Their Easter Best

A Woodlawn grandmother keeps alive the holiday tradition of having little girls look like little girls, in crinoline and white stockings.

April 22, 2000|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The children's catalogs arrive in February, and every few days a grandmother in the suburbs sits in her pink kitchen and dreams.

Easter would not be Easter without silk or satin, so Alice Greene thumbs through the pages, leaving check marks by dresses she likes. By March, she has made up her mind.

But it takes an IRS refund for a girl to look her best.

So in Woodlawn, a grandmother waits.

When Alice was a girl, her mother sewed her Easter dresses. She stitched by hand and left the tricky parts for a neighbor and a sewing machine next door. "I would ask every day when I came home from school: `Did Mrs. Parker bring my dress? Did Mrs. Parker bring my dress?' "

A little girl was not allowed to show her friends the yellow organdy pinned to a pattern. Not until Easter morning, when she stepped onto the porch in her white Mary Janes and her lacey gloves and her straw bonnet and her puffy sleeves and her billowy skirt and, at her waist, a satin sash and a bouquet of daisies.

"I thought I was a little princess," Alice says. "I was gangly and thin and I thought I looked like a scarecrow, but to myself that day, I thought I was perfect."

When Alice was a girl, in the 1940s and early '50s, everyone in Baltimore dressed for Easter. White people held a parade on North Charles Street; black people held theirs on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Alice and her sister Frances never promenaded, but they walked blocks to see the parade. Frances was eight years older. She wore nylons and heels, dreamed of designing dresses and nicknamed Alice "Bunny."

On Pennsylvania Avenue, the sisters craned to see.

Here they come!

"You cannot tell me those men did not think they were fit to kill!" Frances slaps her thigh and laughs out loud, all these years later. "They had those zoot suits and a brim on their hats from here to Las Vegas!"

Here they come!

Frances struts around the coffee table, 73 now, with her hand on her hip, her chin in the air, a make-believe purse on her arm.

She says, "You would see some of the prettiest hats. And some of those women would have on the prettiest suits. And the children, that's another thing. They had their little dresses and their gloves and their little pocketbooks and they looked so cute. Like little dolls."

Alice and Frances just watched. Their mother, who favored navy dresses and sailor hats, frowned on such display.

Bessie Devore taught her girls to keep their left hands on their laps, to never reach across the table, to ask to be excused.

Her girls did not wear heels before they were 16, lipstick before they were 18, black before they were 21.

They did not leave the porch without hats and gloves. All these years later, 64-year-old Alice still wears a hat and gloves -- along with furs in winter -- every Sunday to Payne Memorial AME Church.

She is the one who favors their mother. Alice has her light skin, her penchant for navy, her mother's belief that a girl should always look her best.

So for 30 years, Alice has spent her IRS refunds buying Easter outfits for her children. For Ronnie and Randy, she bought short pants, knee socks and brown shoes.

For Robin, Renee, Raina and Rae-lynn, there were crinoline, anklets and spring coats of light wool, with gold buttons and lace cuffs.

Even after she retired from the Social Security Administration, after her husband died and the refunds became smaller, she still makes certain her grandchildren look their best.

Alice used to buy their Easter dresses at the big department stores, but styles have become so casual that now she shops in boutiques. No one makes a spring coat anymore.

Not one with lace cuffs.

Not one like Alice remembers.

"Now you look at some of these kids, 7 and 8, and they look like midget women," Frances says. "They have on these old clothes and no hats, and some of them have the nerve to have a skirt with a slit running way up the sides. I mean 7 and 8 years old! You talk about times changing. I mean times have changed!"

Alice remembers shopping with her mother in the 1940s. They were in the old May Co., in the basement, because the basement was the only place in the store where blacks could shop.

Alice was holding her mother's hand when she reached out to touch the sleeve of a dress.

The sales ladies pounced: Are you going to buy that?

"Mother refused to spend her money where she couldn't try on clothes," Alice says. She made their Easter dresses instead.

In recent years, Alice has ordered from catalogs, but this year, one of her daughters spied a rack of satin dresses at Nordstrom. So here Alice is on a Friday afternoon, looking.

Too fancy.

Too busy.

Too dark for Easter.

She is shopping for five grand-daughters, two of them infants. She likes to dress them the same, but the oldest will no longer wear crinoline and white stockings.

She is 12 and wants a sleeveless dress, though Alice refuses. Not sleeveless. Not without a sweater. Not for Easter.

Now Alice is back home in Woodlawn. She sits on the edge of the bed in her pink bedroom, waiting for the girls to try on their new dresses.

Here they come!

They giggle and blush and pose in the dresser mirror. They take turns parading in front of Alice. She tugs at one's sleeve, adjusts another's hat, tells the third to tuck in her tummy.

"You look beautiful."

"You look like a little princess."

Then they run barefoot down the hall on the pink carpet, leaving Alice with empty bags and that empty feeling parents have at Christmas when the gifts are open and the children gone.

Later, Alice sits on the front step, dreaming.

Imagine the girls on Easter morning, imagine them standing here in front of the boxwoods, lined up on the sidewalk in their pink dresses and white hats, their lacey gloves and shiny shoes, looking and feeling perfect.

Alice smiles.

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