In the post-war Brentwood neighborhood where I grew up, life seemed pretty prosaic.
New homes bought by our parents were built without frills, to the point that cement work and landscaping were installed by homeowners themselves. Thus, teachers poured concrete, businessmen struggled with shrubs and my dad, a symphony violinist, chipped stones for a wall.
Their young wives were busy trading recipes for wholesome meals, like "porcupine balls" in tomato sauce or tuna casserole topped with potato chips. They unfailingly clipped grocery coupons and saved Green Stamps. A night out might mean an ice cream treat from Isaly's or Dairy Queen.
So, why is it that when I want to call up a memory of my parents (the kind worth keeping) I see them whirling and twirling at the Pittsburgh Symphony Ball? It happened just once -- and then only because symphony members received tickets.
But once was apparently enough for an imaginative 5-year-old to keep at the front of her memory box of her parents. This grand occasion was so unlike them that it represented a re-enactment of "Cinderella" to me.
Dad wore his formal tux with tails. His light brown hair dipped over his forehead -- like, maybe, Alan Ladd?
Mom was a princess with everything but a tiara. She wore a black taffeta dress -- trimmed in embroidery, with scallops and a black velvet tie belt with pink silk rose at either end. Her dark hair waved naturally. Around her neck glowed a gold-and-seed pearl lavalier pendant that had been Grandma's.
Grandma had often taken the sentimental token with tiny stones from its blue velvet box and held it up for me, saying, "Grandpa had this made for me. I loved wearing it to pretty occasions, and next it will be your mother's, and then, yours."
I don't know how my baby sitter got me to sleep the night of the ball with so many happenings whirling in my head, but I remember endless bedtime stories and an excess of cookies and milk.
The next day was business as usual, but not quite. After recounting their night of fun for me, Dad went out to work in the yard until it was time for his evening concert.
Since it was cleaning day, Mom polished baseboards and window sills to a fine shine.
I hung around to tell her, "You looked so pretty last night. Your dress ... and the lavalier ..."
"Why thank you, honey," she said, looking up. "You know that someday you'll have the lavalier to wear for a prom or pledge formal. And you'll know how many happy times it represents for our family."
She turned back to her work, but I noticed that her eyes were especially bright, and she was humming a little tune.
I realized that she was giving me another important inheritance -- one that said day-to-day life is filled with serious duties, but every once in a while you can step outside yourself into Cinderella's slippers. Do your best at your work, but don't let the magic pass you by, either.
I knew she didn't just mean that clothes or jewelry make the occasion, but to show respect and appreciation for the mood of a notable event. In later years, as I thought upon her comment and Grandma's, I couldn't help wondering if these ideas were just relics of the past. Casual style (bordering on grunge?) is so "in" today that it seems assumed that a good time means going ultra-casual.
Of course, I still see Mom and Grandma holding up the lavalier as if it were key to times they would never forget.
I applied the idea to my own later proms and parties by getting into the festive mood with preparations that seemed almost as exciting as the event itself. (Velvet dress or silk pant-set? Silvery bracelet or ... the lavalier?)
I still find it fun to go for the gusto on special occasions with a twirly dress or a little sparkle, while my husband, Jim, sports a coat and tie.
I figure that showing respect for myself and the occasion (and all who want to avoid seeing me in my jogging suit!) costs nothing. And who knows -- it might just launch the memory of a lifetime.
Carole Yagello Takach of Mt. Lebanon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.