Monologue tells story of The Girl in the White Dress

One way to progress as a writer is to read other good writers and observe some of their "tricks of the trade." Novelist, essayist and poet Gretta Barclay was reading John Updike when she was inspired to write this short story in the form of a monologue.

The Last Interview

By Gretta Barclay

Well, yes, you are right. I never do interviews, but you were so kind with your review of my new art piece that I could hardly refuse you now could I. Yes, Friday morning will be just fine. I am always up early so we can get started right when you arrive at nine. I will be looking for you. We will have a cup of tea to get started. Mind you, I will not say anything about my late husband, or any of the men in my life. That is off limits. If you stick to my art work, you will be fine.

Oh honey, you want to know why I didn’t begin painting sooner. Well, you know, I was right on the cusp of the new generation, the one that came busting in after 1959. I felt women of my generation were the “left-behinds” as we watched our sisters go roaring into a new way of life with opportunities we never had. We were very limited in our life choices; oh, we could have been a teacher or a nurse, or God forbid, a secretary, but most of all, we needed to be wives and mothers to have any respectability at all. Children too; yes we needed to have children.

A big family was something to be proud of back then, and if you were Catholic, like me, well then… the seven of us made quite a showing. And we were raised to be prim and proper, clean and neat, not what showed up in the 60ies where kids went around with long hair, dirty clothes, ripped jeans and star-glazed eyes. Many of them were painters, but what was the respectability in that? But still, I envied them their freedom, especially their freedom of thought.

I was buried in the mores of my generation, and we were supervised by a mother who stayed at home as she should in those days and watched over her brood. God knows she must have wanted to escape her life at times, but there was no room for free thinking back then. Think of the pressure she had to keep everything going; meals, clean clothes, school uniforms and a happy disposition for her husband when he came home from a full day of work downtown at a stuffy office with no air-conditioning.

Think of it, no air conditioning, but you wouldn’t know about that. But, no wonder her husband came home tired and grumpy, looking for his cocktail before dinner and a pleasant meal she had spent part of her day cooking.

Some would say it was an easier life back then and yes, in some ways it was. Certainly more simple than today when nothing can get done without the technology know-how of a robot. Back then we didn’t even have T.V. Imagine all the time we had with nothing to do. I read of course, book after book with my favorite place being the side porch with its squeaky hanging swing that all my siblings and I fought over. The first one done with their chores usually got it.

Oh yes, we all had to do chores back then, not like today where it’s toss and go, even the adults. Houses with young children today are like land-mines with toys, clothes, books, bottles and everything else left on the floor. It is a wonder I have not broken a leg tripping over everything when I visit my grandchildren.

I didn’t mind chores so much, actually…I do think it builds character, and I have always liked certain neatness. I was always trying to organize my six siblings into a more structured existence -- without much success.

Yes, we were certainly limited in our outlook and expectations; that my mother had graduated from college was unheard of at the time; she was smart and deserved to go to college, unlike myself, I think, who went because my very intelligent parents wanted this for their seven offspring.

I followed my two older brothers with not a clue about why I was doing it, or lord knows what good it was going to do me. After all, I had gone to an all girl’s private Catholic school, a kind of finishing where we learned the Classics but not much math or science. The study of literature was important then, though, and this is what interested me most, and art, of course, which we had there, too.

I didn’t even know how to pick out clothes, for God’s sake, after going to school for twelve years in uniforms. This was a school with a purpose to put out gracious and refined women to become the doting wives of the business men of the community, and yes, I did that for awhile. But nothing prepared me for the difficulties of life, and the many problems one could encounter in real family life.

No, no one told us about that. I didn’t know about alcoholism on my wedding day, and what that could mean to the promised tranquility of married life. And, oh what a glorious farce that was, my wedding. I mean, everyone dressed to the nines, drinking champagne and laughing too hard, me the only innocent one in the crowd, even though I was the center of attention. No, no one told me what was ahead.

I tried to live up to the “good wife” for several years, actually more than several, but then as one baby came and then another, it became impossible with no sleep, dirty diapers and crying infants. We drifted then, my husband and I, and then he began to drink, just a few cocktails before dinner and then more and more on into the night until he couldn’t get up in the morning, and then he lost his job.

We watched the hippies on television night after night doing whatever they did, without jobs, just getting high. We had just missed this carefree epoch in our life, and wondered what we were doing so early, saddled with two small children to raise.My husband finally went off to write his novel, and I picked up art. But with two kids to take care of, it was hit and miss at best.

That I have become well known is still a mystery to me. My art studio was in the basement back then, mostly to keep my kids away, and sometimes I would go two weeks before getting back to a painting I was working on. The fact that I finally finished “The Girl in the White Dress” is a testimony to my perseverance.

No I cannot believe that this painting has won such an award, and that they want me in New York for the opening next month. I’ve hardly been on an airplane; oh yes, once I visited a friend from college and I was scared to death the whole trip.

Trains are what got me where I was going when I was young; trains with those black porters in their pressed uniforms, and the elegant white table clothes in the dining cars, along with the substantial heavy silverware.

I went often on these trains to visit my grandmother who lived in Detroit. The porters even knew me by name and took very good care of me when I was a little girl. The train station with all those beautiful mosaic tiles was one of my favorite places; I just loved it there.

I could walk up and down looking at all that art while I waited for the train. I’m not sure that some of those tiles didn’t inspire some of my own art.

Oh, I’ll get myself to New York; don’t you worry about that. I’m used to doing things on my own. I was just a little girl when I went on the train by myself to visit my grandmother. She loved to play Canasta; that was the game back then. Everyone was playing it. My grandmother could play it day and night, and sometimes I played two-handed with her. She was addicted. Of course, my grandfather had left her by then; they didn’t call it a divorce; he just never came back home.

Stan and I didn’t get a divorce right away either, I guess for the children’s sake, and he would come now and then and pretend to be a father. I still wonder how our children really turned out. Oh, they are very successful, of course, and look good on the surface but one never knows, does one? Just look at me. I guess I look successful and put together after all these years, and I suppose some people envy me my success, but success isn’t everything, is it? Look what it’s done to all those Hollywood stars; one divorce after another; can one really say they are happy? Who really knows, as I said?

Yes, I think I am happy, as happy as anyone I suppose. My art has made me happy, you know, and so have my children now and then, so I guess I can say that I am happy. I do get lonely at times, but two glasses of wine with a bit to eat before bed helps me sleep and what more could one ask than a good night’s sleep?

Oh yes, I remember now that you asked me about “The Woman in the White Dress” and what inspired me to paint it. I suppose I think of it as a tribute to innocence, white purity and all. I remember significant times in my life when I wore white, my first communion for example, pure innocence then, only seven years old, wide eyed and ready to take Jesus into my heart, and mouth, I suppose. Ready to embrace all that Catholic dogma without question. What could be more innocent than that? But then, nobody questioned anything; we just followed along like lemmings and obeyed all the rules.

I was a good girl and went along. And then, I wore a white uniform on special days at the convent school, six times a year; we all wore white to curtsy and receive medals from Mother Superior for poise, conduct, religious knowledge, high marks. We all looked so pure then in our all white uniforms. And then, of course, my wedding day, the most innocent day of my life.

I had actually “saved myself” as they used to say back then, and walked down the aisle as a virgin. Unheard of today. What a fantasy world it all seems today, but I guess my “Girl in the White Dress” stands for that earlier time in my life when all you had to do was follow the rules.

Oh no, I wouldn’t want to go back to that time; heavens no; not with all that I know today. So much of it was fantasy and lord knows, one cannot live in fantasy forever.

Oh yes, you are right; she does seem to be reaching up for something; something she can’t quite grasp and her eyes do seem to yearn for the answer to something. The critics got that right, I think, even though I’m not sure that was my intention when I painted her. Some have compared her mysterious eyes to the Mona Lisa but I find that a stretch, absurd really. No one could imitate the eyes of Mona Lisa.

No I am not too tired, and this has been nice to remember some things. I am glad that I agreed, however, to only this one interview. One gets bored with one’s own story, don’t you think?

Yes, I will look forward to seeing you in New York next month although I hope not to be sharing any of my thoughts with any other reporters. Your story will have to do. Yes, yes, you are very welcome. I will see you in New York.________________________________________

Visit Gretta's writing site to learn more about her.

After Monologue, return to home page.