Memories of Princeton NJ 1976

I remember waking up to fresh new fallen snow for the first time. To this south Californian, the world seemed suddenly full of a light, calm sort of magic. In that still first moment of snowfall, it’s quiet, muted by the not so warm blanket of flakes fallen overnight while we slept, unaware.

I remember how my south California overcoat was entirely inadequate. I had no idea how to dress for snow.I was 21 when we moved to New Jersey. I was naive, innocent and had no experience of any place but where I grew up, Orange California. Princeton provided immediate culture shock. West coast and East coast…not the same at all. So many of the married women I met at school had hyphenated last names. East coast women were further along in being self determining feminists than where I came from.

But I didn’t have time to worry about cultural differences and how to fit in. First i needed a job.

HP Clayton’s, located on Palmer square in downtown Princeton, had a dress shop, fabric store, yarn shop and high end dress shop on Nassau St. The salespeople on Nassau St were specially trained since the clientele tended toward well heeled old money. The dresses were not necessarily fashionable, but they were well made. Around the corner on the inside of the square was the bell laden, squeak endowed door to the fascinating-to-me dry goods and fabric store. Inside were Liberty of London fabrics, Diane Von Furstenburg patterns (it was the 70’s), rare and common buttons, old dusty collections of previously-not-sold notions, two vast cutting tables and a seemingly wise, kind, nervous roundish woman with wire rim glasses perched at half mast between nostrils and eyes. Liz Meirs.

HP Clayton’s hired seminary wives from the incoming class of new students at Princeton. Seminary wives are generally well behaved, hard workers and know how to yield to authority. They tend toward being geeks of a sort, good students themselves and need jobs to support their husbands in their efforts to become ministers, professors and churchworkers.

But back to Liz. I was asked once some years back who my favorite manager was; she was my answer. Manager, friend, poetry reciter, hostess, fellow church goer, knitter, encourager, intelligent, caring, kind, firm, leader. I could use the word quaint to describe her. Tiny flowered prints on her dresses, lace collars and sometimes cuffs too. She walked a little on her toes, leading with her nose or forehead depending on how far down her nose the wire rim glasses were in that moment.

Liz invited us to Christmas the first year. She lived in a big house full of history, heavy with Victorian overtones. From the antimacassars in the drawing room to the delicate patterned teacups, all was proper. But beneath the proper, there was also wink and a nod to a bit of impropriety and humor. Liz lived in the big Victorian with her mother, obviously older by 20 years or so, fairly frail, her memory somewhat diminished, as happens in the elderly.

Her mother had married a man at least 20 years her senior who had known her as a child and waited for her to be old enough to marry. It was a romantic story, as told to me one day at tea by Liz. She fussed at the tea tray, pulled back heavy curtains, settled her little chihuahua in her lap and told me the sweet tale of how he fell in love with her as a child and how the love remained in place till she was a woman and that she also loved him when the time was right. And of course then melancholy sets in. By the time I knew them her father had been gone many years. Her mother and siblings were young when he died and they had lived most of their lives without him. Christmas was a sweet celebration, not any bit like we did it in California. Christmas crackers, paper crowns, a formal dinner, poems recited from memory across the table. Jokes told and so much laughter.

Liz’s son, a professional baker, swung into the dining room through French doors carrying Dessert. Yes it deserves a capital D. A baked confection of layers of chocolate, raspberry and thin slices of sponge cake with a raspberry sauce drizzled over each delicious slice and garnished with curly orange zest soaked in brandy.

Tiny gifts were given to all. Liz had knitted me a tiny red and white Santa hat with two long strings that were tasseled at the end. Uncertain what it was, she left me to my own discovery. Finally, the light bulb came on. Tassels behind my ears, Santa hat on my nose! A nose warmer for the guest from south California with the inadequate coat.