Remembering a Duchess

Gloria Thompson Carpenter Harvey, 1926–2017. My mom.

She was so beautiful. The calm, imperturbable loveliness that you see in the photo of her as an eighteen-year-old was achieved without the benefit of air-brushing. And she had the posture of a duchess.

The gown was one she’d worn to her first college formal and it was, like her, perfect. Pink, ruched brocade bodice with Victorian sleeves. Sleek straight satin skirt overlain by a film of black chiffon. It hung in a cedar closet when I was a child. And although I wasn’t supposed to touch it, I’d slip it on and stand in front of a mirror, chiffon bunched around my ankles, to see if I was growing up to look like her. That never happened.

Until the age of five, I was an only child and I remember my mother as an attentive angel who always had time for me. We took walks and she defined words like “mortgage” and “parliament.” I’d probably heard them on my grandparents’ radio. Those were peaceful days but they came to a sudden end when my mother gave birth to identical twin girls.

Multiple births had been totally unexpected. (This was the age before sonograms.) Mom was getting awfully large but conventional wisdom held that she was just having a “big boy.” I grew to love my little sisters very much. That would be sometime future. Until they were toddlers, and several years thereafter, they absorbed most of the oxygen in a room and much of my mother’s attention. Nothing unusual as this kind of sibling drama is played out in millions of households around the globe. But there is a larger point. I became used to calling out to my mother and either not having the call heard, or receiving the default “Not now, Sweet Babe. Momma’s busy.”

One summer afternoon when I was seven (I must have been because the twins were toddling) several of my cohorts from the neighborhood and I had improvised a one-act. I don’t remember the particulars. What I do recall is going to the screened-in door of the front porch to call out, “Momma, do you want to come out and see our play?” I expected the usual rebuff. But instead, she said, “Just a minute.”

“Just a minute?” Did that mean that she was coming in “just a minute” or that she’d show up at the front door in a house dress and watch our play for “just a minute”?

My fellow troupers were looking to me for the answer, when suddenly, she appeared. She was breathtaking. A shimmering vision. She was wearing her black sheath skirt with real silk stockings, the kind that had seams down the back. Her shoes were toeless, sling-back pumps. She had selected for the occasion, a short-sleeved satin blouse with a double diamond cut-out on the bodice. It was borderline racy, but okay if you were wearing it in the company of your husband. Her complexion was naturally pale, the color of whole milk, not bluish skimmed, and her lipstick was the brightest in her make-up case. A classic cherry red. She took her seat on a folding chair before the “stage” and drew herself up to her full height. She still had the posture of a duchess.

(The blouse)

Well, we had no choice but to perform. And I’m sure we did, but all I remember is my mother’s encouraging expression. After the five minutes or so that the play lasted she sustained that admiring glow and when we took our bows she applauded gamely. Then, after telling us what a fine job we had done, she disappeared behind the screened door. Within minutes she was back in a house-dress.

My friends looked at me as if to say, “What just happened here?”

I had an inkling, but wouldn’t really know until years later when I had a child of my own, that there are times when the usual effort won’t do. When you’re too tired to take another step, you take another step. And on that summer day, my mother took that step. I know now what it must have cost her, but it was such a show of respect.

Last week, after a long and debilitating illness, she passed away. She was ninety and had withered to a husk. Even at the height of her trials, however, she maintained the grace of a duchess and selflessness of a young mother who put the needs of each and every one of her (eventually) four children above her own. And we four would like to say simply, “We love you, Mom, and we’ll always miss you.”

With so much respect,

Your babies

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