from his praise. And then his face had gone sober, he had pulled her close and kissed her, and said, “Dearest, you don’t look a day older than when we were married. You’re still my girl – and your eyes are just the color – how did I match them so well?” And then they had looked at each other and smiled, their lips tremulous, and had kissed again.
Jim stroked the dress tenderly, then put it back onto its hanger and into the back of the closet. Of course she couldn’t begin to get into it now. Her eyes filled with tears and her lips trembled. No wonder Hal had stopped looking at her in that wonderful way. “I’m just a tub – ” she murmured aloud. Next thing she knew her brown hair would be streaked with gray and she would be a fat, aging woman. Anxiously, she peered again into the mirror. Yes, there was a gray hair. She yanked it out. Just then, the doorbell rang, and she heard Liz call out cheerily, “Anybody home?” And then Liz came on back to the bedroom without waiting for an answer.
“I’m just tidying up a bit before supper,” said Jan. “You may as well stay and eat. Did you ever see such a hot day! And me with a baked dinner. But I had to furnish butterscotch rolls for the bake sale tomorrow, so thought I might as well go on with the oven.”
“So that’s what caused that mouth-watering smell in your kitchen.” Liz sat on the cretonne-covered chair and kicked off her shoes. “What a day we had at the office.”
Liz was taller than Jan, older, her gray hair waved back smartly, her dark eyes smiling through brown-rimmed glasses. Her cheerful expression was overlaid with the fine lines of years of self-discipline. She was wearing a gray-and-white sheer cotton dress with white organdy collar.
Jan said, “I don’t see how you keep looking so cool in this heat. And I could almost hate you for being so thin.”
“Thin? What brought that up?” Liz laughed. “Did you get your new dress at Mina’s sale?”
“No – I didn’t find anything. Or – well, if you want to know, she didn’t have one that I could get into – Oh, I looked terrible! Those full-length mirrors!” Jan hurried out of the room.
Liz picked up her shoes and followed her sister to the kitchen. Jan began putting the dishes on the table.
She said, “It makes me sick to realize how fat I am. What can I do? Hal never gives me a second glance, any more. I guess he can’t stand to. I’m nothing to him but just a cook.”
Liz was working her feet back into her shoes. “Oh, Jan, don’t exaggerate. You know Hal thinks the world and all of you. And you’re several kinds of lucky to have him.” She stood up, smoothing down her skirt. “But thank you just the same – I’m not staying for one of your delicious dinners. I’d eat too much. Apparently you haven’t noticed it, but I’ve put on several pounds myself. I had Mina put away a pink suit for me the other day. It’s one whole size too small, and I’m going to slim down to it. My motive?” She leaned forward, and moved a plate more exactly into its place on the table. “I’m admitting it to you Jan, and to you alone. Remember Dan Owens, who worked for our firm a year ago and then left for Chicago? I went out with him a bit, but nothing ever came of it. Well, he’s back, still single – and he’s asked me for a date. He’s older than I am – taller – I always regretted that I didn’t give him more encouragement before …” She smiled, her cheeks warming. The two women exchanged a long, understanding look.
“Liz, that’s wonderful,” said Jan. After a few minutes of chatting, she followed her sister to the door, and stood for a moment looking out at the shaded lawn, the roses along the fence, the garden at the side. She thought of the fruit trees in the back yard, and of Hal’s work in what he called their “thumbnail farm,” of his efforts to keep their home attractive and secure. I am lucky, she thought humbly.
As she turned back to her work, she had made a resolve of her own. She would wear the blue voile dress to the Relief Society opening social in September!
For a week, she held to her breakfasts of dry cereal and weak milk and unsweetened fruit juice, her lunch of lettuce and cottage cheese. But it seemed she was forever stopping herself from tasting as she cooked dinner. By the time night came, she was famished.
At the end of the second week, the sisters compared notes. Jan sighed. “Oh, Liz, you look as if you’d fallen away to a shadow. I’ve lost three pounds. I’m starved all the time, and I can hardly see any difference.”
But Jan did not resent her sister’s slimness. Liz was the soul of kindness and encouragement. It was just that she must have been born with great will power, Jan thought.
“Well, I try not to think about it. But for one thing, I’m always cooking. And I’m hungry,” said Jan. “Besides, it seems to me that the whole world is in a conspiracy to make people eat too much. Open a magazine, and what do you see? Gorgeous full-color illustrations of delectable recipes. Luscious cakes and pies and desserts, whipped toppings, cream, bananas, all the rest of it. Then, on the next page, like as not an article advising people against gaining weight.”
“I can see your point,” Liz smiled.
Jan went on bitterly. “It isn’t fair, the emphasis that’s put on food. Just the other day, I heard a friend telling that she and her husband were looking forward to a reunion with a couple they hadn’t seen for years. And what were they planning for entertainment? Eating, of course. They’d saved enough money to go to some swanky restaurant. She was thrilled over food. it’s depressing.”
Liz said, “it’s true. But you don’t really look fat, Jan.”
“That’s sweet of you. By he way, how’s your romance coming along? And what will you do if he asks you out for dinner? Then you won’t be able to get away with ordering limeade or fruit juice.” she asked the question with an air of triumph, as if clinching a point.
“I’ll eat, of course. Then the next day, I’ll cut down to make up for it.”
There were times when Jan didn’t know if she really wanted to get thin. her nerves began to fray, gnawed as they were by the pangs of hunger. Her tongue sharpened, too. A few times she caught Hal looking at her thoughtfully. Once he said, “Hon, you’re getting awfully nervous. Maybe you need a rest?” and she had bit back an edgy reply.
One evening she had baked puffy, brown-topped biscuits for supper. She hadn’t eaten much all day – a slice of stale rye bread and some soup for lunch – hunger pulled at her stomach and destroyed her will. Almost without thinking, she broke open a biscuit, spread butter onto it, and began to eat. She took another.
Hal came into the kitchen. “A–ha! Eating before meals. Something you won’t let us do,” he cried, his square face one big teasing smile.
“No – really. I was just – sampling …”
“I’ll have one, too, now that you’ve let the bars down.” He plopped a whole biscuit into his mouth. Butter oozed at the corners of his lips. “The boys won’t be home. Eating at your mother’s. Had to go to baseball practice over on that side of town.” His voice was thickened by food. He began spooning out jelly.
“M-m-mm – what a good cook I married. This is the best grape jelly you ever made.” He set a plate of steaming biscuits on the table.
Hastily, Jan set on the rest of the meal. “You go ahead and eat,” she said. “I – I’m going out on the porch for a few minutes – my head aches – I’ll be right back.” She fled, unable to bear the sight of his eating.
By the time school opened in September, Jan felt that she had developed a will of iron. All her dresses were much looser, she had lost seven pounds, though what she referred to as her fringe weight fluctuated up and down a pound or two.
One Monday, the day before the opening social, she went to her room and took the beloved blue dress from its hanger. She held it up, her hands trembling with eagerness. Just to make sure, she could let out the seams a little there was plenty of material at the sides. Carefully, she basted and stitched and pressed. At last she slipped it over her head. Strange that it wouldn’t come down easier – she must have forgotten to undo the side zipper – there – well, it must be caught, or something. she pulled gently. At last the dress came down over her shoulders and hips. She smoothed the skirt. She had planned to get a new girdle, anyway. This old thing was worn out. She hummed a little tune, turning sideways, holding her stomach in. She lifted her hands, and let the soft full sleeves drift back on her arms. All at once, there was a sound at the door.
“Why, Hal Davis. how long have you been standing there?”
She let her hands fall onto her head, and patted her hair.
“Just a minute or two. Why are you trying on that old dress, dear?”
She looked up at him, smiling. “Why, this isn’t an old dress. It’s the one you gave me for my birthday – it’s always been my favorite dress. I’m planning to wear it to the opening social tomorrow.” For some reason, her smile had begun to feel tight in her flushed cheeks.
Hal had averted his eyes, and his face had become a careful mask. “I – uh – think you should get a new dress for the social, Jan. You deserve something new, once in a while. You don’t need to wear that old one.”
Jan sat on alone in the room after she heard the front door slam. Hal had kissed her hurriedly and left. She heard the pick-up truck rumbling out along the driveway from the back of the lot.
At last she took off the blue dress and stuffed it into a bag of old clothing hanging in the hall closet. That’s what you get for clinging to something after you’ve outlived it, she told herself.
She went into the kitchen and began listlessly setting the table. They would have to be satisfied with cold cuts and bread and butter and fruit.
After supper, Jan sat on the front porch in the gathering dusk. The boys had gone to an early movie, and Hal had not come home. She looked out across the lawn. The grass looked dry, and there were little swirls of dust along the path. She got up and dragged the hose around to the front of the house and had turned on the lawn sprinkler when she heard the truck return. She was making a little watering trench in front of the zinnias when Hal came around the house. He was carrying a large box.
“Hi, there, dear. Say, I’ll tend to the watering. Why don’t you – uh – see what’s in this box? Liz sent it over.”
Jan continued making a little furrow. She saw with exasperation that it was crooked.
“Yes. I – ran onto her downtown. She said she didn’t have time to come out here. Had a big date on. And she said to tell you she was wearing the pink suit, and that everything looks rosy. Whatever that means.”
He took the stick from her hand.
Jan bit her lip. She took the box into the bedroom to open it. There was a note enclosed. “Dear Jan – I went down to Mina Dee’s. She had this dress – just came in. I couldn’t resist getting it for you. For the social, Liz.”
The dress was of brown and brown-tone muted stripe polished cotton, cut on trim lines. Jan slipped it on. How slim it made her look. And her green earrings would be just right with it. She was putting them on when Hal came in.
“Say, that’s mighty pretty on you.” His eyes met hers in the mirror. He slid his arm around her waist. “I couldn’t have you going out in that old dress. Why, those women would think I’d lost my job.”
“I didn’t know you noticed how I looked.”
“Any old time I don’t.” He took the earring still in her hand and put it on the dresser. Then he put one hand under her chin and raised her face. “It’s just that I’ve been too busy and tired lately to remember that my best girl might need something new once in a while.” He kissed her.
Suddenly she drew back. “Hal Davis. It’s strange that Liz would buy me a dress all of a sudden, when she’s so busy with her own affairs. And how come – now, just what did she tell you?”
He grinned. “Only that I’m a blundering idiot, and I already knew that. Well, I couldn’t buy you a dress. How did I know what to get? So I asked her, if she’d have time before the store closed – I wanted you to have it for tomorrow.”
“Oh, Hal. How sweet – of both of you.” She leaned her cheek against his work shirt. The thought flitted through her mind that she would never know exactly what Liz had told him, but it didn’t seem to matter. “I’m hungry,” Janet sighed, and she relaxed against him.