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Lady Like

A look inside Aunt Blanche’s perfect world.
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illustration by Giselle Potter

Aunt Blanche was devoted to the art of proper living. She was 23 years old when she moved from a dirt farm in Cisco, Texas, to Dallas, and she embraced the big city with acute relief as if, finally, dear God, the dust and indignities of small-town life were behind her. I don’t think my daughters remember her well, though they still have the dolls that she gave them, all dressed in Southern gowns of an era. The dolls are in perfect condition, because they are not the kind that you play with. Blanche also gave my daughters a series of exquisite silver spoons, one for each birthday, engraved with their names. The spoons kept coming, even after her death. Blanche made arrangements for that.

She lived alone—never married—and I remember the first time I visited her condominium off Preston Road near Royal Lane. The condos are still there, in an unremarkable setting that’s more about the parking lot than the places where people actually live. But once inside, you were in Blanche’s perfect world. Everything about her home said: a lady lives here. I was fascinated with the dainty linen place mats with scalloped borders. Her collection of painted Russian boxes. Landscapes in gold frames. Puffed and perfect upholstery. 

They say our homes reveal who we are, but I wonder. Blanche’s world didn’t give a clue that when she was 70, she would sign up for Semester at Sea and travel the world with hundreds of uncaged, drunken college students. A few times, family members brought up the strange subject of Blanche’s great love: a race car driver. That seemed impossible to square with the Blanche I knew, who owned the stationery store Marj’s at Inwood Village for decades. She had a reputation: her knowledge of fine papers and typography made her the local etiquette queen, and for decades, every Dallas bride and her mother went to Blanche for wedding invitations. I wonder if, in her dreams, she ever designed her own.

After she died, a large moving van pulled up to our house in New York where we then lived, and we received box after box of her possessions, which her sister, my mother-in-law, had meticulously sorted and packed and distributed among all of Blanche’s nephews and nieces. Every item was wrapped in pages of The Dallas Morning News. Instead of being magical souvenirs from Blanche’s perfect world, they seemed lost, like gemstones removed from a crown. “Should we save them for later?” my daughter asked as she watched me look around the room wondering where on earth we could put all of it.

No, I decided, we should use all of it now. “Even if it’s so fancy?” my daughter pressed. “Even so,” I said. I suppose it’s not “us” to use embroidered place mats, cloisonné fish knives, or strawberry-studded tureens. But we often do. And when we do, we sit up a little straighter and remember this perfectly proper lady.

My only regret is that I never knew the woman underneath it all.

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