When people ask me, “How did someone from a cattle ranch in Oregon get to the big city and become an image consultant?” I have to think of my aunt Jane.
Jane was my Dad’s older sister, the only one of the seven siblings to leave the ranch and go to the city. Her name was really Nellie Jane but she eliminated the Nellie as soon as she could. Jane moved to San Francisco before I was born and I remember as a child, when the family got together and her name was mentioned, everyone sort of rolled their eyes. The first time I saw Jane, she was impeccably groomed, wore heels and a skirt with an attractive blouse and a hat. It was a dramatic contrast from the rancher brothers wearing blue jeans and boots, Western shirts and Stetsons while their wives all wore simple cotton dresses and sensible shoes. From that time on, I was intrigued with Jane.
In high school I had a couple of occasions to visit Jane in Palo Alto where she had settled. I fell in love with her beautifully furnished condominium and the way she presented herself. After moving to Southern California myself, I always made a point to stop by Palo Alto when driving back to Oregon to visit my family. Somewhere along the line, Jane started calling every Saturday – a tradition that lasted for some twenty –five years. Since she had never had children, I became more like a daughter and later, my daughter, Cyndi, was added to the calling routine. Both Cyndi and I still treasure those conversations. Jane may have moved to the city but she was so genuine, had a great a sense of humor and called things as she saw them.
My aunt had style. She always designed her own clothes, using patterns but mixing up components to create her personalized look. When she first moved to San Francisco, she had very little money. She would take her pattern to a store, roll out the fabric and lay out her pattern so she did not need to buy even an extra inch. Later, as her circumstances improved, she used a dressmaker in San Francisco. She would drive to San Francisco from Palo Alto fabric in hand and give her dressmaker instructions on how she wanted the garment made. This was a practice she continued until she was 97. If it didn’t turn out just right, she would tear it apart and remake it herself.
A couple of times a year, Jane would call and ask if I could possible use anything as she was cleaning out her closet. It was like Christmas to get her boxes and see what treasures were inside. Since Jane never followed trends, I could wear most everything with some minor alterations. One time, Jane called and asked if I would like an outfit that she had seen in the window of I. Magnin (a upscale department store of the day). She had called the store and asked them to send it over but decided it didn’t look that good on her. Since she debated for several weeks, she was embarrassed to return it to the store so wanted to send it to me. Of course, I was happy to accept. When the package arrived, I found a skirt with a coordinating blouse and a suede vest. It was beautiful but it really needed boots to complete the look. Boots were a bit out of my budget so creativity kicked in. Jane had sent a cape bearing the I. Magnin tags. This cape was going to require coordinating an entire outfit so I returned it to the store and used the credit for the boots. A few days later, wearing my new ensemble, I was chatting with a group of women before going in to church. There was a tap on my shoulder. When I turned to see who it was, the man standing there apologized for disturbing my conversation but said he simply had to tell me what a stunning outfit I was wearing. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into laughter and explaining it was simply a “hand-me-down” from my 80+-year-old aunt! After enjoying this outfit for several years, I passed it on to Cyndi who wore it several more years.
When Jane was 98, she was confined to bed after hip fractures. Her hip-replacement surgery at age 85 had finally given out and she was too old to have another operation. By this time, I was initiating the Saturday calls, which became more difficult as her hearing declined. My husband and I visited several times and even though she was confined to bed and could hardly hear, her mind was still sharp. Her hairdresser came weekly to do her hair and she always wore makeup and a pretty bed jacket. Our last visit was a few days after she had celebrated her 100th birthday. It was the first time I had ever seen her with white hair but her hair was nicely done, make-up applied and her nails were even polished!
When Jane passed away shortly after our last visit, I went to Palo Alto to clean out her condo. I was dreading this task but as I started going through things, warm memories of our many conversations surged through my mind. As I came across some leftover fabric or saw a dress or perhaps even a vase, I remembered her pleasure as she was making decisions and planning what to do with it. Amazingly enough, most all of her clothing was appropriate for much younger people so I boxed them up and sent them to cousins.
I have no idea where in that rancher gene pool Jane and I fit in to make the jump from “cow manure to couturier” but I surely hope that my more mature years are carried with her style while keeping as grounded and genuine as she was right to the end!