With August approaching in several months, I can’t help but think back to when I was nine and onward into my young adult years because August meant dragging wool skirts and dresses out of the cedar chest.
Perhaps you may not know what a cedar chest is for in today’s world, very few people own them—instead many have cedar lined closets if at all. A cedar chest was and is made of cedar wood and looks like a trunk; the wood is reddish in color and has a distinct smell. Some were huge while others were medium sized and their purpose was two-fold: To save things for a future wedding or to store wool clothes. The main purpose was to keep moths out of wool clothing and it worked.
Worked if mothballs were added. Some people went overboard and literally poured the entire box into the cedar chest on top of wool clothing. To this day I can conjure up that smell and I am back standing in my grandmother’s back bedroom as she pulled out my wool clothes and put them on a twin bed.
And every single August it was as hot as blazes for there was no air conditioning then. I’d have to put on a wool skirt and stand like a mummy while my grandmother either lowered or shortened the hem on each skirt. First she used straight pins to mark the hem and made me turn slowly—which was not easy for a nine year old or later a teenager.
Picture many wool skirts and dresses and then picture my having to stand there scarcely able to breathe or move as she slowly pinned every single one of them on the hems. The mothball smell was intoxicating to the point of almost fainting on my part. I’m not sure which was worse—the mothball smell or the heat but the combination was downright horrid.
It was no easy task for her either for she had to squat down as she pinned the hems on every skirt and dress. And far worse, was that she would later have to sew the hems either shorter or longer depending upon the hem length that year.
This daunting task seemed to go on for hours upon end for it had to be done in one afternoon.
I never stayed while she sewed the hems: In retrospect, I should have considering all of the hard work that was ahead of her. It was appreciated for those were the times when people looked at hems on skirts and dresses. Too short, too long or uneven? Why that was considered ghastly and a fashion faux pas. Looking back it was totally stupid and yet it was a fashion rule that had to be followed.
Every single August this procedure was repeated again and again: Dragging out wool skirts and dresses out of the fumy mothball smelling cedar chest and my standing there as my grandmother would say “Stand still. Turn. Turn again.” She was using straight pins on the hems. And every single August on the day that this task was started was so blasted hot that swear literally poured down both of our faces while I had wool clothing on to beat it all.
This yearly ritual went on into my early twenties. Hemlines went up and then down and every year was never the same for who knew what the then-fashion police would come up with? It was a task that I dreaded as did my grandmother and then there still lingered the overwhelming mothball smell. By this time I was used to it in a way but it still made me nauseated.
It was during my early twenties or so that polyester arrived on the scene for both men and women’s clothes. It didn’t require being stored in a cedar chest or being deluged with mothballs but it had a peculiar smell that made my eyes sting. Oh I still wore some wool skirts and dresses that required being hemmed and they had been stored in the cedar chest with the ever present mothballs.
And once again my grandmother and I went through the tortuous ritual of my standing still while she straight pinned each hem on a skirt or dress. It again was always August and always a sweltering day complete with those fumes.
Into my late twenties, my grandmother died and I mourned not only her passing but those hot August days spent with her for despite it all, it was a time for our togetherness. My mom inherited her cedar chest and then later on I would receive it. Did I keep wool clothing in it? Of course I did and sprinkled mothballs over the clothes –but not a lot of them.
In today’s world no one seems to care if a hem is uneven or not, nor does anyone have her skirts or dresses shortened or lengthened each summer. It is now just a memory. But rest assured that every August my mind goes back to those hot days, breathing the fumes of mothballs and having to stand like a zombie in wool clothes and hearing “Stand. Stand still. Turn.”
I miss my grandmother deeply but I will never miss the torture of all of that which happened every single sweltering August day. Fashion made a statement then and it certainly makes one now for anything goes! Hem too short? Hem too long? Hem un-even? No one cares and maybe that’s a good thing after all for the world in which we live is far more complicated now without adding more worries.
But I will never forget August and the smell of mothballs.
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