Mystery Skirt

This is the story of a skirt. It is also a detective story, an example of how with just a few tiny clues you can learn a lot about history and a person. 

I'm a big fan of thrift-stores. Not only do they have good deals...sometimes you can find a treasure. This past summer I found a goodie at the Goodwill: polyester pencil skirt, green and white flower pattern, with a slit at the back hem. Sexy, but understated.

On the inside front waistline are two tags. "M Cirella 102B" and "FRONT" (you know, just in case you put it on the wrong way). I knew this skirt had a story - I could feel it. I just didn't know what the story was. 

I wanted to know this Cirella woman with excellent taste in skirts. Why did she give up this awesome skirt? Had she put on some weight or passed away? I could not imagine giving up on this skirt unless you had to. Why did she need her name and room number on her clothes? Why did the skirt have a "FRONT" tag? Is she in some kind of institution? How old is she? Is she still alive?

I loved wearing it. I embarrassed myself on several occasions by peeling back the front waistline in public to show the skirt tags to friends. "Look! It's got her name! And it says, 'FRONT!'" After a few beers at my birthday dinner I showed off my skirt tags (again) to a group of friends. I kept babbling how "I love that this skirt has a story." Except I didn't really know what the story was; it was a mystery. 

My friend Chelsea said, "you should write about the skirt for your blog." 

What on earth would I write? I've got this skirt and it has some lady's name on it. What else? In order to write the skirt story I needed to find M. Cirella. But how? This seemed like an unlikely and time-consuming search to nowhere. I'm a busy person. I don't spend my time sitting at home dreaming up ways to kill time. I'm a pretty busy business lady with a number of book projects to finish up before Christmastime. Yet this skirt kept tugging at my curiosity.

At least I had a few good clues: a first initial, a last name, a room number, and a thrift store.

I've heard it rumored Goodwill stores get their stuff from all over. M. Cirella could be Anywhere, USA. I kept envisioning some sassy skinny Italian woman in Jersey wearing it to bingo night. I called up the Rockland Goodwill to find out where they get clothes.

"During the winter we get clothes from the Gorham warehouse, which gets clothes from all over the country, but the rest of the year most of our clothes come from local donors."

Sweet! That means I might not have to look too far for Miss Mystery Cirella. A quick google search of her name and "Rockland, ME" brought me right to the source: an obituary in the Free Press for Madelene "Maddy" Cirella, who died at 95 years old. She had been a resident at the Knox Center for Long Term Care in Rockland.

Madelene Cirella

So it all fit. Of course she needed to have her name and room number on her clothes for all that institutional laundry business. I'd sure want to make certain I got my prized skirt back too. 

Maine shipyard workers during WWII. Courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum.

Maine shipyard workers during WWII. Courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum.

Best yet, I gleaned from the obit, Maddy was a pretty fascinating lady. During WWII she worked as a welder at Bath Iron Works. A regular Rosie the Riveter.  She liked to travel to the Caribbean and Europe, as well as those gambling hot spots: Atlantic City and Vegas. I'd say Maddy's obit describes just the kind of sassy lady I imagined. 

I wanted more.

I found her son's name and town of residence in the obit, googled it in the white pages and after a few dead phone lines I reached a functioning voicemail. 

I left a message: "Hi, this might sound a bit out of the ordinary, but I have a skirt of your mother's that I bought at the Goodwill and I'd like to know more about her."

I figured he'd pass me off as a looney and delete my message. Good riddance. 

Later that evening Madelene's son John Crane called me back. "I'd be happy to tell you more about my mom." Not only did Madelene work at Bath Iron Works as a welder, everybody in the family did: her father, brothers, and even her sisters. Maddy also worked the line at a button factory, cannery, and GTE. She worked six days a week. John once asked her why she worked so much. "Nothing else to do." 

I asked John about the skirt and he handed the phone to his wife, Sylvia, who managed her mother-in-law's clothing collection and a good deal of her care taking during the last years. I described the skirt to Sylvia. "If that's the one I think it is, she got it in Florida." (I wonder if Floridians get confused about which is the front and back of their skirts.) Sylvia was surprised that the name was still on the skirt. Goodwill had told her they don't take clothes with names on them. This one must have slipped through the cracks. 

Sylvia described her mother-in-law as "quite the gal." She "loved to dance, to eat, to shop. And she loved the men." I laughed! I knew this lady must have been a bit of a fun flirt with a skirt like that. 

After a stroke Madelene spent 12 years in the Knox Center, where she picked up her nickname "Maddy." She had made it to 95 years and spent her last birthday celebrating with five generations of her family. She passed in her sleep last April. A good life, well lived, and in style. 

Many of my readers are looking to uncover their family history. There are so many untold stories. So many dead-ends. While Madelene's story isn't about a family history mystery, it still bears the hallmarks of detective history work. I was surprised at how quickly and how easily I found my way to Madelene's obituary and her son's phone number. There are so many resources out there on the internet; it is almost scary how easy it is to get information. Yet, I'm comforted to know that a green and white flowered skirt connects me to this other person, to the tumult of WWII and the changes in society as women dared enter the man's world of manufacturing. I find a kindred spirit in this woman who liked to dance and visit Vegas and have fun, and worked hard the rest of the time. I am linked to a woman who raised a son who could recognize the genuine curiosity in my voice, and, rather than dismiss me as a crazy person, he took a chance and reached out to share stories about his mother with me. This connection wasn't made simply because I now own her old skirt and wear it - it happened when I sought her story. 

There are a lot of skirts out there, and a lot of stories; you just have to open your eyes and start asking questions out loud. 

I'd like to invite you to share a story that you've unearthed. Use the comment section below or submit it here. (Plus,  I'll include an excerpt from my favorite one in my next newsletter - it could be yours! All stories submitted will be available on my blog.)