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Hipstercrite: Leonard's

Sunday, August 08, 2010


Hey! Sorry for all the Debbie Downer stuff, but it's been one heck of a couple of weeks with all this job loss and death and sickness stuff. I promise the funny will come back. I PROMISE!



I linger on the silkiness of my Grandma's voice.

The faux aristocrat.

As though every time the phone rings, she's expecting it to be the President.

I wait a beat.

Trying to make sure that what I'm about to say doesn't explode out into a puddle of words and tears.

That ain't gonna happen.

"Mom told me about Gabrielle. I'm so sorry, Grandma." It all blurts out in one push of air.

"It's so-"

My Grandma begins to talk and her voice cracks on the next word and that word only.

That's all my Grandma will allow herself to cry.

Once. For a millisecond.

"-sad. It wasn't even the cancer that killed her. She had an infection, Lauren."

"I know, Mom told me."

We both are silent. A thousand little images of our past playing like a Lifetime movie montage through our heads.

"Her funeral is on Tuesday. Her daughter is having an open casket Gabrielle didn't want an open casket! I always remember her saying in the store, "Nan, when I die, I don't want an open casket. She cared about her appearance, you know?"

I try to picture Gabrielle lying there and I realize that my image of her was from twenty years ago. I had never seen the white-haired woman with the oxygen mask and placid skin. Gabrielle will always stay pristinely wrapped in my seven year-old heart.

I try hard, but honestly can't remember the last time I saw her.

It may have been the day we closed the store forever.

I get off the phone with my Grandma and can't move.

They're all gone, I think. Gabrielle, Monique, Isabel, Mamie. All these women who made up my childhood are dead. All these women who we saw every day and who worked for my Grandma for 30 years are just gone. Disappeared.

And the only people left of Leonard's is my Grandmother, my Mother, and I.


My Grandmother the Shopgirl

"I came back to Central New York and married your Grandfather," my Grandma told me once when I attempted to write a post like this months ago. "I was 20 and all my girlfriends were calling me an old maid."

My grandmother married a dashing WWII soldier/friend of the family's who was 13 years her senior. Love was never a word mentioned in their relationship, but looking at pictures of them early on painted a different picture.

"So after I married your Grandfather, we moved to Cortland, New York for his work. I hated it there! It was a bunch of country folk who acted like they were too good for everyone. But after I started working at Leonard's, I got to know people."

Leonard's was the only women's clothing store in Cortland. It was owned by a childless couple called The Leonard's. All I know about them is that Mr. Leonard was mean and he had one leg.

Leonard's existed during a time when clothing matter. When well-tailored outfits and accessories meant something. Grandma was their number one salesgirl for eighteen years, putting in all the time and energy that her generation was taught to do. When the Leonard's were getting ready to retire, my Grandmother marched down to the local bank, acquired a $20,000 loan, and offered it to the Leonard's.

In 1965, Leonard's became my Grandmother's.


The Melting Pot

My Grandmother had worldly tastes for being such a small town girl. She loved to dress elegantly. She loved to dance. She loved to meet interesting people. She fancied herself European and so she hired the only two French women in our 19,000 person town. Throw in a seamstress and bookkeeper older than dirt and a teenage daughter and you got yourself one heck of a business.

Here were the players:

Nan- Owner. Professional and classy. Ran her store with an iron fist, but was doting with her customers. She came from a time where you put everyone before you. The most beautiful woman I've ever seen.

Gabrielle- Sales Associate. Sassy, short-haired fire cracker from France. Had a very gravely, fast tempered French accent and chain-smoked like there was no tomorrow. Was told she had a husband once in France that was killed by the mob. She enabled all of my three year-old whims.

Monique- Sales Associate. Not sassy, but just as French. Also a chain smoker. She was married to Bob and lived on the other side of town. How do I know so little about a women I saw every day of my life?

Isabel- Bookeeper. Very mousy women who sat alone on the second level of Leonard's. She kept everything documented in hand-written ledgers. I would build cardboard box houses around her desk and we barely exchanged two words.

Mamie- Seamstress. Also sassy, but not at all French. She was old school. She kept red, square anise candies in her pocket book and I would always rummage for them. She would let me stick shoulder pads in my shirt and laugh as I paraded around pretending that I had boobies at five.

Brenda- Merchandiser/Daughter of Owner. Would spend hours decorating the front window and store. She worked hard and did everything for her mother. And me.

In the 60's and 70's, Leonard's was known all over New York State. My mother and grandmother would go on buying trips to the City. They loved their job and they were good at it. The sparkling mother-daughter duo with their back-up crew- The Golden Girls.

Then I came into the story. My Dad left and my Mom had no place to put me other than at Leonard's. I grew up there. Playing dress up, crawling through shipment boxes, talking with customers, reading, writing alone on the back stairs all day, every day. Leonard's was my safe haven and my sister. She was the place where my imagination could go wild and my Mom, Grandma, and I could be a family.


All Things Must Past

For years, my grandmother reserved every drop of blood and sweat for that store. So much so that she exhausted her life savings trying to keep her afloat. With the progression of Wal-Marts and malls and Old Navys, Leonard's no longer served a purpose. She was old Main Street. An idea that rarely exists anymore and the only people who could appreciate her were also dying off.

I videotaped the day we shut the doors on Leonard's in 1998. To this day we still have yet to watch it.

The tape has probably corroded away at this point and I'm not quite sure what has prevented my Mother or I from taking it to get converted to DVD. At this point, the pain of losing the business should have dissipated, but it hasn't. Not for my Grandmother who owned the store, not for my Mother who spent her entire adult life working in the store, or for me, whose childhood centered around it.

Losing Leonard's was the first great loss in my life. It had been a part of my life since I was born. Before I was born. It shaped three generations of my family.


And I'm realizing this is becoming extremely difficult to write.
I'm not writing about Gabrielle. The women who died and triggered me to reexamine this post.
I don't even know much about her.
I don't know anything about these women who made up such an important time in my life.
They became ghosts before they even died.

Gabrielle, I wish I was able to talk to you as an adult. I'm sure we'd have a lot of interesting stories to talk about.


At 6:21 AM, Blogger One Blonde Girl said...

It's so hard to let go of the foundations of our childhoods. One of my favorite things to do when I lived in Cortland was peruse the stores on Main Street. Seems like I just barely missed out on Leonard's (I was there from Sept '98-May '99). There was a restaurant on Main Street (I can't remember the name) that my grandfather used to frequent with his retired friends. Everyone there knew him, and he took me there once and it was such a warm and welcome feeling. As much as I fight my small town upbringing, there's something to be said for having deep roots and being surrounded by lifetime friends. I always looked up to my grandparents and the way that they lived. It's so sad to know that we're losing our last connections to that generation. Thank you for sharing this with us.

At 6:49 AM, Blogger Hipstercrite said...

@One Blonde Girl- Was it the Community? Old hard wood booths and a feeling that you stepped back into 1920? Cortland (and a lot of Upstate NY) represent a bygone era. You can still see it when you walk/drive around. It's heart-breaking. That's one of many things I have to give Austin credit for. They support their ol' Mom & Pop's. Thanks for commenting!

At 7:15 AM, Blogger christin said...

Ok, I know you said you'd be funny again. But seriously, this is so touching. My eyes are welling up and I don't know any of these people whom you were so close to. You did an amazing job of bringing life to this post, and I commend you for blogging about what's going on in your life. Lots of good thoughts to you, your friends and family during this time.


At 7:17 AM, Blogger KeLLy aNN said...

My Grandmother was a HUGE influence in My Life. She was different, wise.
Hard worker. She taught Me unconditional LoVe, little sayings,
and how to cook REAL Chicken n Dumplings. She was my Paternal Grand.

My Mother used to work at The Dunes in Las Vegas in the early 70s. She would bring me to work with her sometimes. They would pay me to collect the pins stuck in the carpet. sigh, Dunes is gone too.

I hate all these lost and forgotten histories and community.

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Big Mark 243 said...

Scrolling down to comment on this entry, I saw a 'something' for 20-something bloggers. I hope that doesn't make me a crappy old man who refuses to accept that he has aged past being swept up in the emotions that make up our 20's.

I have a tendency to remember people as they appeared in my best memories of them. Rubbing that image out of my eyes and then addressing the person before me is something I do over and again.

To not have a specific memory of a loved one I don't think is wrong. The collage of memories that you speak about are all threaded by your Grandmother and that has as much if not more impact on you. At least so I think.

It is cheerful (to and for me) that someone makes the association of a wonderful period with an important person in their lives. Often, when someone talks in specific terms about a loved one, I think that many of those stories are fabricated and that their images nothing but altered memories. But that is me.

Another cheerful read was your 'apology' for the Debbie Downer content recently. You promise that the funny will come back and I am sure that it will. Still, it is an acknowledgement that you need times like this to strike a balance and for you to endure and move on.

Or something like that.


At 10:43 AM, Blogger mysterg said...

This is the best thing you have ever written.

Poignant, moving, personal...

Thank you for sharing.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Christina In Wonderland said...

Death... it's kind of like a slap in the face to tell you, "Hey, guess what, it'll happen to everyone you know... and eventually, to you as well."

And, actually, I don't have anything more to add, except to say that I agree with what everyone else has said in their comments, except to say that even though you may not remember someone how they died, we always remember the times that they influenced us the most. So hold on to that memory. I think those are the most important ones.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Zachary said...

I write about my grandparents a lot because they have had such a profound impact on me. I remember loving them so much as a child. But now that we're adults, something isn't there. My Mawmaw is very closed off. Her mother just died in March, and the first of her 10 siblings died less than a month ago. My grandfather is sick and skinny. She's shutting down.

I spent the night at her house on my way to Chicago and we sat in the living room together at 10:30 p.m. I didn't really have much to say—she doesn't understand my life, and I don't understand hers—but we chatted on about the family pets and the weather. Then she was finished and she got up and left the room, me sitting there, my grandfather in the chair snoring, a single lamp on in the corner. I looked around the tiny living room that felt so much bigger when I was a kid and realized I'd never have the relationship with her that I've always thought I wanted. She's too closed off.

One day I'll be closed off as well, I suppose. I try to think I won't because my parents and grandparents, though extremely loving and supporting, have never understood me. I like to think I'll have a closer relationship to my kids and grandkids but who can say, really? I guess all we have sometimes, especially when we reach a certain age, is a faux uppity accent and a single crack in our voices.

At 6:18 AM, Blogger Emily said...

Hey Lauren, don't apologise for this post, who cares if it's not funny, it has so much heart to it and that's all that matters.

This sort of post also resonates with me at the moment too. I really liked it even though the subject matter is upsetting, the way you write and weave a story is phenomenal.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Kate said...

This was such a lovely and touching post.

It's so beautiful to have something like that in your history - always hold onto it!

Kate x

At 1:53 PM, Blogger outoftunepiano said...

This is a beautiful bit of writing. What an interesting place you grew up in! Your grandmother seems to be one hell of a lady.

At 8:25 PM, Blogger Huyen said...

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At 5:50 PM, Blogger Benny said...

Been a while since I've been on blogger at all, so I'm catching up!

You really avoked the pain that comes with the disappearance of places from childhoods as well as the passing of an earlier time.

What I mean is, you got me thinking about how some things only seem like they were better when we look a them nostalgically, but some things actually WERE better in addition to having childhood sentimentality attached to them. Things like department stores, cities before they got cut up by interstate highways, neighborhoods where people actually talked to each other.

Man, it's even sadder than I realized when I started writing this!

But I didn't mean it like that... just, on the bright side, I feel like there's something more comforting about that kind of totally justified sadness... in comparison to the frustrating kind of sadness that comes from missing something you know was not actually that great.

Anyway, you do a great job of balancing honesty with a total awareness of an audience. Well done.


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