Miss Emily’s Pickles
By Sally Assante
Before I became infected with the conformity bug, my mother made all of my school clothes. She created dresses, skirts, and blouses far superior to the cookie-cutter Villager brand shirts and A-line skirts the department stores carried, uniforms for schools that required none. The expansiveness of our Garden District home was the result of my parents’ connecting two existing houses on adjoining lots, resulting in a somewhat chopped-up but rambling residence, which was great fun for us kids, and eventually our own children as well when we visited for holidays and vacations. Large as it was, we had no “spare” room. As a consequence, Mother required double duty of our den, where her old White sewing machine took up semi-permanent residence next to the French doors that opened onto the gallery—referred to as a balcony anywhere else in the world—and we learned to live with the obstructed view.
Mother also made Miss Emily’s daughter’s clothes. Clarissa and I were the same age and approximately the same size. So when Mother went to Fuchs’ Fabrics, down off St. Charles Avenue on one of the Muse streets—I forget which one; I think it was Terpsichore, but it could have been Calliope—she would purchase double the yardage the Butterick and McCall’s patterns called for. Miss Emily, widowed by the Korean War, and Clarissa lived way out in Gentilly, near Lake Pontchartrain. It took two bus transfers and a ride on the streetcar for her to get to our house each weekday morning. Once I had my driver’s license, most days I was her ride home. Not infrequently, we would stop at Broussard’s, a sidewalk po’boy stand, where we would sit under umbrellas with Dixie Beer logos, and share a shrimp or crab sub. Try as I might, I was never able to coax Miss Emily to take our po’boys across the street and wander among the decaying tombs and crypts of Lafayette Cemetery, made famous in Anne Rice’s breakout novel, Interview with the Vampire.
With my being inextricably ensconced in unimaginative clothing, Mother’s creativity shifted from the sewing machine to painting, but not the traditional oil or watercolor mediums. Perhaps she felt restricted by a perceived rivalry with her older sister, a well-established and successful portraitist at the time. Whatever the reason, when I was around fifteen, Mother took up porcelain painting. And she excelled at it. The greenhouse just steps outside our kitchen door was converted into a small studio and housed a kiln, along with shelves filled with Haviland and Limoges blanks, jars of powdered paint glazes and mixing medium, and boxes of pyrometric cones used to gauge the progress of each firing. The unmistakable scent of linseed oil permeated our den after her worktable replaced the sewing machine.
As Mother became proficient in her art, other porcelain artists began asking for lessons. For a while she rented a small studio over by the river, a short distance from our house, and taught a few days a week. An event occurred during one of these lessons that, despite our absence, became one of our favorite family tales. One morning, Mother excused herself and stepped away from her students to take a phone call. Now, my mother was a very proper lady. At that point in my life, I had never heard her utter a single curse word. She sipped sherry before dinner, and was never without a lacy handkerchief to dab her nose, should the unladylike task become necessary. If our bodies functioned, we certainly never discussed it. But I digress. The phone call.
“Yes, this is Kay. Is that you, Andrew?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I know what you’re asking. Would you repeat that, please?”
“A French tickler, did you say?”At this, the handful of ladies painting daffodils on sugar bowls and creamers turned their attention to Mother’s end of the conversation. “Hon, I’m so sorry. I’m not familiar with a French tickler. Perhaps you mean a German stippler?”
Dead silence on “Andrew’s” end, then the click as he hung up.
Mother turned to her students, whose jaws were unhinged, and said, “I guess we were disconnected. Oh well, he’ll call back.”
Oh, how I would have loved to have been there. My mother had received her first obscene phone call and didn’t even know it. She thought the caller was the son of one of her West Coast students and assumed he was looking for special brushes to give his mother on the upcoming Mother’s Day. More fun, no doubt, would have been had at the other end. We have often pictured the confused but excited” Andrew” as he hung up and raced to his nearest triple X toy store, in high anticipation of the mysterious German stippler.
The youngest of three, eventually I was the only child left at home, and Miss Emily’s chores around our house could be completed in short order, leaving her with time on her hands. And so together, Mother and she went into business. While Mother focused on teaching, Miss Emily ran the side of their enterprise that involved art supplies, slick how-to publications and the custom-made paints and brushes, including stipplers that came from a company in Germany. Because they bore my mother’s name, they were in high demand locally and abroad.
While my boyfriend was trying to figure out ways to get me out of my Villager shirts and skirts, Clarissa was shedding her one-of-a-kind outfits, and eagerly. Eugene, Clarissa’s older brother, was up in Baton Rouge attending LSU on a golf scholarship, leaving their home without a male presence. Who is to say if that contributed to Clarissa’s free and easy attitude toward her body? Such things are frequently indecipherable. More than once, Miss Emily had confided to Mother how concerned she was about her daughter’s “permisc’us” behavior. One night Clarissa didn’t come home and the next morning Mother went to Miss Emily’s and stayed with her, awaiting Clarissa’s return. As the long day dragged into night, Mother’s anger at her thoughtlessness gave way to concern, which sank into pure dread as the NOPD blue-and-white rolled to a stop in front of the house. The police had found Clarissa’s body in an alley, behind a boarded-up liquor store in the Lower Ninth Ward. She had been raped and strangled. She was wearing one of the outfits my mother had made.
Prior to Clarissa’s funeral, I had never been to a black church. Everyone was dressed in dark, somber colors. Yet the women wore the most magnificent hats. Wide-brimmed, with exotic feathers and ribbons and flowers of bright colors, which their pinched-toe, high-heel shoes and handbags echoed. Most of the men wore broad-shouldered, double-breasted suits, with shiny neckties and matching pocket squares. And it seemed everyone wore some sort of fragrance. The air struggled to hold up the confused bouquet of hair tonic, eau de toilette, and after-shave. I could pick out both Canoe, which my boyfriend used, and Old Spice, which, as a child, I gave my father each Christmas. The organist played gospel hymns and the preacher, Reverend Luther, said sweet and kind things about Clarissa. At the close of the service, we all followed the pallbearers down the center aisle as Clarissa passed under the church’s arching doors for the last time. It appeared everyone except my family joined in the singing of “Angel Band” while we made that long and sorrowful walk. We did not know the hymn, but I was moved by the hopeful lyrics. I’ve forgotten most of it, but the refrain went something like this:
Oh, come, angel band,
Come and around me stand;
Bear me away on your snowy wings
To my eternal home;
Oh, bear me away on your snowy wings
To my eternal home.
I didn’t really think Clarissa had been borne away on snowy wings, but I hoped she had gained a heavenly home.
Although Mother suggested Miss Emily take some time off, she said she wanted to stay busy, and much more quickly than I expected the happy atmosphere in our home returned.
Mother’s teaching skills were increasingly in demand, and she terminated her lease with the French Tickler Studio, as our family, to my mother’s chagrin, has always called it, and began traveling. Several times a year, Mother and Miss Emily boarded flights bound for not only U.S. cities, but also ones in Europe, South America, and Australia, for seminars. Upon arrival, they would be shown to their guest quarters, usually in the home of the seminar’s hostess.
On the eve of one such trip, Mother and Miss Emily were packing for a two-week stay in Washington State when Mother panicked. “Emily,” she said, “how could I have been so stupid? I have completely forgotten the hostess gift. We cannot show up without something for Louise.”
“Why don’t we take her a jar of my pickles?” Miss Emily said.
While Mother rummaged through drawers looking for spools of ribbon, Miss Emily went to the pantry and pulled down a quart-size Mason jar of her pickles. From her sewing basket, long banished to the back of a closet, Mother retrieved a remnant of floral-patterned polished cotton. They draped the lid with a circle of the fabric and tied the ribbon around the jar neck. While Miss Emily sat at the kitchen table and hand-wrote the recipe on one of the personalized—From the Kitchen of Emily Finley—three-by-five cards we kids had given her for her birthday one year, Mother pulled the streamers of the ribbon against the edge of a scissors blade, creating strings of cascading curls. Voilà! Hostess gift.
In Washington, the step-by-step exhibition of Mother’s red violet grapes was well received. But Miss Emily’s pickles were more memorable. Louise was thrilled with them, and especially appreciative of having the recipe.
Months later, a manila envelope addressed to Emily Finley came in the mail. Mother brought it into the kitchen where she and Emily were just sitting down for a cup of coffee. From inside the package, Emily produced a satiny blue ribbon, with the words “Washington State Fair – First Prize” imprinted in gold letters. The accompanying note read:
I am very excited to enclose the first-prize ribbon in the foods
division of this year’s Washington State Fair. I entered your pickles and,
no surprise, they won. They were the best hostess gift I’ve ever received,
and have become a staple in our home. I dare not think what Fred would do if we ran out! The ribbon belongs to you, not me. Enjoy!
Oh, how proud Emily was of that ribbon. “I never won nothing,'” she would say every time she spoke of it. “And when I finally did, I took first place!”
To this day, in my kitchen, next to her recipes for Shrimp Etouffe, Pompano Florentine, and Creole Bouillabaisse, I have the original card in Miss Emily’s distinctive script, bearing the humble title, “My Pickles.” I also have Louise’s sweet note, folded into quarters to fit in the plastic pocket behind the recipe card. But I no longer have the ribbon. It’s been over five years now since, if I’m not mistaken, I heard the sound of angels’ wings as I slipped it inside her casket when I leaned down to kiss Miss Emily good-bye.