Frocktalk.com is dedicated to celebrating the art of motion picture costume design. But what inspires us, as costume designers, is sometimes a little more abstruse and hard-to-define. I was introduced to the textile arts by my grandmother, Elsie Marie Mullin, and I owe my career to her. She passed away on Wednesday, February 4, 2009, and her passing bears a tribute here.
Elsie Marie Elrod was born March 5, 1917 in Salem, Indiana, to parents Harry Lester and Ruby Jane Miller Elrod. Harry was a dirt farmer, and Marie, her parents, and her three brothers (Willard, Ralph and Charlie) lived the rural life until the depression hit. Harry was selected to run the Washington County poor farm, and the family moved in.
The Washington County poor farm housed all manner of indigent people, some elderly, some disabled, some just down-on-their luck. Those who could work worked, milking cows, harvesting crops, taking care of the facilities at the farm. Marie and her siblings loved the poor farm, because for the first time in their lives, they had indoor plumbing and electricity. There wasn’t a lot of money, but they had good times, going to school, singing songs and telling stories.
Marie learned most of her arts and crafts skills from her mother, Ruby Jane, and from her grandmother, Emma Rose Sturdevant Elrod. Emma Rose was the kind of woman who could make a salve from roots and tree bark to make your poison oak go away. Ruby was masterful in the home arts, and, in later life became a professional cake decorator. Marie learned to sew, cook, build cabinets, and crochet from these women, and from her time spent in 4H. Along the way, she passed these skills on to her children, and to her grandchildren. We are all grateful.
Marie, as she was known, was the first person in her family to go to college. She attended Indiana University, and graduated with a degree in nursing. It was at this time that she met and married the dashing Joseph Eugene Mullin, a newly minted medical doctor. Joe was quickly conscripted into the U.S. Army, and the newlyweds moved to Denver, Colorado.
Children soon followed, and in the mid-1940s, they headed west. Joe was already stationed at the Lemoore airfield, and Marie took the train from Indianapolis (with three children under the age of four) to meet him.
After the war, the Mullin family moved to Downey, California, where three more children were born. Marie was now Cub Scout den mother, campaigner for the Heart Association against smoking, and chauffeur to six energetic kids. There were many rotten-orange fights in the orange groves surrounding their home. There were many “dress-up” parades, and endless Halloweens, with costumes all made by Marie.
Her daughters eventually married, and Marie continued the costume making with her grandchildren. I will never forget going to her house, into the sewing room, and sifting through oceans of patterns with her. “What would you like, honey?” she would ask, “And in what color?” This absolutely blew my mind. Suddenly, the realm of possibility was cracked wide open. I could create anything, in any color, with any fabric, for any person. There were no limits to what a person could create.
Marie grew older, and her hands grew more rigid with arthritis. The crochet stopped, the sewing grew less frequent, and eventually even her beloved woodworking equipment lay idle. By the end of her life, her hands were twisted beyond use, but oh, the wonders they had performed. All of us who benefitted from her instruction and her inspiration add to her legacy of creation. In this manner, her creative work lives on forever.
Perhaps more important than her creative work was her incredible sunny attitude, adventurous spirit, and “can-do” outlook on life. It seems cliché to glorify someone who has passed on, overlooking his or her flaws and faults, but in this case, she deserves the praise. This was a woman whose dream was to become a professional racecar driver. She sometimes forgot it was a dream, burning through the back-roads of Indiana and Southern California in a wood-paneled station wagon. This was a woman who knew how to throw a rip-roaring party. There was always room for “one more” – people were her treasures, and everyone she knew was her friend.
She became a leader in the rural community where she and Joe eventually settled, Bonsall, California. She started the Bonsall Women’s Club, a community service organization, was a member of the Bonsall Planning group, led the campaign to save the old Bonsall Bridge, to save the old one-room Bonsall school house. She worked tirelessly to stop the widening of the tiny-two-lane road that runs in front of their home, and she fought to not restrict the number of horses one could own in her rural neighborhood. She was a legend in the community, and throughout all of her fighting for causes, didn’t seem to collect even one enemy.
This is not to say that she had no flaws – she did. She might have been a tad overprotective and strict with her older children. She might have thrown away a few valuable, first edition Elvis Presley records. She might have had an inexplicable love for powdered mashed potato mix. Yes, she had flaws. But they pale in comparison to her accomplishments as a human being. She taught us how to love, how to care for other people, and how to be a better person. I want to be a better person because of her example. I look to her demeanor and her life as inspiration for my own – can I love more, care more, do more – and I hope that one day, I can fulfill her legacy.
So rest in peace, Elsie Marie. Ninety-one, almost ninety-two years on this earth, and nothing was left undone. I am so happy to have known this woman, never mind the fact that I am related to her. We are hosting a memorial service for her in a month, and we are already anticipating a flood of people. My grandma was a true rock star – to her family, and to her community. She will be profoundly missed. Her legacy lives on in everyone she touched. The “M” in my name stands for Marie, and the “M” will always be in my name in the credits of any movie I work on; she will always be represented. She taught me the limitless possibilities of creative work, and that is a lesson worth repeating. Thanks, Grandma.