Norell and Nicotine
Words By Marie Gethins, Art By Asia Gondek
Darlene looked like a 1960’s film star in her high school graduation photograph. As tradition dictated, she wore the black velvet wrap and string of pearls, but on my mother’s sister they looked unique. Positioned at the front of Grandma’s side table, Darlene’s black and white portrait stood in a silver frame, dwarfing the family pictures behind it. I knew every shadow, every curve. Darlene drew me like nectar. I wasn’t allowed to touch, so I knelt in front of the table, hands folded and stared.
Darlene was a woman of prefaces: Darling Darlene, Ditzy Darlene, Decadent Darlene, and for the past 15 years, Dead Darlene, but no one ever said that one aloud. Three when she died, I grew up on a diet of Darlene tales. For Grandma she was the daughter kept in eternal soft focus. “She was so beautiful that men, complete strangers, ran after her on the street with bouquets of roses!” Grandma would turn toward the portrait, eyes moist, one hand kneading the top of her blouse.
My mother provided the Ditzy Darlene stories, beginning when I was about eight or nine. The crazy scrapes her sister got into, the number of times my mother covered her tracks. We laughed together over Darlene’s high jinks. “She had your grandparents in her pocket her whole life. All she had to do was flash that smile.” After I turned fifteen, I noticed that the same stories began to have a sinister edge, additional details that hinted at danger, humor ebbing away in my mother’s retelling.
In February, during my final year in High School, I received my own graduation picture appointment. One Saturday before the big day, Grandma pressed an oblong jeweller’s box into my hands. “Wear these for the portrait; you have the look of her.” Poised on the stool, I angled my shoulders, arched my neck, her pearls glimmering in the spotlights. “Very retro, very glam,” the photographer said.
A few months later, Grandma surprised me with a battered suitcase. “You’re nearly eighteen; she’d have wanted you to have these.” I rubbed the tarnished brass clips. Untouched for more than a decade, they resisted then slid back with a snap. Lifting the top, stale cigarettes and a strange perfume engulfed me. My mother frowned. “Darlene’s potion: Norell and nicotine.” I filled my lungs and explored the vintage treasures: beaded cashmere twinsets, satin party dresses, a Chanel suit. As I spun before the hall mirror, Grandma joined my laughter, each piece of clothing a perfect fit.
On graduation day, I wore the Chanel suit under my gown. Grandma nodded her approval.
“Now I have a surprise for you,” I said, handing her my graduation portrait in its own silver frame. “Look, the pearls, the pose…see the chignon—just like Darlene.”
Grandma grew still. “A bit like Darling Darlene, a bit.” Walking to the side table, she stretched her arm across the line of frames, placing me at the very back.