Ila’s Gloves

Surprising, that’s what the gloves are, although I can’t imagine why. I come across them every year when I clean out my dresser, yet somehow they always stop me cold.

Normally, I use them as a stalling tactic. After the tedium of inspecting unworn nylons for snags, and rolling socks into color-coordinated balls, the dainty gloves are a diversion, an invitation to play dress-up. I lay them out on the bed and pick up my favorite pair, the powder blue ones. They’re so delicate and feminine that to even put them on takes you back in time. I line up the exposed seams with each finger and adjust the ruched material over my wrists. They look a bit silly with my grubby tank top and faded sweat shorts, but my hands, at least, look fabulous. With the right dress – say, a silk shantung sheath, or a tidy little suit in powder blue – I could be a Frenchwoman. Or Jackie Kennedy. Or my grandmother Ila, whose gloves these are and who killed herself before I was born.

Next, I try on the short white pair. They are made of thick, soft cotton with eyelet cutouts just over the wristbones, very girlish and Sandra Dee. Or Mickey Mouse, which is who I look like, so I take them off and put on the pink ones. These are quite plain, aside from the color, and my least favorite pair, for some reason.

The gloves that really makes me wonder, though, are the green ones. These are Gilda gloves, long, elbow-length, vivid green satin with darker panels on the palms. Stripper gloves. Where in the world did Grandma Ila ever wear these? More importantly, what was she doing when she had them on?

They don’t fit the picture of her in my head but that’s probably because she’s only a shabby composite of other people’s memories anyway. My favorite story is one of my mother’s, who adored her mother-in-law. One afternoon, the two of them, along with my mother’s own mom and my two aunts all went to the movies. On the way, the car got a flat tire and while the other women discussed what to do, Ila stripped off her gloves (the pink ones? the blue? no grease stains or tire tread marks to give her away), and changed the tire herself.

Other memories, mostly from my mother: Ila, with one beautiful hand with its long, shapely nails always wrapped around a Coke can, the other waving a cigarette as she talked; Ila, teaching my mom to knit; Ila, bringing presents for my older sister and my unborn brother – still just a bump in my mom’s belly – and importuning my mother to go shopping with her; Ila, waving goodbye from the back window of the car after Mom begged off, not knowing it was the last time she’d see her mother-in-law; Ila, the bloody mess who shot herself in the chest in her daughter’s bedroom. (No bloodstains on the gloves, either. You don’t need to dress up to commit suicide, apparently.)

Funny, how you can adopt someone else’s memories so that they become your own. Why can I so clearly see the tag on her coffin flapping in the wind on that September day at the cemetery when I wasn’t even a twinkle in my Daddy’s eye yet? Why can I watch her stripping off those gloves to change that flat tire, as if it’s a scene in a movie, as if I was there? These are more than academic questions. I’ve so created Ila, beautiful doomed heroine who gives my family history some cachet, that I have forgotten she was a real woman. I didn’t even see a picture of her until I was in my twenties. More disturbing still, I didn’t notice the haunted look in her eyes until a good friend pointed it out. All I noticed was the thin, gorgeous rightness of her pencil skirt, high-heeled pumps, and dark lipstick. All I noticed was the beautiful woman with the long, tapered fingers who I never got to know because of some “accident.”

But it wasn’t an accident and that begs the following questions: Why did she do it, and what effect can it possibly have on me over forty years later, when I didn’t even know her?

Which just goes to show you that cleaning out your bureau can be dangerous business. So, I gently tuck the gloves back in the drawer and go back to sorting bras, knowing the questions will be there the next time, my resolutions to keep my lingerie drawer neat as much a sham as the beautiful Ila of the green, blue, pink, and white gloves.