Monday, May 7, 2012

Cinco de Mayo

It was my distinct pleasure to fly to Spokane, Washington, from my home in Baltimore this weekend to attend a party for my best friend Kari’s father’s 80th birthday. As Lyle’s birthday, and the party, fell on Cinco de Mayo, which marks a Mexican military victory over an invading French army in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, it was Kari’s mom, Joyce’s, idea to plan a festive surprise fete with a Mexican theme.

In the weeks leading up to the party, I did some shopping in search of something fabulous to wear on the big day. And indeed, on one such foray I spied a perfect dress in an exclusive boutique among the trendy Green Spring Station shops in Baltimore County. It was white eyelet, with a peasant blouse neckline. Perfect, except for the $350 price tag.

Discouraged, I decided to make a thorough review of my own closet to see if I could put together something appropriate with a Latin theme from garments I already owned. A floor-length broomstick skirt with a peasant top and a tooled leather belt, perhaps. As I flipped purposefully through one dress after another, nothing jumped out at me as suitable, let alone fabulous.

Then I saw THE DRESS. The tea-length frock was hand-made for me by my grandmother in the 1970s from a pattern she used to make a similar dress for my mother back in 1945. At the time the original dress was made, my mother was in her mid 30s, single, and employed at Cal Tech Pasadena, working as a civilian draftsman on top secret blueprints for the Navy. She wouldn’t meet and marry my dad for another eight years.

My mother’s original cotton dress featured tiny "lifesavers" in primary colors embroidered all over the crisp white fabric. At 5’ 6" and with enviable proportions, my mother cut an impressive figure in those days. The men in the drafting room called her "the body". She told tales of wearing that dress and having her fellow draftsmen trace circles in the colorful eyelet holes with their pencils.
"Lifesaver" dress, June 1988
The "lifesaver" dress was eventually handed down to me. With its a plunging neckline, it was just a bit too risqué to wear to work at JCPenney although, Heaven knows, I probably would have sold more televisions in my 12-year career there had I been able to give my sales pitch in that outfit. As it was, I did dare to wear it on my last day at JCPenney in 1988, when I was presented with a going-away cake by the store manager. After all, what were they going to do, fire me?

I adored the "lifesaver" dress and wore it until the cotton was so frayed that it threatened to spontaneously decombust. Before that happened, however, I asked my grandmother to make me another one from the same pattern. When she surprised me with the completed garment several months later, I was dismayed that the reincarnation evoked a completely different style. Fabricated in a cheery windowpane plaid of black with spring pastels and trimmed in an intricate loopbraid rick-rack, the new version featured a ruched bust with a far more modest, peasant-style neckline which could be worn on or off the shoulders. I didn’t betray my disappointment to my grandmother, but I never wore the dress.
Fast forward to 2012. Both my mother and my grandmother are long gone. But here was the plaid dress so lovingly made by my grandmother’s hand back in the 1970s, hanging in my closet under a vinyl cover to protect it from the ravages of time. Made in classic 1940s style with fitted darts and a hidden side zipper, I slipped it over my head. It was a perfect fit. Worn off the shoulders, it would suit the Cinco de Mayo theme beautifully. I didn’t have to go shopping, after all.

I found a pair of Aldo platform T-straps in my closet with ecru macramé covering the vamps and rustic wood heels that would complement the dress but not compete with it. To my suitcase I added a spray of black fabric flowers for my hair and turquoise jewelry to keep with the Latin theme.

Once in Spokane, a group of us girls helped Kari’s mother prepare the hotel’s banquet room for the party. We adorned surfaces with adorable donkey piñatas and colorful mariachis. We tied festive balloons to weighted sprays heralding "happy 80th birthday!" at the center of every table. We prepared baskets of stick-on mustaches to hand out to the men and colorful necklaces of beads with red peppers to hand out to the women. Then we all retreated to our hotel rooms to get ready.

Lyle's 80th birthday party was a raging success. Believing he was attending a small Cinco de Mayo luncheon hosted by Joyce’s employer, Lyle was completely surprised when he walked into the banquet room and was greeted by a crowd numbering well over 100 who immediately started singing "happy birthday".  As beer and wine flowed, guests feasted on carved beef and sautéed chicken breasts, potato and pasta salads, an array of cheeses and crudités, and a fabulous chocolate birthday cake.

I was gleeful in my vintage plaid dress, happy that I found the perfect thing to wear, but excited most of all to be sharing such a special day with my best friend and her wonderful family.
¡Feliz cumpleaños papa!

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