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I Learned the Sound of Glamour From My Mother

And from her mother, too.

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About once a month I grab a handful of bangles from the bowl on my dresser and stack them up my wrist. I admire the way they turn whatever I’m wearing into something whole and intentional, a completed look. I fiddle with them for maybe an hour — along my commute, while waiting for my coffee — enjoying the cool metal at the base of my palm, the tinny sound as they fall against each other. But soon I get to work, and their weight begins to feel like bulk. And the clanging is suddenly loud, as if shouting for attention. Plus, they get in the way while typing. Eventually, they’re off my wrist and tossed onto my desk or into my bag. They last maybe three hours on my arm, max.

And yet I can’t seem to the ditch the collection. They aren’t even nice — cheap, mismatched bands of metal covered in chipped gold paint, bought in groups of six or eight from Forever 21 or H&M, wherever they caught my eye — but still they survive every seasonal purge. I keep them for the same reason I keep a string of pearls, or a pair of oversized hoop earrings: I think more about the feeling of putting them on in front of a mirror and less of the practicality or comfort (physical and psychological) of wearing them in the world. I can imagine the occasion that might call for them, and I imagine my future, hypothetical self as the person who will “pull them off.”

In reality, my style has quieted steadily this past decade. The teal eyeshadow I wore in my early 20s has long been retired, the shoulder-brushing earrings swapped out for studs. The bangles that I used to stack on my arm, chimes that rang with every step, have been silenced, collecting dust in a bowl on my dresser. It’s that sound that I think of each time I consider tossing them. It’s the coda to a strong look — so glamorous, so fancy, a little music with just a flick of the wrist. I learned to love the sound because of my mom; she learned it from her own mother.

All I know about my grandmother is what my mom has told me: Frances Santangelo, born in 1929, was generous and tolerant. She was a single mom from a family who didn’t want her to keep the baby who would eventually be my mom. She spent Sundays making meatballs and sauce, which, like many Italian Brooklynites, she called “gravy.” She loved smoking and music and playing cards. She died of breast cancer when my mom was 14. She had fantastic style.

From what I can tell — based on not only my mother’s stories, but also the photographs my mom has held onto — Frances didn’t give a shit about rules of propriety, especially in terms of fashion. Being a thirtysomething never-married mother, she already attracted neighborhood gossip; her high hair, tall boots, and mini skirts gave them more to talk about. She liked her style loud, both figuratively — a favorite photo of my mother’s shows Frances in a robin’s egg blue chiffon top that she wore as a dress — and literally: the heels of her pumps clicking on the sidewalks and the ringing of her charm bracelet.

Growing up, I was insatiable in my need to learn about Frances, mostly because I was obsessed with knowing about my mom. In my early childhood — before our family grew, before years and debt and obligations amassed — my mom, to me, was the pinnacle of femininity and grace. She existed in a state I couldn’t wait to reach, and I was desperate for shortcuts, looking for evidence of my future in her face and body. Womanhood was a mystery, but at least some of its secrets were contained on the surface of my mother’s vanity, in its crystal perfume atomizers with beaded spritzers, the Art Deco-styled tubes of blood-red lipstick, the piles of rings and bracelets, the framed photo of my grandmother. Nothing was off limits, and my sister and I frequently wasted away summer afternoons sharing the stool in front of her mirror, smudging bright red on our lips and teal on our eyes.

When my mother sat at her vanity, it was her hands I watched: long fingers and tiny wrists, inherited from her mom, passed down to me. She didn’t wear a charm bracelet — she’d worn her mother’s religiously until it slipped off her wrist one night in her early 20s, and she cried over the loss for days — but she stacked piles of sterling silver bangles on her arm, causing a brief, metallic cascade with every motion. When she rose, she’d shake the bracelets down and flick her wrist to settle them at the base of her hand. It’s the same gesture she makes now when we shop for jewelry, or when we’re digging through a collection she rarely wears. It’s the gesture I mimic when I’ve worn my own — a sometimes unthinking tic to create a familiar sound.

That women are conditioned to be quiet, to be polite, isn’t a new observation, but recognizing those external factors doesn’t make my own instinct toward accommodation any weaker. I am a person who will sometimes panic mid-speech about whether or not I’ve been talking for too long, who — more so in recent years, as I’ve gained weight — has felt socially constrained by a hyper-awareness of the space my body takes up. But there is something empowering in demanding attention in what one wears — bright colors, loud jewelry, literal statement shirts — especially when one feels she shouldn’t be seen, that she shouldn’t even want to be seen. Too often my insecurity manifests in attempts at cloaking my body, my oversized basics a compromise between the self that doesn’t feel comfortable being visible in the world and the self that knows it has to do so anyway. Sometimes, it’s good to double down on that visibility.

I can’t project any real motivation behind my grandmother’s style choices, but I get the sense that Frances loved to be seen. Her undeniable confidence, or more accurately, others’ reactions to it, embarrassed my mother at the time — “It was uncomfortable hearing men whistle at my mom while we walked down the street!” she told me — but it’s clear in the way she shares memories and photos of Frances that she’s taken on her unapologetic pride, imparting it on me since Frances didn’t live long enough to do so herself: What a gift to be alive; what a joy, every now and then, in whatever ways we can, to announce our vitality to the world.

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