White Shoulders for Aunt Frances by
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I’m from a small family and have always felt close to my aunts and uncles.  Now, like my parents,  they’re all gone.

(For more about my family see  Call Me by Their Names)

My parents were each the middle child of three, and both had strong bonds with their siblings and stayed close despite geography,  and sometimes politics.  But of them all,  the one I knew least will always loom the largest in my memory – my father’s older sister Frances who died tragically when I was 7 or 8.

Whenever I tried to ask my dad or my uncle Stevie to tell me more about their sister,  their eyes would invariably tear up at the mention of her name.  They were both very close to Fran and I know that my mother too adored her.   This is what I know and remember about my beautiful aunt Frances.

In the late 1930s when Fran’s son Eric was a toddler,  she was to take him cross-country by train to join her husband in California where they would live.  Fran asked my mother, who was newly married to my father,  to accompany her.

I don’t know how many days those two young sisters-in-law and their curly-headed charge traveled on that train,  or what adventures they may have had,  but I know that my mother grew very close to Fran on that trip,  that she thought of Fran as the sister she never had.  I sense on that journey they coveted their time together,  knowing they would soon be living separate lives on separate  coasts.

As a little girl I remember Fran’s visits east.  When she came to New York she always stayed at the Sherry Netherland,  and I think of her whenever I pass that grand old Fifth Avenue hotel.  I remember once my mother and I were having lunch with Fran in the elegant hotel dining room when my mother took me to wash my hands.  When we got back to the table I found a menagerie of little glass animals set up on my plate.

And I remember packages from Fran arriving in the mail.  Once a large box arrived with a lovely brown dress and a white pinafore for me,  and also  wrapped in mounds of tissue paper was a beautiful doll wearing the same brown dress and white pinafore!

Fran was a beautiful, elegant and gifted woman and an accomplished writer,  though I was too young to know that.  But I knew she was someone special,  that she had a special grace.   A few years ago we visited my still curly-headed cousin Eric and his wonderful wife Chiho in Oahu, and talking to Eric about Fran then was bittersweet for us both.

Years ago I was shopping with my mother in a crowded department store when an elegantly dressed woman walked towards us.  As she passed I caught the strong scent of her perfume,  and then I saw that my mother was crying.

“She’s wearing White Shoulders,”  my mother said through her tears,  “That’s what Fran always wore.”

Dana Susan Lehrman

Profile photo of Dana Susan Lehrman Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!

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Tags: Aunts, Nieces, Family


  1. Aw, Dee…this sweet story made me cry. I had a sense of what was coming, but you set it up so beautifully the emotion still took me by surprise. Your Fran sounds like the ideal auntie…so thoughtful and generous…the pinafore, the matching doll, the glass menagerie (now there’s a title)…and she was elegant to boot! I wonder what befell her, and if you have anything she’s written. Oh, and what an extraordinary photograph!

    • Thanx BB, I’m sorry to tell you Fran’s death was a probable suicide. I assume my folks had her writings, but because it was such a tragic situation I seldom asked them about her.

      Fran and her husband were Hollywood film writers in the 50s, he was called before HUAC, and that’s about as much as I know. When I visited my cousin Eric in Hawaii several years ago and we talked about his mother, he said there wasn’t much to tell and it was all sad.

      Sad indeed.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Amazing how the smell of that perfume brought your aunt back into sharp focus for your mother. Such a strong memory of a beautiful, tragic figure. You paint an elegant portrait of her, Dana.

  3. Suzy says:

    Dana, a perfect story about a fragrant flashback. How touching that your mother was moved to tears by the scent of a stranger’s White Shoulders. Very sad about your aunt’s untimely death. As Barbara says, it sounds like she was the ideal aunt for a little girl, with all those thoughtful presents. Thanks for sharing her with us.

    • Thanx Suzy, as I wrote, my aunt Fran looms so large in my memory although I was very young when she died and can’t say I really knew her.

      Her son, my cousin Eric, lived on the west coast and then Hawaii, and thus we saw each other seldom, but we did spend a wonderful week together in Oahu the year before he died. So thankful for that!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Your Aunt Fran was a beautiful woman (love the photo), Dana. I remember White Shoulders. How wonderful that its smell helped you recapture memories of your beloved aunt, gone too soon.

  5. Marian says:

    How evocative the White Shoulders was to bring back this memory of your aunt, Dana. A lovely story, though part of a great tragedy of those HUAC times. The description of the Sherry Netherland and Fran’s elegant gifts were so moving.

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