The Corsage

Start at the beginning of this story: Ties.

Read Part 2 of this story: The Jitters.

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“Oh, Nelson, there you are,” Minnie said, as if he’d been hiding from her all morning. She held out the corsage for him, and he took it.

“Good morning, Mrs. Wilson.”

“I thought it would be nice if you pinned it on her. A break in tradition, of course, but so is your seeing Bernice before the ceremony.”

“She’s calling it an elopement,” he said to ease the sting he sensed in her voice, “but I suppose it’s not really one if everyone already knows about it, is it?”

Minnie ignored the question. Nelson cleared the smile from his face and looked down at the flowers in his hand. He immediately regretted mentioning it. Their decision to be married in Indiana must have been the reason for Minnie’s countenance in the window. Probably she’d prefer their wedding take place in the Baptist church in town. A church as full of flowers as friends and their pastor presiding over the ceremony. Certainly, that’s what Minnie would prefer. Nelson looked back up at his fiancee’s mother and was surprised to find a small smile on her face.

“We spent all morning on Bernice’s hair, Wilma and I. It seems to be as stubborn as she is. Of course she wanted to look in the mirror and fuss over it herself, but I stood between her and the mirror so Wilma’s work would be a surprise. She’s nervous, Bernice is, she’s never been one to want attention, not like her sister. Well, you know that, of course, otherwise you would have decided to keep the wedding here . . . Look at you! You look fine, just fine. That vest, is it new? Seems like I would have seen it at church if it weren’t.”

The Durant Hotel, largest hotel in Flint at the time, named after the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant.
The Durant Hotel, largest hotel in Flint at the time, named after the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant.

“It is new, yes.” Nelson said, slightly disappointed that his hand-me-down vest was noticed but not his tie.

“Are you hungry? I’ve made a cake, Wilma’s whipping up eggs for us now, the dear, and Father just brought over a ham that would put the chef at The Durant to shame. He seems in better spirits today. He has his ups and his downs, you know. It was hard enough to lose my mother; seeing him dowse about in his grief all day may be harder still. Some days I have to pull him by his shirtsleeves out of that house of his. Of course, having him right next door keeps him from loneliness. I feel like a pest to him, but I do have to shake him about from time to time or he’d sit by the fire with his bowie and his twigs till services come Sunday.”

“It’s good that you do, ma’am.”

“Oh, Nelson, thank you for saying so. But, we’re to focus on happier things today, aren’t we? We should get you in to see everyone. Your family came by this morning with impressive zinnias and hyacinth, and Bernice’s bouquet? It’s gorgeous, just gorgeous. Between the flowers and the ham, my nose just doesn’t know what to follow. Now what’s taking her so long?”

Nelson followed Minnie into the house. Minnie continued down the hallway that led to the bedrooms—he assumed to check in with Bernice—leaving him in the parlor for a moment alone.

Jennie had indeed come by. A smell of the flowers had nudged him at the door, he had thought it was Minnie’s perfume. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the parlor erupting in vases of flowers—on top of the china cabinet in the corner, the side table next to Fred’s favorite chair, the low buffet along the window displaying all the pictures of the family, any flat surface had a vase. Some even had two or three. For a room so full of fresh flowers, the smell was not cloying. Probably because it was early May after a cold April. In a month when the flowers were more mature, the pollen would absolutely saturate the room, even now the sweetness was strong enough to make him pause.

He imagined these flowers hanging on the walls in the church, wreaths on every pew, every pew full of their family. He imagined the bouquet in Bernice’s hand. And then he remembered the corsage Minnie had given him at the door, still in his own hand. He placed it on the table with the pictures, moving two vases of flowers aside and picking up the photo nearest him. It was of the family, back when Bernice, Wilma, and George were still in grade school.

Minnie, on the bottom right of the picture, looked pretty in a way young mothers tend to be—self-assured, ready for whatever’s next, necessary. Wilma stood in the back on the left, her hair draped and pinned creating a veil over her left eye. George’s thin eyebrow cocked at exactly the same angle as his father’s beside him. His hand rested self-consciously on Fred’s shoulder: a pose that would never occur without the suggestion of a professional photographer.

And his Bernice, in her circular glasses set askew on her nose, her mouth pursed, her head angled slightly to the right toward her younger sister. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the sisters looked as if they may have been haggling for the center of the portrait a few moments before the picture was taken. It occurred to Nelson that this was his first look at his bride on their wedding day: a modest picture of an 11-year-old girl with the same unblinking look that had flashed on her face when he first suggested she marry him.

circa 1922
The Wilsons, circa 1922

 

The Jitters

The first chapter of this story can be found here: Ties.

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The sedan sputtered because of the series of divots the spring storms pounded into Potter Road. He’d need to check the suspension before setting off for Indiana later. But once Nelson had passed the Conoco station and turned left onto Dillon, he heard the engine ease back into a sturdier rhythm, and he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel.

Conoco Station, Flushing, Michigan, circa 1929 - source: gaspumps.info
Conoco Station, Flushing, Michigan – source: gaspumps.info

Pulling into the driveway, he saw his soon-to-be parents-in-laws’ faces in the front window. The morning sun illuminated them. Minnie was saying something to her husband, Fred, her chin pointed toward her shoulder, but her eyes looked directly out the window at Nelson’s Chevrolet rolling to a stop.  She wore a red cardigan, and a skirt with a vaguely floral pattern of red and light green. Her hair was twisted back into a loose bun; she’d obviously been cooking recently.

Minnie’s right hand held the lace curtain to the side. The glare off the window blurred the line between her cuff and the curtain. To him, it looked as though her sleeve dripped with lace, like the overstated frocks Queen Victoria wore in her portraits. He imagined Minnie with a crown and a choking collar, but the image didn’t hold. Although she didn’t look too friendly just then, he knew Minnie to be down-to-earth, not at all a queen.

Nelson’s stomach lurched as he pressed down on the brakes. He could gauge Minnie’s tone of voice by the way Fred was standing behind her and to her left frowning: she was getting her way about something. Fred’s already arched eyebrow curled even higher. His eyes moved from Nelson’s car, past the houses across the street to the manicured Michigan fields of young soybeans and corn. Nelson was sure Fred was thinking of his fields, of the quiet, hard work of the farm to be done after the percussions of this morning. Nelson had always felt he had that in common with Fred: an appreciation for action over words.

Nelson jittered out of the car much like the engine of his Chevrolet sputtered. He checked the front wheel, patted the hood twice—all to prepare himself to be the center of attention for the day. It was a role he was not comfortable with; a role he would usually avoid. He looked up at the window again to smile or wave—a conscious decision to start the day out well—but saw that his fiancee’s parents had disassembled their tableau in the window and that Wilma and her husband, George, were seated around the dining room table. A pink and thickly frosted cake sitting between them. No sign of Bernice. He wished she’d been waiting for him on the porch. He felt like he needed her as a buffer, having never been around her family before without her. No occasion to until today.

He heard the side door open. Footsteps on the stoop. Minnie, holding a corsage of lavender zinnias and lilies-of-the-valley, was the first to greet him.

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The folklore of our family members meeting their in-laws can give great insight into all of their personalities. Do you have any good stories about these occasions in your family tree?

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Read Part 3: The Corsage.

Ties

Flushing, Michigan
May 1934

Nelson remembered to slow down before he came up on the Wilson’s house. He swerved between the patches of loose dirt to avoid kicking up dust. Starting this particular day out with dust on his clothes wouldn’t bode well for what was to come. He drove his Ford dressed in his finest clothes—a crisp, gray tweed suit he had bought with his first paycheck from the plant, a navy vest inherited when his younger brother stopped boxing and found that his clothes no longer fit, and a brand new tie.

He and his fiancee had discussed the necessity of a frugal wedding, but he just couldn’t bear the idea of walking down the aisle without something new. A keepsake of his life before marriage and family.

A few days before, he had driven down an entirely different street for Bernice. It was after a morning shift at the plant. He had stopped by his brother’s flower shop. He was helping his mother and sister-in-law unwrap the newest shipment of flowers from the farm when he mentioned his want of a symbolic tie. They tried to convince him he needed a woman’s touch.

“Bernice will be disappointed if the tie didn’t match exactly.”

“Men just don’t know how to dress themselves anymore.”

“Your mother and I can find you a deal and anyway it’s slow here.”

It was five days before Mother’s Day, just before the rush. After several minutes of debate though, he pinned up the argument with “Honestly. You two make it sound as if I’d show up to the church in just my stocking feet if you didn’t go with me.”

“It’s not far-fetched. Your brother nearly did,” Elsie said, cackling as she reached for the list of the day’s orders, and Nelson knew the subject was settled. They wouldn’t insist, and he was glad for that. He was 33-years-old; he’d soon be the head of a household. Making the purchase himself would be the first act he’d commit for the sake of his wife. Besides the proposal, of course.

The Harburns traded employment from one definition of plant to another when they moved to Flint.
A few of the Harburn men traded working with plants to working in a plant when they moved to Flint. Flint City Directory, 1931

He decided to drive the six blocks from the flower shop to the clothing store. Driving felt more formal to him and formality was what the occasion called for.  He sidled his car in between the other Fords along Saginaw Street, turned off the engine, and joined the spattering of people on the sidewalks. It was a Thursday afternoon and the first day of the year so far that the light breeze didn’t carry a twinge of moisture in it. The office workers from the bank were enjoying their lunches sitting on the benches scattered throughout the park across the street. The people and the flowers in the beds beside them pointed in the same direction– facing the sun, letting it nourish and warm them. These were the unwitting audience members of his processional.

"To suit every man's needs."
“To suit every man’s needs.”

He walked straight into Crawford & Zimmermans to the display of neckties. They were folded elegantly in six vertical lines across the broad plain of a cedar table. Each line of ties pointed with their ends in opposite directions, right then left then right again, as if ties could show modesty. The effect made the customer’s eye following the arrows to the finely-made suitcoats and felt hats that surrounded them.

Nelson thought a scarlet tie with a white maple leaf pattern would be best. The colors and pattern represented his native country. The maple leaf further added a sense of stability and growth he thought appropriate for one beginning his husbandhood. But there was a solidity to the tie with cream diagonal stripes trekking across a navy field that reminded him of the stars and stripes. He quickly decided since marriage was a commitment to the future, never the past, the navy and cream tie was the better choice.

He folded back the ties atop the navy blue one, plucked it from the series, and carefully reset the pattern to cover the gap he’d made. His decision was over before Mr. Crawford’s son, who had been occupied by a somber, walrus-mustached customer, could even make a salesman-like suggestion. When Nelson looked up, young Crawford was standing on the other side of the table from him.

“Ah, a man with aim, I see.” Mr. Crawford held out his hand to take the tie. “May I interest you in a homburg or a navy kerchief to match, sir?”

“No. Just the tie presently, thank you.”

Nelson smirked, more to himself than to Mr. Crawford, both his heels left the floor for a split second. Quick and concisely done, he thought as he opened his wallet and gave the man three coins, and this is how it begins.

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It’s funny how the little things in life can signify such momentous occasions. Are there any similar stories like my grandfather’s marriage tie in your family tree?

Read the next ‘chapter’: The Jitters.