Recently on a whim, I bought an apron – a rich blue floral with dusky-pink trim highlighting old-fashioned roses and phlox. And I've found that wearing it – like a magic mantle in a midsummer country garden – evokes comfort: creamy casseroles; dark, gooey slices of shoofly pies; the simpler days of my youth.
Yet beauty meets function in my apron, just as it did in the humble aprons of my grandmothers. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s, that last decade of domesticity, remember aprons as small, first rites of passage as we danced through the many-mirrored doors changing us from little girls to women.
Aprons were rewards for being capable and willing helpers as we baked our first pies in tiny pans or stood on chairs to wash dishes. We crafted aprons as sewing projects on grandma's old Singer, or labored, step by step, in home economics: Cut, press, baste, stitch.
Aprons were uniforms, really, signifying that woman's work was essential. And if they were sometimes dainty, they were also as serious as Rosie the Riveter. Keeping house was a tedious business and anything to simplify the process was a worthy consideration.
Like any good tool, each part was functional. Hems were handy to wipe that last speck of grease from the stove or to wipe a child's tears. Pockets held all things utilitarian from stray nails and bobby pins to little treats such as clove gum.
To fit the occasion, aprons were made from all types of materials: cotton, linens, satin, or felt. I still have a fragile, black organdy Christmas apron. Embroidered with snowflakes, it was sent to me by my paternal grandmother as she distributed her treasures. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, favored feed sacks – bright calicos with tiny flowers – for her aprons. Sometimes they matched the large bonnets she always wore to keep the sun at bay. As children, we borrowed both to shoo chickens from the yard or lead the little Guernsey cow for milking. Sometimes, holding the aprons out full mast and letting them billow, we spun across the yard in full circles, tiny dervishes celebrating innocence and life.
By the 1960s, American women were on the move, with automatic washers and TV dinners supposedly saving time and money. Mother, who never liked to cook, had no special attachments to her aprons and when women overthrew Betty Crocker for the mystique of Betty Friedan, they lay forgotten in a drawer. No longer was a uniform required.
In decades to follow, I never used aprons, either. Still, something lingers. I've found myself perusing aprons in kitchen catalogs. Although they are well made, these aprons are utilitarian chef's wear, as sterile and functional as surgeons' scrubs. There are no embroidered ginghams or ruffled calicos, no organdy Valentine hearts, or autumn browns with orange pumpkin pockets in the lot.
My new apron recalls holidays when we ate freely and without guilt, of pulling taffy and molding popcorn balls, of days when we thought we had all the time in the world.
In retrospect, I've longed for aprons and what they signify. I've enjoyed moving about in the larger world but in some sense, I've missed being queen of my domain. Modern-day Dorothys, women of my generation, have traveled to Oz and back, and – with the prompting of our educations – sought other, outside sources to authenticate ourselves.
We've needed the sure-footed Martha Stewarts of this world to gently guide us back onto that home territory that feels so familiar and yet so foreign. In the end, we've realized, like Dorothy, that on some level, there's no place like home and the power to find happiness existed all the time within us.
When I tie on my apron, my family looks on with amusement. I become the woman in that commercial, dusting my face with flour to pretend I've been slaving over the stove.
Perhaps it's silly, but something in that apron strikes a silent chord. Wearing it brings a lyrical harmony of respect and kinship with women of earlier generations who so artfully poured themselves into their homes and families, who doggedly learned to balance creativity and duty. And no matter how much the world has changed since those halcyon days of my youth, some part of me will always be tied up with apron strings.