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A Closet Full Of America: Playing Dress-Up In An Irish Farmhouse

Aine Greaney: "That closet had been my own America -- a bright, iconic country where an immigrant woman could wear dresses just like those worn by the late president’s wife."
(Amy Treasure/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
Aine Greaney: "That closet had been my own America -- a bright, iconic country where an immigrant woman could wear dresses just like those worn by the late president’s wife." (Amy Treasure/Unsplash)

Our old farmhouse in County Mayo had a big kitchen closet stuffed with American fashions. I recall two Jackie O-style shift dresses — one teal, one scarlet. There was a child’s dress in Popsicle orange gingham. Lots of sleeveless blouses in bold prints. Lemon hued pedal pushers. A mackintosh in bright fuchsia, and, on the closet’s bottom shelf, a pink satin and tulle debutante’s dress that was too full and flouncy for a storage box.

The clothes were gifts from my great-aunt Minnie, who mailed an annual box of hand-me-downs from her home in New York.

The clothes were gifts from my great-aunt Minnie, who mailed an annual box of hand-me-downs from her home in New York.

Two generations earlier, in 1905, Aunt Minnie had emigrated from that same house and farm, and the records show that she arrived at Ellis Island on May 19. She was 17 and carried 10 dollars.

By the 1960s, she was a glamorous Long Island matriarch who could afford to ship her American-born family’s castoffs to us, the Irish relatives.

Such home-country remittances or gifts are a long and duty-bound tradition among immigrant groups. But in arch-conservative, 1960s Ireland, there was one big problem with my aunt’s generosity: A respectable and God-fearing family like ours would never let a daughter leave the house in yellow pedal pushers.

Still, nothing was as exciting as watching John, our village postman, dismount from his black bicycle to stride across to the kitchen door with the news: There was a foreign box — too big and heavy for his bicycle — waiting for us at the village post office. My two brothers were dispatched across the fields to fetch home the goodies from a set of cousins we knew only from snapshots.

We girls got clothes. Most years, the boys got dog-eared comic books bearing too many exclamation points and baffling storylines.

One year, circa 1969, I received a pair of turquoise corduroys with pockets in the front and back – I had never seen anything so plush and exotic, and what was anyone supposed to keep in all those pockets? Now, as everyone knew, slacks — if not the turquoise kind — were just for men and boys. We double checked the gift tag and my aunt’s perfect handwriting. Yes, indeed, they were for me. Alas, they, too, were destined for the kitchen storage closet.

Aine Greaney: "...in arch-conservative, 1960s Ireland, there was one big problem with my aunt’s generosity: A respectable and God-fearing family like ours would never let a daughter leave the house in yellow pedal pushers." (Matias Dubini/Unsplash)
Aine Greaney: "...in arch-conservative, 1960s Ireland, there was one big problem with my aunt’s generosity: A respectable and God-fearing family like ours would never let a daughter leave the house in yellow pedal pushers." (Matias Dubini/Unsplash)

Some Saturdays, I got up before sunrise and tiptoed through the sleeping house to switch on the light and unlatch the closet’s double doors to play dress up. The colored blouses hit half-way down my thighs, while the red and teal shift dresses fell beyond my ankles. But as I swished around our turf-smoky little kitchen, I was transported to a place where it was sunny enough to go without sleeves or cardigans. I held those turquoise corduroys against myself. Unfettered by my hand-knit sweaters and brown tartan skirts, just how fast and far could an 8-year-old schoolgirl run?

I recall two Jackie O-style shift dresses ... Lemon hued pedal pushers. A mackintosh in bright fuchsia, and, on the closet’s bottom shelf, a pink satin and tulle debutante’s dress that was too full and flouncy for a storage box.

Except for these weekend dress-up games, the only time we foraged through that closet was to strip some of the items for parts. Once, I ripped the giant bow off that debutante’s dress to make angel’s wings for a school play. Twisted together, the comic books made excellent draft stoppers to stuff around our farmhouse windows. My thrifty and demure mother began to wear her fuchsia mackintosh in the upper farmyard, safe from peering eyes and parish gossips. I can still picture her there, her chic New York coat converted to a kind of surgical scrub to muck out the stable stalls.

One day, when I was 10, we left that house for a much better and bigger abode within walking distance. This was also around the time when Aunt Minnie, then over 80, departed New York for a place called Oregon, where she spent her final years with her only son and his family.

The deliveries from America stopped. Ireland joined the European Union. My mother bought me a Marcia Brady-styled polyester pantsuit in navy blue with red trim. Without heat or maintenance, our ancestral farmhouse caved in upon itself. Two centuries’ worth of thatch and rubble collapsed upon and around that closet that had been my own America — a bright, iconic country where, at least back then, an immigrant woman could wear dresses just like those worn by the late president’s wife.

Read More By Aine Greaney:

Aine Greaney Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Aine Greaney is an Irish-born writer who now lives on Boston's North Shore. In addition to her four books, she has published many essays, short stories and features in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland.

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