“I had a dress just like that”

Ruth was standing in front of a large display case with several short, beaded dresses in different colors arrayed on mannequins. In the background, Coon-Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra was playing ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”.  Her face was shining, sixty years had melted away from her slender, octogenarian frame.  Anyone could see that she had always and did still possess the  soul of a flapper.

“I had a dress just like that” she said, pointing at one of the mannequins.  “Dress” was a generous term for the garment in the display at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s exhibition . Long strings of beads were draped over the length of the mannequin’s body, clinging to  every curve. How this effect was achieved was a mystery since there was nothing between the beads and the body underneath. I imagined for a moment Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston , bending her legs back at the knees and swinging her arms forward and back. At each jaunty movement, the strings of beads would swing revealing a thrilling glimpse of a curve, a shape, a shadow.

Perhaps more surprising than the thought of Ruth in such a revealing dress was that there was not the slightest note of embarrassment or regret in identifying something so emblematic of her adventurous youth. In fact, there was more a tone of pride at her independence and strength.  Born in 1901, Ruth remained unattached throughout most of the jazz age, enjoying the freedom that unmarried life allowed her. She was the youngest of her siblings, and her father, a politician and businessman, was perhaps too busy to monitor all of her activities. When she got in trouble, which, by her own admission, happened with some frequency, her father Henry would say with a sigh, “Well Ruthy, now you’ve done that!”

When her father moved to Washington DC for a position in the new president’s cabinet, he took Ruth with him. With new responsibilities and a visibility that brought an end to her flapper life, Ruth was now ready for marriage and building a family. It didn’t take long before she met her Scandinavian  husband, Nils. His propriety might have chased away her flapper soul, but it was still there, more visible to her grandchildren than her children. Her face drawn in a wry smile, often with one eyebrow cocked, she would tell stories from her childhood and recite playful verses, sometimes with the Scottish brogue of her great grandparents.

It was one of Ruth’s grandchildren who reported this episode from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum and his unexpected encounter with her flapper soul.  Ruth’s years of dance and jazz and mischief long submerged, came rushing up to the surface, and he was there to see and hear it all.

Our youth is never as far away as we imagine. Sometimes it dwells just beneath the surface, simply waiting for an invitation. Sometimes circumstances,  sensory cues,  or nothing at all brings the energy of youth flooding back. If we are lucky, we find the words and images to capture an experience or emotion we thought was lost. If we are even luckier, we find an inquisitive reporter and able writer who can ask the questions that will bring us further and deeper into our past, gently gather our memories and bring them into the light with words that make the past, present again.

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