Inspiration from a Sophisticated Lady

by Kathy H. Ely

I made my coffee with a percolator this morning. Most of you likely rely on Starbucks, maybe an exotic French press, and have no idea what that is. The shiny silver pot, with recognizable black accents and fancy handle, was one of the Fifties revolutions, a slightly marvelous invention: you put the water in the bottom, ground coffee in the little basket that is smartly attached to the spring-loaded pole inside. And plug it in! The water is pulled up and over the coffee, allowing it to drip naturally through. Yummm.

It’s been a long time, but mostly what it did for me this morning, as I sat with my 96-year-old aunt, is flood more memories into what has already been a heady week. Time has practically ceased in these walls, with flowery wallpaper and mahogany furniture, patterns of china and crystal that my own mom owned back in the day. As an aging baby boomer myself, I am not alone in this somewhat onerous task of cleaning out a home, alternately sad and fascinating.

Who is this person I only know a little? The collection of ceramic poodles remind Angela and me of Suzette, her beloved pet of years past; with no children in the household, she regularly dressed up this white ball of fluff. A picture of them together is always close by, and it gives her joy to remember. Flowers, both ceramic and creepily dried, a selection of People magazines, dozens of VHS tapes, home-painted chotzkies, all evoke the elderly lady I've known my whole life.

The other magazine collection speaks to another side of this 20th-century woman. Stacks of Architectural Digests tell of her appreciation of the nicer side of life.  Binders upon binders of Broadway Playbills, stacked next to hundreds of programs from The Met—with her notes of favorite operas from her subscription days—speak to her love of culture. She must have looked amazing heading to the city in those jaunty hats we found, most in their original round hat boxes. (Vintage fashion lovers would appreciate the color-coordinated, open collar sweater sets and classy suits we discovered in the closet, tissue-paper still wrapping them in their own orange and grey boxes from the Fifth Avenue purveyor.) The glamorous tableside pictures from New York’s Latin Quarter and the Hawaiian Room show that style, smiling moments from her fun-loving youth.

Was it this sophisticated lady who inspired me in my early years? It was Angela who gifted my eight-year-old self with what I thought then was a glorious, glamorous peignoir set of nightgown and silky robe. On our annual Thanksgiving visit, when she and Uncle Bernie took me to New York City as a curious girl, I was wowed by Rockefeller Center and the trip to the top of the RCA building and the skating rink, years before it was a regular rite of passage for pre-teens on their birthdays. The assorted esoteric magazines in this basement, leftovers from their business as small publication distributors in the big city, no doubt introduced me to my lifelong profession as a magazine editor and writer. She ran the business side, so it was natural to challenge a young woman to succeed as they had, on their own, undaunted by mega-publishers. They saw me as an adult in a way my own parents couldn’t— even let me write letters to their clients on the Olympia typewriter (now in my take-home box). This is what happens when you don’t have to deal with diapers and discipline. I was the richer for it, even if it doomed her to a solitary old age.

So this morning, we'll head back into the attic to see what other treasures we can uncover, and hope that the memories will take us all to a good place, far away from the sadness of failing health and loneliness and moving out of a home. We'll probe her memory for stories and tales of Hoboken in the time of Sinatra, of Italian relatives and fancy trips.  All of this has set my mind to percolating. She was a Konenkii woman, complicated and many-faceted. And boy, does she have stuff to make her smile!

Who was a female inspiration to you when you were young? How did she inspire you? how did your life change because of her?