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Boomer's Journal: Waiting for the newest catalog

By Rachel Barduson of Alexandria

This story started with coffee and conversation that, as you will read, led from one thing to another. Maybe you can relate to how this happens.

The prom couple, Ethel and Fred, at prom in 1958. Contributed photo

Lucy and Ethel decided, that amidst Covid restrictions, having an outdoor coffee together must somehow work... and so, they set off to meet at a picnic table at an undisclosed location. While sitting at the table Ethel started laughing because she realized that she was sitting “really low” and she couldn’t rest her elbows comfortably on the table. The bench was too low for the table, and as Lucy looked across the table at her friend, she realized that poor Ethel was indeed, just peeking above the table top. After a good long laugh over this awkward sitting position, Ethel said she had some old catalogs at home that she should dig out because they would work perfectly to prop her to a higher position and, thus... she would be sitting at the correct height for the table.

And so our story begins. The catalogs Ethel was referring to were an Alden’s, a Sears and a Montgomery Ward. Three catalogs basically from the 1950s and ‘60s.

This led to another conversation about how we could hardly wait for the new spring (and fall... and Christmas, for that matter) catalog to arrive in the mailbox each year (really, the old-school online shopping of ‘yore). Ethel said she ordered her 1958 high school prom dress from Alden’s and she still had that dress in her cedar chest.

We all most likely did it “back in the day.” Ordered a dress or two... or something from a catalog, that is. I know that even though mom sewed most all of our clothes, picking out one “bought’n” dress from the JC Penney or Montgomery Ward catalog would be what I hoped to wear on the first day of school of any year. Mom was an expert at the sewing machine, but there was something about that catalog package that arrived in the mail... the smell of the fabric, the creases in the pleats, the label. Since there would only be one bought’n dress each year, making the choice of that one dress was critical... life and death... almost. This was a really big deal.

But, back to the prom dress. Ethel invited Lucy over with a date to unpack the cedar chest that her husband (we’ll call him Fred) had built for her. Tucked in a safe place, there was that chest full of memories about to burst out of their secure place in history. And burst they did. Suddenly the room was filled with lace, tulle, chiffon, nylon, a skirt hoop, silk, the color pink and sky blue and a wedding dress, more lace and tulle, ribbons, gloves, bridesmaids hats, memorabilia, scrapbooks, photos... amazing things telling the story of amazing adventures in the life of a small-town girl. Springtime had exploded straight out of that cedar chest.

The prom dress was on top. The dress Ethel wore to her high school prom with her high school sweetheart (we’re still talking about Fred) in the spring of 1958. We opened the Alden’s catalog she had, and though it wasn’t exactly like her prom dress, the one shown was pink and it was $17. The rayon satin “pumps” that would be the same color pink, were sold for $6. “Glamour gloves” were $2 and the “rayon-satin cotton-backed expanding pouch” in the same pink was $4.

Some of my high school mementos/memories. Photo by Rachel Barduson

As Ethel took her prom dress out of the cedar chest, the lace and tulle and satin popped and creases unfolded just like the first springtime tulips popping through the earth. We spread the dress over the bed and marveled over that tiny waist with the satin cummerbund. The dress was like new and the pink had not faded. Just like the memories, the dress was as fresh as springtime. And oh, how the stories popped as Ethel held that dress in her hands.

Stories I was able to hear just because we needed a catalog to sit on at that picnic table while having coffee.

As things started popping out of the cedar chest, Ethel shared stories about wearing her favorite cocktail dress when she and Fred went out. She held up her wedding dress and suddenly we were back in 1959. Oh my, how tiny the waistlines of those dresses were. We looked at pictures and talked about small town high school memories. And how, even though this small town girl went on to live in big cities, she (and we) would always be small town girls at heart. Even while wearing high heels and white gloves.

Ethel went on to marry her high school sweetheart (yes, the same Fred), who was serving in the Navy when they married on September 4, 1959. The wedding dress and hoop skirt slip, safe and secure in the cedar chest suddenly inspired stories about how the newlyweds moved to Washington, D.C., after they married, because that is where her husband was stationed for a year while serving in the Honor Guard. (He stood at attention at Andrews Air Force Base when Khrushchev arrived to meet with President Eisenhower. He also stood in the Honor Guard over John Foster Dulles as he lay in state in the Washington National Cathedral.)

Memories about how Ethel had a federal government job in the United State Post Office building, top floor, overlooking the Washington Monument. And how she wore a hat and gloves and high-heels to work every single day as she used her special key in the elevator to get to the floor where the office waited for her. Memories about, after living in DC for a year, moving to Norfolk, where their first child, Kevin, was born. (Followed by three more children...Mike, Jill and Kathy).

Fun and precious memories all...

And there was more in the cedar chest! Underneath the dresses we found a Grand Champion ribbon from the Stevens County Fair, a green and white grade-school cheerleading emblem, pictures, a scrapbook that had been made by a friend for a bridal shower.

And finally, one more surprise. Ethel knew it was there. We discovered, between the pages of the Alden’s catalog, the red pressed flower corsage Fred gave her for their 1958 high school prom. (She’s kept Fred all these years too.) The corsage has been perfectly preserved between those colorful catalog pages all these years. Preserved, just like all the memories.

Note: My friend and I went by “Lucy” and “Ethel” when we were together because we seemed to find escapades, capers and adventures out of the ordinary. One of which was shared in this story. Other adventures will remain anonymous

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