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  • Gloves, and: Summoning Shades, and: A Serpent’s Tooth
  • R. T. Smith (bio)
  • GlovesOctober 1862
    Mary Lincoln Triptych
  • R. T. Smith (bio)

        Thrift, thrift Horatio . . .

Spendthrift, you say? No, but also yes. Entre nous: Finesse is everything, and if

I cover my fingers with precious fabric—calf leather or velvet, silk of shantung or charmeuse—my fine hands will dance, despite all the jet and ebony of my mourning.

Sackcloth and ashes will not bring sweet Willie back, and since I have drained bereavement’s cup and wept myself dry, the sprigs of funeral myrtle are now forbidden. So I must uncocoon and hide the martyr’s face from my surviving boys. Let Victoria remain the priestess of misery; I will display a survivor’s poise, keep Tad and Robert by my side as I visit afflicted soldiers from the killing fields.

But every spending spree, mind you, is designed to distract from migraines like thunderstorms within me. Less mania than calculation, my millinery outings with retinue and etiquette preserve me, and I have my advocates:

Poor sons too good to dwell on this unworthy earth, Eddie and Willie both in séance somberly entreat: Mother do not neglectelegance, which amplifies both your elevated station [End Page 121] and grief itself. Lizzie Keckley (who knows the White House staff call me Hellcat for my tantrums, which are not excessive) says this: custom gloves are the luxuries the senators’ ladies will likely eye with most envy,

ribboned gloves, those open at the wrist with pearl buttons, dove-colored, chantilly, seamed, hush-blue, those suited for the opera or riding, mittens for frost, every cut and cloth, gloves . . . and fans—the Italian, the Japanese laced with figures like fantastic shadows and spreading wing-like with one flick of my wrist. Because Father shares his many secrets and seeks advice,

calls me his “Kitchen Cabinet,” they hate me, all the pullets in their leg-o’-mutton sleeves and empire waists. I am woven like a silken thread in jacquard through this war,

and they but bystanders, jackals under their bonnet brims, such halos of the ordinary I have to laugh.

    Sometimes in the Green Room I see Willie and nearly     lose all resolve—but pinch my wrist, stiffen up.

How they would outdo me, though, with damask floral patterns, ashes-of-rose and parlor wit, but I am more eloquent in French,

which few can match. I will teach them how we scorn in Illinois, and I can glare across a soirée with lethal frost, or exchange candid glances with the sovereign of this whole nation, flutter my gloved fingers in a wave, that Mr. Lincoln may smile amid his woes. [End Page 122]

  Grief: no more frill and fringe. Leave the canary yellow, magenta flounce and cobweb shawl to the hussies of the punch bowl, harridans of the whisper and politesse.

Yet I sustain my smile, noblesse oblige . . . oubliette.

  Debt, of course, hovers, and in private, without his corvid uniform and cannon hat, he will admonish me: Pray, Mother,how can I pay Haughwout’s, Galt’s Emporium, Mr. Stewart,and all the rest of your glovers while our soldiersin the field have no blankets? But his heart knows we are a symbol and must shine.

Silhouette and embellishment now, without the rainbow, yet they will flatter me, say I ravish the eye with my bell shape and grace, my reticent attire. A lie, yet my purple iris overlay, passing for sable, puts their rose and emerald in the shade.

Last night I overheard Mr. Lincoln confide to Seward, Her flub-a-dubsoverwhelm me. Her shopping will stink in the land, but what are eighteen pair of gloves when he commands millions to be spent, and not for love? Shoes and boots again, madam, he complains, but no bloodshed follows me, no fleuve sanglant, and neither amethyst brooch nor tiered sleeve ever set the pandemonium torch

to any city. That harpy Mercy Conkling has dubbed me Her Royal Highness, and the screech owl Hannah Blaine hisses Madame Excess, though I do love pearls and fresh jasmine, dining on duck and terrapin— Parisian, but all in just proportion...


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