Sometimes, a Gucci bag or an Hermès scarf can be a powerful connection to the past
[Editor’s Note: This post is part of a new essay series on the special and sometimes unexpected things that accessories can mean to us. If you’re a writer with an idea that fits this category, please email a pitch, rates and your clips to Amanda at email@example.com.]
My Nana was statuesque, beautiful and overly dramatic at times—truly a force to be reckoned with, on and off the stage. A writer, actress, and model, it was only fitting that she always dressed and accessorized for an audience. When she passed a few years ago, I inherited a Gucci bag and Hermes scarf among other things from her closet, but those remain the two staples I pull out regularly.
Both are equestrian-inspired, which confuses and delights me, considering our family doesn’t really spend that much time on or around horses. The closest I get is attending polo matches, and I’m mostly there to dress up and tailgate, to put it delicately. However, I’m a big collector of riding jackets, boots and the like, because I appreciate the aesthetic. And if my Nana and I shared a similar taste in accessories, what else had I missed out on in our relationship? There’s a certain weight to inherited luxury items that reflects your relationship with the deceased, and mine is tinged with regret at not getting to know her better because our time was cut short.
Alice Solomon was born in 1934 in Florida—not exactly the friendliest time for Jews, and definitely a decade I don’t envy. Her father passed away during her freshman year of college, and her mother pulled her out of university to immediately start secretarial school because there wasn’t enough money to continue her education. She worked as a secretary and a model in Boston for a few years to support herself before meeting my grandfather. They had two sons, including my father, and settled in Framingham, MA.
In 1971, my Nana entered the family into the All-American Family contest, where they represented Massachusetts. It was essentially a quest to find the best representation of the most ‘American’ family, whatever that meant at the time. My dad remembers being flown to a remote part of Florida, where they competed against other families who had been selected for their home states. According to Lehigh Acres by Carla Ulakovic, this was part of a marketing stunt by Lehigh Acres, Florida to enter the national spotlight. “The contest was intended to find and honor the most representative family in America. Thousands entered local and state competitions. Throughout the year, entries were narrowed, and 51 families progressed to the final competition. During an all-expenses-paid trip to Lehigh Acres, contestants participated in different activities and discussions, which allowed the judges to declare the All-American Family.” The winner got a brand new house in Lehigh Acres and all the pomp and circumstance of being the self-proclaimed All-American Family.
Luckily for me—the chances of my father meeting my mother in if he lived in Florida were low—they didn’t end up winning. However, when they got back to New England, my Nana proudly wore the title of ‘Mrs. Massachusetts’ and would show up to events wearing a sash that declared it so, cutting ribbons at mall openings and other events. She was also Mrs. U.S. Savings Bonds for Massachusetts. I would love to show up somewhere and cut a ribbon while wearing a sash, in spite of what that might say about me.
When both of her sons were safely enrolled in college—and, more importantly, out of the house— Nana started taking classes at Wellesley College to finally finish the degree she was forced to interrupt.
After she and my grandfather got a divorce in 1980, she completely rebranded herself at age 46 in a time when personal brands were, blissfully, not a thing. She started a company called Gorgeous Grandmas that focused on finding yourself after age fifty and dating again. She wrote two books on the subject, and also had syndicated columns and would appear on TV and radio shows. I also remember her giving talks on cruises, the ultimate goal for any transplanted West Palm Beacher.
At my Nana’s funeral, in our family plot, there were comments made by fellow mourners that I resembled her, at least in height and dress. I remember wearing a long black cashmere coat with oversized sunglasses, and the rabbi bringing up that both my brother and I were single in her eulogy. While the latter wasn’t warranted, I was comforted by the comments about our similarities, because who wouldn’t aspire to even remotely resemble someone so fabulous?
To borrow a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beautiful and the Damned (which was actually about intoxication), “…there was the indescribable gloss and glamour it gave, like the memories of ephemeral and faded evenings.” That’s how I feel about wearing my Nana’s accessories. I might not have known her as well as I would have liked, especially now that I’m on a similar career path (the writing—definitely not the modeling), but there’s something to be said about even the most remote of connections.
By carrying these accessories and the weight of all they’ve seen, all they’ve been through—glamorous events, trials and triumphs, and loves lost and won over the course of nights and years—they’re with me now and at least some part of her lives on in a material sense. While I’d much rather have her in my life, this is the best I can get, and I can continue to honor her memory by wearing her scarf and carrying her bag to places she would have enjoyed, and thinking of her while I do it.
Contemplating your own mortality shouldn’t be at the forefront of your mind while making luxury purchases, but it does provide a gravitas and purpose to buying something extravagant, even if you just need the extra incentive of passing it down to justify credit card debt. But I’m glad my Nana (or grandfather) splurged on these things, because they’re something I now get to dually enjoy and remember her by.
And as much as I loathe social media holidays to the very core of my being, on July 23, I will be celebrating Gorgeous Grandmas Day to the best of my ability. Preferably in a gown, while drinking a martini, swathed in my Hermes scarf, with my Gucci bag tucked under my arm, and raising a glass to my Nana, Alice Solomon, the woman who could—and did—do it all.
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