The dictionary  defines  “Grande Dames”  as French: a great lady, especially an older one of great dignity or prestige.  Popular culture defines  “Grande Dames” as slightly flamboyant, prone to extravagant and eccentric fashion and excessive costume jewelry.

I was five years old when I first saw Minnie Jones.  My Mother said it was impolite to stare, but I couldn’t help it.  I had never seen anybody like Minnie Jones.  She was small and slim.   Wearing a black coat with a fur collar.  It was June.    Her hair was flaming red.  She wore a black cloche hat with big purple velvet flowers pinned to the side.  But it was her eyes, her enormous kohl rimmed eyes that captivated me.  Her eyes were black, black as raven’s wing.

War broke out and rationing  began.   We grew Victory gardens,  collected tin cans, held patriotic parades  all for the war effort.    Store shelves were bare,  and almost everything was hard to come by.    I would see Minnie Jones  walking the viaduct down Central Avenue  to the shops.  She lived on an acreage at the edge of town.    Sometimes she pulled a large red child’s wagon, and sometimes her large, mixed breed dog did the pulling for her.    She would go to  the service entrance of Eaton’s grocery department and carry home discarded produce and the tissue paper fruit was wrapped in.

Years went by and Minnie Jones continued to make the long walk into town.  Her black coat became green with age.  The flowers were gone from her hat, and I could see the hem of her skirt trailing down under her coat.  But her hair was still a flaming red and her brilliant black eyes still rimmed with kohl.

I’m ten years old, and  I hadn’t  lost my fascination with Minnie Jones my first Grande Dame.    The story goes that  Minnie Jones  walked into  local car dealership.   The war was over and once again they were able to  sell  new cars.    Several salesman were lounging in the show room waiting for customers.    The veteran sales men would have nothing to do with this town character.  They made a newly hired chap deal with her.  Minnie Jones bought two new cars and paid with cash.   The war was indeed over.   Minnie Jones was starting a taxi company.

I was five when I  had my first cat.    I called him Minnie Jones.  Minnie grew  to be a  big bruiser of a tomcat.  The edges of his ears were tattered from frost bite.  I dressed him in old baby clothes, covered his head with a baby bonnet, and wheeled him around the neighborhood.   To this day I continue to have a love affair with cats  I just don’t dress them in baby clothes.

I’m sixteen years old.    My first job,  working at   Woolworth’s five and dime store.    I worked the cosmetic counter.  This is where I met the second of my “grand dames”,  actually two of them.  They were sisters and you never saw one without the other.  They strolled Central Avenue almost every day,  checking out the shops.    They were tall,  slender,  elegantly dressed generally in beautifully tailored skirts and twin sweater sets, and always in pastel colours.   When they came into the store they lingered over the jewellery counter.  They favoured pearls; pearl earrings, pearl necklaces, pearl pins.   But it was the  cosmetic counter they really loved checking out the newest shades of Max Factor powders and lipsticks.  They wore a great deal of make up, heavily rouged cheeks, eyebrows drawn on, dark red lipstick.  People called them the “Calcimine twins”.   (Calcimine is  a type of chalk-like paint used to paint  interior walls. )    The Calcimine Twins” were true “grand dames”  and they introduced a naive sixteen year old girl to the wonders of cosmetics.

I decided  when I grew older I would be like the “calcimine twins”.    I would never appear in public without make-up.      I  would never wear fuddy-duddy old lady clothes.  And, of course I would never, never grow old.



  1. I loved this post, maybe partly because I shared the same experience–an early appreciation of an elderly woman in my small town who wore a purple cape with red lining, a hat with faded purple velvet flowers, layers of old costume jewelry, and who carried a huge old tapestry bag–but she walked the streets like a queen. The pictures of you are so charming–especially the 10-year-old. Long live the grand dames!

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