Averyell A. Kessler
In the fall of 1954, Mama was on the hot seat. The Mississippi State Horse Show was only a week away. My grandfather WG was president of the organization and he talked my parents into hosting a cocktail party on opening night. At that time, Mississippi was a dry state, but there’s always a way around everything. The horse show was a dust off your best suit, buy a new hat and get your stone martin scarf out of storage event. Before the “new” coliseum appeared in its circus tent glory, the horse show occurred at a semi roofed grandstand and large oval track at the far end of the fairgrounds strategically close to Robert Stockett’s stables. Flash bulbs popped as hundreds of Jacksonians flooded in to see a host of equestrians trot, canter, and strut around the ring in hopes of winning a streaming blue-ribbon rosette or a sterling silver cup. The Tennessee Walkers always stole the show, as well as five gaited beauties. Near the end of the evening, there were harness races.
For over a week, Mama has been in a cleaning frenzy. She was exhausted and in no mood for foolishness when WG dropped a bomb. Kate Beacham, his lady friend from the coast, was coming to the party also. To protect his somewhat questionable reputation with women, as well as her easy, breezy lifestyle, she would spend the night at our house instead of a hotel. WG told me to call her Aunt Kate. Mama was furious.
On party day, Kate arrived, swirling in My Sin and cigarette smoke, along with a large suitcase, hatbox and small leather train case. Kate was a sultry, raven-haired beauty, with smoky eyes, a husky, bourbon laced voice and a figure that would shame Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva put together. She dropped off her luggage, patted my head and raced out of our house behind WG. Mama’s fury reached Tasmanian Devil force. Somehow, she shouldered on as the bootlegger arrived and unloaded cases of mystery. That afternoon, a discreet bartender set up shop on a card table in the living room and a catering team from the Jitney organized a buffet. Soon our dining room was loaded with miniature ham and tomato sandwiches, tiny cocktail wieners, meatballs in a flaming chafing dish, deviled eggs, cheese straws, Jordan almonds and an enormous platter of thumbprint cookies. I was entranced.
As the guests arrived, Kate, the interloper, swept out of her bedroom in a sleek Dior style suit which matched her cherry red lips and accented the sharp arc of her stenciled-on eyebrows. Mama starred bullets as Kate slithered around the room, greeting horse show glitterati like best friends. I was six, but I knew exactly what was happening. Queen bee Kate was attempting a serious takeover of my mother’s territory. Sadly, I was hustled off to my bedroom where a babysitter was waiting.
Then, a stoke of luck. My babysitter fell asleep. When her head drifted onto her shoulder, I sneaked out and peeked into the living room. The party was at full boil, a bubbling pot of celebration. The aroma of cigarette smoke wafted around my head; I heard glasses clink and folks laughing at a man impersonating Jack Benny. Then I saw Kate across the room holding WG’s arm in a tight, body-hugging grip, as she attached herself to him like a human remora. He’s ours, I thought. You can’t have him.
I reversed course and slipped into Kate’s bedroom where her suitcase lay open on the bed. Perhaps there was a small chance for revenge. Then I saw it, a sturdy, black girdle rising from the bowels of her suitcase like a diamond buried in sand. It was a huge, nylon monster with a heavy front panel and rubberized garters dangling from its legs. As I pulled it out, a brassier also surfaced. It was a lacy, black taffeta model with thick straps, cone-like cups and a sprinkling of pink hearts surrounding each one. An idea formed instantly.
At first, no one noticed me when I entered the party, the girdle dangling from my hips, the heavy bra balancing on my thin arms. Then I shouted, “Look! I’m just like Aunt Kate.”
The conversation stopped instantly; every head turned. Jaws flopped open as I walked around the room preening like a runway model. Kate screamed; Mama did not.
“Somebody do something,” Kate yelled, her face flushing furiously. “Get that child outta heya.”
WG began to laugh, soon everyone did. The catering staff flooded out of the kitchen to observe the melee; the bartender struggled to keep from swallowing his tongue.
“How dare you, WG Avery,” Kate shrieked, shaking her head so hard that her bobby pins flew across the room. “How dare you allow this incorrigible child to embarrass me!”
WG never stopped laughing, even as Kate crashed through our front door and disappeared into the night. Mama took my hand in a vice grip but not before I made a final pass around the dining room table and waived at everyone.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” I said, as she took me back to my room. “I didn’t mean to ………..”
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” she interrupted. “You stole the show.”