Nov 07., 2016 / Being Southern
Aunt Ozie and Her Dress Form
In the popular television series Designing Women, Dixie Carter played Julia Sugarbaker, president of her interior design firm. Like Dixie herself her character was Southern through and through. Her character had some memorable quotes and this is one:
“I’m saying this is the South. And we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ’em right down to the living room and show ’em off. See, Phyllis, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.“
So in this post I guess I am just showing off some “crazies”…though I prefer to use the term eclectic regarding my Aunt Ozie. My maternal grandmother mentioned here, is another story.
When the class sang “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go”, my mind drew upon Bob Ross-like “happy thoughts” of Aunt Ozie. She was childlike fun in an adult size package and married to Uncle Jeff. The word was that they never birthed any children because Uncle Jeff only had one of what most men have two. Aunt Ozie loved children despite having none of her own and was extremely kind to those who had the privilege of spending time with her. Uncle Jeff was much more dry in his approach to kids but on many occasions I caught him snickering under his breath at something one of us had said or done. It was as if he didn’t want to express too much outwardly as it might give children ideas that they could pull something over on him. On the other hand Aunt Ozie, (pronounced Oh-Zee,short for Ozello), just let the fun rip.
Great Aunt Ozie was my substitute for a grandmother. My paternal grandmother was deceased long before I was born and my maternal grandmother was estranged from our part of the family. This separation occurred when my mother married my father, one of the kindest and most ethical people who ever walked planet earth. However, that carried no weight in my grandmother’s eyes because He was a Baptist and that was enough to warrant estrangement. She was a member of THE Christian Church and believed that every other denomination was hopelessly backslidden and destined for hell. This feud lasted until my adolescence.
At that time we began to visit my grandmother occasionally. Someone had taken the high road of some degree of reconciliation and I was sure it was my mother and father, not my grandmother. Most of our time visiting consisted of her keeping the television on and tuned to soap operas. Conversation was minimal. My Uncle John was also always there. He retired from a civil service job in Washington, DC and then moved back home and lived with his mother. After a major romance failed early in his life he became bitter toward people, especially women. If he spoke, it was usually something negative. What a happy little gathering…one of the few times in my life when boredom truly set in.
My grandmother’s demeanor was cold and she had a strange odor about her. She dipped snuff but also wore around her neck what was known as an acifidity bag. The bag itself was horrible to look upon, conjuring up images of shrunken heads, or perhaps the body part of some animal that had been turned into a container. The actual contents were worse, featuring a variety of roots and what smelled like a strong dose of manure. This was an old timey folk medicine that was suppose to keep sickness away. For sure, it could keep people WITH or WITHOUT sickness away so it may have worked! I got no closer to my grandmother than absolutely necessary. I considered her somewhat scary and felt no love from her. Aunt Ozie, on the other hand, was everything a child could want in a grandmother figure.
Like many people who weathered the Great Depression, Aunt Ozie was frugal. If there was something she truly needed that she and Uncle Jeff could not make or engineer she did not hesitate to make a purchase. This, of course, was after considerable research and haggling over the price. This process was always done with a smile and a warm handshake to consummate the deal.
On one occasion Aunt Ozie was interested in having a dress form in her size. She was an excellent seamstress and sewed most of the clothes that she and Uncle Jeff wore. She even made me a shirt for one of my birthdays. In that day it was not uncommon for people to buy 100 pound bags of flour not only for the flour but for the fabric that made up the bag. This was a good quality cotton textile, usually with unique designs. She selected cowboys and Indians for my shirt.
She always wore dresses so having a dress form would be beneficial to her sewing. She consulted the two most important books outside of the Bible that one could have in the home, catalogs from both J C Penney and Sears, Roebuck, and Company.
To order from a company’s catalog, normal protocol was to send in a printed document torn from the pages of the catalog that included the personal information and measurements of the one buying the dress form. The problem from Aunt Ozie’s perspective was that the price for the completed dress form was excessive in her eyes. In light of this, she and Uncle Jeff devised plans for a dress form of their own making.
Their intention was for Aunt Ozie to get naked on the bed and then Uncle Jeff would cover her front side with some sort of “plaster”. She would remain in place until it hardened enough to be removed and then she would turn over and they would repeat the process on the back side. Once they finished Uncle Jeff would use his building expertise to put the two portions together on some type of stand. That part in itself could have caused some concern for me. Uncle Jeff built some houses and on one occasion I lived in one of them for a short while. I hung wallpaper in the kitchen but it did not come out straight because there was not a square corner or a plumb wall to be found.
Uncle Jeff mixed up a concoction that was later spoken of as plaster of Paris but what it actually was is likely lost to history as well as how long it actually took to accomplish. I read up some on normal plaster and it can cause bad burns so I know that is not what covered Aunt Ozie. Some family members suggested that she may have worn a thin layer of something between her skin and the plaster but it seems that would have defeated the purpose of having a form that matched her measurements. There were no reports of any screaming or intense pain through the process so whatever it was, it worked. Aunt Ozie used it for years and I remember seeing garments that she was working on covering the dress form.
It was reported to me by a niece that the dress form resides in perpetuity, tucked away within a family attic.Frugality and innovation are a wonderful combination.