My great grandmother, Nellie Wall Holsey, may well have been the world’s first re-gifter. Way back in the early 1950s, she was infamous within the family and the little community she lived in – Hardwick, Ga., an outpost of Milledgeville – for squirreling away presents and bringing them back out, rewrapped, for another occasion.

Birthday mementos disappeared almost immediately, never to be seen again until they made a second debut in a different disguise of tissue paper and crinkle ribbon – at Christmas, let’s say.

In accordance with the mores of the time, no one ever came right out and confronted her about this endearing peccadillo, nor did MawMaw, as we called her then, ever let on that she knew others knew her little secret.

The closest she came to being embarrassed was one Christmas when my grandmother, her daughter-in-law Essie, tore open a gaily wrapped box to discover, inside, the special gift-edition bottle of Jergens lotion that she, Essie, had given MawMaw for her birthday back in April. My gran burst into laughter, then quickly stifled it as she received an austere warning look from her husband.

People were respectful of their elders in those days. Once a year my granddad, Dobby, motored from Virginia to Hardwick and returned with MawMaw for a two-week visit – an ordeal his wife endured with gritted teeth and a suspiciously saccharine smile.

The odious mother-in-law was allowed to dominate the evening’s entertainment, which consisted of gathering around the newfangled television in the living room and arguing over which of the two channels to watch.

But on her annual visit, MawMaw got to choose what was on. My grandfather’s inviolable Friday Night Fights, sponsored by Gillette Razors, gave way to something more to her liking – perhaps Lawrence Welk. One time during a live performance of The Nutcracker she insisted on having the channel changed to guard against my seeing such an improper display of the human body, limbs thrashing wantonly about, and so on.

MawMaw, too frugal to eat properly in her own household, battled a rash that probably was undiagnosed scurvy or beri-beri, which cleared up after a few days in her son’s Virginia home, where meat, eggs and fresh produce were served up daily.

She had milky white skin and beautiful, wavy white hair. A proud member of the Methodist Church and Eastern Star, she rarely left home without a proper hat, gloves and matching shoes and handbag.

In the days before air conditioning, in the Deep South, she and other ladies of her generation were known to keep their girdles – also de rigueur on most public occasions – in the icebox and, later, the freezer when not being worn.

She must have forgotten her girdle on one fateful day, however – a day that lives affectionately in the memory of her family and doubtless anyone still around who might have been in downtown Milledgeville at that time.

Downtown in those days – nobody remembers now exactly what year this would have been, but most likely the 1890s – was the center of genteel small-town society for cultured ladies and gentlemen to shop, sup, and see and be seen. (“Cultured” being a code term for Caucasian, Christian, Protestant and preferably a member of the First Methodist Church.)

Here, then, is the very proper Miss Nellie, on her way to the dry goods emporium, got up with her usual attention to detail. One little problem, though – Miss Nellie has been losing a little weight recently, and some of her clothing has begun to sag on her petite frame.

“Howe’er it was . . . ,” as the saying goes, Miss Nellie, while striding briskly along the sidewalks of Hancock Street, feels a slight slippage beneath her skirts. Too ladylike to be seen adjusting undergarments in public, she continues to walk, more and more slowly (in a desperate effort to fight the inevitable gravity slide of drawers beginning to droop) and, at last, refined until the end, stops and delicately steps out of the aforementioned underwear.

Never deigning to acknowledge a wad of rumpled cotton reposing by the curb of the sidewalk, Miss Nellie walks on, head high and her dignity as a Southern belle intact. Only those approaching her head-on might have noticed a slight flush on the lady’s cheeks.

Is this a true story? To the best of my knowledge. It is certainly apocryphal, but cannot ever be verified absolutely – for who would dare to ask an inappropriate question like that of a proper Southern lady?

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  • Kathleen Rawlings December 23, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Ah, this happened to me on the way to my son’s wedding reception but the garment in question was a half slip. I was quite content to let it lay there on the sidewalk and continue on. Fate and a concerned gentleman intervened and I was required to accept the fallen lingerie from the said gentleman’s hands with a crimson face and a few well deserved giggles.

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  • Willse Elizabeth December 23, 2009 at 11:05 am

    What a wonderful story! I giggled all the way through (and outright howled at a couple spots.)

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