“Mama, can I have this?” my daughter’s voice calls to me from the far corner of my closet. It is a spring Sunday afternoon, and I am currently in the early stages of a closet clean out. She has decided to help me. I use this term loosely as my eight-year-old’s definition of help mainly consists of digging through all my earthly possessions to see if there are any treasures she can claim as her own.
While we work, she entertains us with made up knock-knock jokes. After a few minutes, I notice that she has gone quiet over on my end of the closet I share with my husband. That is when I hear her ask again, “Mama, can I have this?”
I motion her to meet me in the middle so I can see what she is asking about. She slowly walks over, her fist closed tightly around her newly discovered treasure. I can tell she believes this item is of great value and the last thing she wants to do is to turn it over to me.
When I finally manage to coax her to open her clenched fist, I glance down to see a shiny trinket resting in her palm. She tentatively places it in my hands.
The Treasure in Her Palm
I am now holding a vintage sterling silver barrette. Three inches in length, serpentine in shape, and covered in rhinestones, this piece of history is rather heavy. It radiates 1950s glamour. I imagine cocktails and dinner parties where one wears faux fur wraps or satin elbow-length gloves. Certain to be lost in a full bouffant, I picture the clip adorning the sleek sides of chignons or keeping the flyways of poodle cuts obediently sitting still.
My daughter runs her fingers gingerly over the barrette noting where a rhinestone had gone rogue. It may have lost a rhinestone or two throughout the years, but has managed to retain every ounce of its elegance.
She begins to question me about the giver of the jeweled accessory. Thankfully I know exactly to whom it originally belonged with no additional research needed. Clipping the barrette in her hair, I stop my work and sit down in the middle of my closet floor to begin to tell the story.
The barrette belonged to my great-grandmother, my Nanny, the most sophisticated woman I ever knew. Lucy Ovel Higginbothom was born in the winter of 1914 in a small county in central Alabama. Despising the name Ovel, her first display of independence consisted of changing the Ovel to Ethel early in her girlhood. Red hair set off her light blue eyes and porcelain skin, and she always carried with her a wide welcoming smile.
She wore confidence and poise as easily as she wore fine jewelry.
She wore confidence and poise as easily as she wore fine jewelry. She radiated a mixture of steely strength against approachable warmth. A strength captured in every photograph I see of her. Her pose of choice: shoulders back, chin up, and a smile to set everyone at ease.
On Her Own
This confidence and strength led her to launch a dress boutique in the late 1960s. Newly widowed from her husband of 30+ years, Lucy wanted to build something of her own. She had recently relocated to the suburbs of Chicago and opened a small dress shop in the heart of Calumet City.
More impressively, she was in her fifties at the time and carried with her only a third-grade education.
The Nanny I Knew
Well into her sixties by the time that I arrived, Nanny’s white cottage sat a stone’s throw from my grandmother’s (her daughter’s) home where my cousins and I spent summers running a path between the two. We wanted to see what Nanny had on hand for snacks and always received a warm welcome with permission to seek out and help ourselves to any treat that she had available. We knew she remained prepared.
In her small kitchen, a tiny island managed to hold a small wooden tray of crackers, cheese, or fruit at any given time. Lucy Ethel knew the art of curating a rightly balanced charcuterie board before it became trendy.
Struggling with on-going health issues, she spent most of her days lounging in floral pajama sets and satin slippers. I never knew that pajamas came in other materials outside of flannel, so her silk and satin sets equaled grace and sophistication.
We all knew she was ill, yet her elegance did not waver. Her weekly salon appointments kept her curly silver hair maintained and her delicate pearl earrings reminded you that class and sophistication did not take sick leave.
On warm summer days she left her front door open and greeted frequent guests from the comfort of her floral armchair. As I grew older, I crossed the well-worn path to the small white cottage to simply sit on Nanny’s couch and watch as she greeted random relatives that would stop in for a visit.
Rarely do I ever remember her sharing a self-focused story. I am positive that she did at some point, we all do from time to time, but those stories aren’t what stuck with me. Instead, her interaction with each guest is what caught my eye. I watched as people filtered in and out distributing their take on the world, and I noted her response when she sensed a story brewing close to the surface.
She would simply smile and lean back. Her lean signifying your invitation to speak.
Born out of utter sincerity, the lean back and listen never came across as staged. Age had gifted her with time and she remained more than willing to pass it along. Everyone mattered, every story should be told, and if you had the desire to share, she possessed the eagerness to hear.
Age had gifted her with time and she remained more than willing to pass it along.
The Art of Leaning Back
Leaning back is a posture of relaxation and comfort. As a society, we are more familiar with the “lean backs” older sister, the “lean in.” Both seek engagement as their end game, though the lean back’s personality is a bit easier going.
The backward motion settles oneself in place and often accompanies front porch swings, glasses of sweet tea or lemonade, and the time to take in the day. It signals that no story needs to rush through plot points to reach a conclusion. With the lean back, you gently unfold your narrative and if it takes an hour, even better. It welcomes the rambler, the rabbit hole chaser, and the slow talker. I quite enjoy the lean back.
As the longer days of summer approach, embracing the lean back is at the top of my to-do list.
I will set my work to the side, slow a bit, sit on my back porch to merely listen to the birds sing.
I will invite my people over, make a meal, and enjoy their stories.
Simply put, I will lean back.