(Originally appeared in Main Line Life on 5/29/08)
When I was in high school and didn’t even have a boyfriend yet, my girlfriends and I used to go to the one fancy department store near our town – the only one where they sold fine china and silver – and pick out our entire trousseau. A couple of things need to be noted here before I go on. First of all, does anyone use the word trousseau any more, or did that notion go the way of virginity before marriage? (Maybe the two are somehow linked.)
Secondly, even though we were hideously gawky and had no social skills whatsoever (none of us had even been on a date yet) we assumed – we knew – that we would someday meet our prince, and that he would be handsome, and that we would get married and live happily ever after. Complete with a set of china, fine crystal, and a silver or stainless place setting for twelve.
We spent hours in the thickly carpeted, hushed sanctum of The Denver Dry Goods Company where the place settings, crystal, and silver service were displayed museum-like on massive dining room tables covered with fine damask tablecloths, much as we imagined they would be in our own future perfectly appointed homes. It should also be noted here that in my own family we did not own one single piece of crystal, china, or silver. My mother’s proudest purchase for our home up to that point had been an entire set of wildly colorful Melmac dishes procured by trading in several shoeboxes full of Green Stamp booklets.
No matter. I knew that there would be no Melmac or Green Stamps in my life. At the age of thirteen we scrutinized place settings and linens like they were powerful portents of our uncertain future lives – lives that would surely include such things of fine and rare beauty.
A few years down the road, one of those same girlfriends had an older sister who got married the week after graduating from Golden High School. At age eighteen, she was only three years older than we were but that summer after the wedding she seemed as glamorous and mysterious as a movie star. Not only had she now “done it” (we assumed that was one of the main reasons to get married), but her new husband (I think he was all of twenty years old) had a job at Coors. She would be going to work part-time somewhere in town, once they got “settled in” to their new apartment. For their wedding they had received eight place settings of everyday china and stainless. They had four matching placemats with cloth napkins and teak napkin rings. Most of their furniture was stuff given to them by various relatives, but somehow even that shabby, mismatched collection seemed to us a symbol of their coolness. They also had those ubiquitous shelves we all had back then made of large concrete gray bricks and unfinished lumber. Atop the shelves sat the brand new nineteen-inch color television in its place of honor. Oh, how marvelous it seemed when my girlfriends and I would occasionally drop by after school for a visit, drinking Cokes while my girlfriend’s sister glamorously smoked a cigarette.
Naturally my friend’s sister got pregnant right away, and she never did get that part-time job. By the time we were ready to graduate from high school ourselves, the sister had two babies. Sometimes I went with my girlfriend to baby-sit, and we would sit on the formula-stained couch bouncing the babies on our knees as my girlfriend’s sister ran out the door as if being released from a fifty-year stint in solitary confinement. A smell of pot and beer and diaper pail permeated the air. There was no damask tablecloth on the peeling linoleum table. The view from the front room window was one of other dreary apartments across the street. Weedy patches of brown lawn were littered with all manner of rubbish – cracked plastic children’s toys, deflated balls, rusty bikes with wheels missing, small grills so thick with black grease and soot you couldn’t imagine anyone cooking on them, a limp and faded tennis shoe. A general aura of defeat permeated the air, along with the ever-present smell of hops, malt, and barley from the Coors plant down the road. Being there made me itch to be just about anywhere else.