Opa & Me

Where Mother was never one to read a bedtime story or play checkers with me as a child, she was most attentive in other areas of raising a daughter.

Each day before school, she made sure that I was fresh faced and well dressed before leaving.

I was taught to say please, thank you, and excuse me.

I respected my elders and never talked back.

She was always telling me to hold my head up and keep my back straight.

But there was one incredible lesson that she taught me, that she never knew about.

But before I can go any further, I have to first give you a little background information.

First of all my mother was a very lovely woman with a keen sense of fashion.

In 1970 we lived in Sterling Park Virginia. If you would look it up on a map today it would show as Sterling.

Sterling Park was a 15 minute drive from Fairfax Virginia. If you wanted to visit Washington DC, that would take about half an hour.

If you’re going on vacation and flying out of the then brand new Dulles airport, that would only be a five minute drive.

But the greatest thing about Sterling Park was that we lived at the foothills of the great Shenandoah mountains.

That’s where I first learned to love being in the mountains…

In the spring of 1970 my Mother opened up a clothing store.

Her store was called ‘The Clothes Shack’ and featured the Highland Queen line of clothing.

Highland Queen had become a very famous line of clothing in Canada. It featured a variety of clothing and all the tartans that you could imagine. They imported tartan skirts, tartan dresses, tartan pants, tartan vests, and tartan jackets. Mother’s store was the only retailer of this line of clothing in the entire United States.

The store was located in a brand-new strip mall just down the street from where we lived.

The store was an immediate success and Mother proved herself to be not only a true fashion guru but also a good businesswoman as well.

Eventually she branched out into other fashions and made the occasional trip to New York City to stock up on the latest styles.

Before long there were neon coloured hot pants, long and luscious evening gowns, and even go-go boots on the shelves.

Remember, we’re talking early 1970’s fashion.

Halter tops, miniskirts, bellbottoms and very short shorts were in.

And boy, did they sell!

As a young girl, it was an interesting experience to observe how a business works and all the effort that goes into it.

And so, being the owner of a well-known fashion store Mother was asked to participate as a judge in the Miss Sterling Park beauty pageant.

As a sign of goodwill, Mother allowed the young contestants to come in and borrow any evening dress on the shelves for the night of the pageant to help keep down their expenses.

I can still remember hearing them SQUEE with delight as they tried on the gowns.

At last, the big night came.

I was very happy to be allowed to tag along for the festivities.

While Mother mingled with the crowds and conferred with her fellow judges, I was free to come and go as I please. This included access to backstage as well as the dressing rooms.

What I saw wasn’t pretty.

Even as a young twelve year old it was obvious to me that cliques had been quickly formed and alliances chosen

Walking through the main dressing room I could hear the contestants complaining about this and throwing temper tantrums over that, while being attended to by their mothers.

There were evening dresses, nylons, makeup, shoes, slips, bras, false eyelashes and hairbrushes everywhere.

In a corner, I found one of the contestants crying. She was being well attended to by several adults as they tried to soothe her.

Later, I asked one of the adults why the young lady was crying.

“Oh, she lost her mother not too long ago,” was the reply.

I immediately felt bad for her.

First, I felt sorry because she had lost her mother.

Second, because her eyes were now all swollen and puffy. There was no one to curl and fuss over her red shoulder length hair. And then there was that very simple mint green dress she was wearing.

In short, there was no one there to help her get her glamour on.

All this was not conducive to winning a pageant when she was up against some pretty stiff competition.

And so, I continued watch the girls as they prepared for the announcement of the six finalists.

More than once, I caught the eye of a contestant who obviously did not approve of my presence backstage:

“Who are you?” she’d ask looking down on me.

“My Mother’s one of the judges,” I replied.

Upon hearing this, the change in demeanour was amazing.

They smiled, then would go back to preening themselves.

At last, came the signal that the judges were ready to announce the winners.

Finding my usual seat, I sat down and waited.

The young woman that I had guessed to win came in as first runner up.

This truly surprised me as she had very long dark wavy hair and was wearing a stunning gown of purple. Needless to say, she was well poised and had walked like a professional model.

The winner of the pageant and the new Miss Sterling Park was the young lady that I had seen crying earlier.

She was obviously as surprised as the rest of us.

Later, I asked Mother what had happened.

She told me that the outcome came as a complete surprise to her and said nothing more.

Over the next week, I could see Mother’s heartbreak as the evening dresses she had loaned the contestants came back one by one.  They were scuffed, stained, snagged and even torn.

They eventually ended up on the sales rack, as they were obviously in used condition.

As time went on, Mother eventually made many contacts in the beauty pageant world through her fellow judges and went on to sponsor a beautiful girl who was vying for the Miss Virginia title.

I watched the whole thing on television.

Mother’s protege came in third.

However, she did win as Miss Congeniality.

Eventually Miss Congeniality came to work for Mother in her fashion store, but before long, Mother had to fire her….

When she caught her red handed stealing clothing from the store one night.

I never had much of a regard for pageants after that, because the majority of people who participate in them have no idea what real beauty is, inside or out.

Another object lesson well learned.



(The above photo was taken 1970 with my Mother and Grandfather.)