This is a love story. Though true that within it lies wedding gowns, lots of them, and a lasting decades-long romance, this is the love story of a mother and daughter from Brooklyn at mid-century into the new millennium, transcending the distance between the earthly and ancestral realms, love culminating in legacy.
At the recent Creatively Speaking Film Series Sunday Shorts at Manhattan's Metrograph, the screen goes dark, and then a dual image appears – a faded vintage photograph of a little girl wearing bangs, cat-eye glasses, lipstick, and pearls. In her hand, a tiny teacup; on her face the slightest insouciance. Next to it, the verso of the photo, inscribed in blue ink: “Sandy 11/19/61 Birthday Party.” The proud voice of M. Elaine Bromfield emerges: “November 19, 1961, Cassandra Ann Bromfield is five...years...old.” As Ms. Bromfield speaks, the picture cuts to an image of the birthday girl, surrounded by her tea party guests each dressed as a “grown-up” in Sunday finery: three lip-rouged girls in hats and a sole boy in jacket and tie. In the audience is “Sandy” herself, “keeper of the films”– cherished 8mm slices of contemporary life shot by her late mother during the 1960s and ’70s. Both subject and provider of source material for the award-winning documentary short film, Into My Life, she is thrilled by the serendipitous journey of her mother’s "home movies" into the festival circuit, where it premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
We sit down for tea in the terraced co-op apartment her mother bought over fifty years ago, determined to make magic in her child’s life. She shares one of their annual traditions; the Christmas Walk to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and experience the delightful holiday window displays of major retailers along 5th Avenue: B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwartz, Bonwit Teller, and Tiffany. Cassandra would point out something she liked amid the tinsel and sparkle, and her mother would ask, “Oh darling, do you want that?” With a theatrical flourish, she’d mime presenting Cassandra with the thing desired and Cassandra would proffer her courtly acceptance. They’d return home to make ornaments of homemade hilarity from “toilet paper rolls, foil, and sprinkles of some sort.” And in an inclusive spirit of the season, they too would light the menorah for Hanukkah, though admittedly, she laughs, “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
M. Elaine Bromfield, never one to divulge the name behind the initial, was born in Brooklyn to Amy and Samuel “Poppy” Matthews in 1924, emigrants from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Upon her mother’s passing, her widowed father married a second time to Virginia-born Cora, with whom he raised his children in a brownstone he purchased in Bedford Stuyvesant as black families began to dot the landscape. Each of her siblings played an instrument: brothers Sammy and Wilmoth played violin and guitar respectively, sister Hulda played piano, and she played “bass fiddle, first chair” her daughter says proudly. “She started in high school. I think it was a way for my grandparents to keep the kids busy; keep them out of trouble and not have their children be thugs on the street,” Cassandra chuckles, “not for a career.”
Her music knowledge was a boon, however, when the education-focused Elaine became a teacher in the New York City Public School system. “My mother taught early childhood, and at the time you had to be able to play the piano, you had to know music; that was part of the curriculum, probably because kids learned by singing the alphabet and numbers. So we had a piano.”
Elaine’s marriage to Samuel Bromfield, an artistic man of Jamaican descent was short-lived but gave her the love of her life, her only child, Sandy, who she showered with love, praise, and pride in her accomplishments. As the second youngest of four, Elaine had been the first in her family to graduate from college. Prioritizing the boys’ achievements over the girls’, however, her family didn’t attend the commencement – the sting of which she felt deeply. A wound she’d never inflict on her daughter. To the contrary, Cassandra says that her intensely supportive mother “thought the world of me, she really did, and it was embarrassing sometimes. To hear her tell it I was reading Shakespeare at three,” she laughs.
Having recorded her baby girl’s milestones with a point-and-shoot camera, she upped the documentary ante in 1962 with an 8mm movie camera before they moved to Puerto Rico for a teaching program. “It probably afforded her another level in the educational system,” Cassandra says of her mother’s impetus for the move. Elaine first began filming their life together as the plane made its descent into the Island of Enchantment. Cassandra, however, was less than enchanted by the reception she received at the English-speaking school and church. One of few black children there, students mockingly called her “Blackie.” Though she couldn’t opt out of school, when she shared with her mother that she no longer wanted to attend church, her mom, having experienced being the only person of color in school, started taking her to the Spanish language services instead, where she was well-received.
In 1964, back in Brooklyn, Elaine and Sandy moved into one of the first two buildings of the new Lindsay Park Housing Cooperative in Williamsburg. Although accustomed to brownstone living, Elaine was happy to be free of brownstone duties like shoveling snow and glad to gain expansive southern and eastern views of the borough from the 15th floor. With communal activities like Camp Fire Girls and Boy Scouts for the children and Bingo games for the adults, it was a close-knit, pleasant community. “We even had the Share Program (affordable groceries through communal high-volume purchasing),” Cassandra says. “I had to drive all the way to the Bronx, there were four of us, and we would put our pallet together.” A delivery truck would deliver the pallet of groceries to Lindsay Park, where all the participating residents would pick up their share.
There were Halloween parties and picnics, fashion shows and frolicking in the community pool, frequently captured on celluloid under Elaine's curious gaze. “It was a wonderful upbringing,” Cassandra affirms. She wasn’t particularly traumatized by her father’s absence; his presence was felt in his artwork which adorned the walls of their home and Elaine filled their lives with exploration. “We went to concerts at BAM, watched the Young People’s Concerts on PBS. She took me to plays in the park. She wanted me to be interested in things, so she introduced me to art and music and dance. I played the recorder in elementary school, then flute. I took dance at BAM, ballet, but stopped going when another little girl made fun of me because I had holes in my tights and I felt bad. But we had what we needed. We had food, clothes, a TV. My mother took me on a trip across the country. I don’t have a struggle story.”
She realizes in retrospect, however, that for her mother, managing everything as a single parent was difficult. But manage she did, with a sense of humor and whimsy, making her daughter’s clothing. “I remember a dress she made for me; it was made from a round tablecloth; I loved dancing and twirling in that.” Cassandra wore it until it was threadbare and in a flash of inspiration to cover a hole, her mother created a flower from the fabric, using a button as its center amid the petals.
“When I was around 8 or 10, I got my own little sewing machine, a chain stitch thing to make doll clothes.” By junior high school, her courses included sewing and cooking in Home Economics class so she honed her early skills to create things for her wardrobe, perfecting her technique so that no one would know her clothing wasn’t store-bought. “I would buy Vogue Patterns or McCalls. You didn’t want it to look ‘made.’” She laughs, “Remember Denise’s “Gordon Gartrell” shirt for Theo on the Cosby Show?”
She discovered that she “enjoyed needlework more than knitting or crochet” and with an affinity for embellishment she began to bead and embroider her garments, a practice she still employs today; hearkening back to her mom’s improvised petals, museum exposure to embroideries and tapestries and cultural immersion in their cross-country travel.
Cassandra would eventually join the alto section of New York’s All-City Chorus, a fact that thrilled her mother, though she was not invited to return the next year. With characteristic feistiness, Elaine fought for her daughter’s inclusion. Cassandra says dryly, “I didn’t have a great voice, but the leader of the tenors would accept anybody, so I joined as a tenor.” She laughs, “I even had a brief solo in an unusual opera.”
Though Elaine had packed away the Super 8 during Cassandra’s adolescence, she hadn’t lost the documentary impulse and continued to photograph life around her. Recognizing a similar passion in her daughter, who’d signed up for a photography class, she purchased an Olympus OM 10 camera. Cassandra shows me the weighty SLR: “This is what she bought me. I found the receipt to this, it was $300, and that was a lot back then. I thought, wow, she must really believe in me.”
Attending college was “a foregone conclusion” for Cassandra; Elaine would have it no other way. “Not if, but where and when. I got my bachelor’s in Liberal Arts at City College. I wanted to be in advertising like Darrin Stephens (Samantha’s ad exec husband on TV’s Bewitched).” But she still enjoyed creating with her hands and enrolled in FIT’s one-year design program. “I had advanced ability in sewing, but draping and patternmaking were eye-opening, so they made me better. It was exciting. I had good teachers and graduated cum laude.”
Employed for the summer at the Department of Welfare, Cassandra met a kind Briton co-worker who would become her beau. On their first date, she and Floyd went for a spin on the up-and-down-and-round-and-round ride, the Himalaya at Coney Island. “Because the centrifugal force forces you into one corner, I was trying not to be smashed into him because I was embarrassed,” she remembers. They’ve been smashed up ever since, through all the trials and triumphs of the past thirty plus years. “It’s good to really like each other, have mutual respect, and understanding of each other’s goals. Having separate homes helps,” she laughs. And he was Elaine-approved (though she wagged her finger a bit that they didn’t marry).
Cassandra’s start in the fashion industry was as a sample maker for a dress brand, then as a production patternmaker for sleepwear brands including Maidenform, but decided to launch her business when she was laid off. Embellishing tee-shirts with dancing figures and beading, she started vending at Brooklyn’s African Street Festival, blocks from her grandparents old MacDonough Street homestead. Since college, she’d worked seasonally with Audrey Smaltz’ The Ground Crew as a dresser and ultimately doing backstage alterations and supervising during Fashion Week (which she continued until the company closed in 2017). She’s grateful to Audrey Smaltz for all she’s learned: “tenacity, pride in work and self. Audrey was not afraid of being Audrey, and I learned from that to not be afraid of Cassandra. She came under a lot of criticism for her pricing, but she understood her value, the impeccable service she offered.”
Working backstage was an incredibly productive experience. It laid the groundwork for Cassandra to be able to do tailoring and alterations for Brides magazine, which included travel. “I went to Iceland,” she says excitedly. She eventually received coverage of her designs within the pages of the magazine. But first, coverage of her bridal designs in Essence magazine jump-started her bridal/social occasion design business. She gravitated toward bridal because “It’s the one day when a woman will celebrate herself and do something special even if she doesn’t do it at all any other time,” she says. “It always fascinated me; even if the woman is selfless, she’ll put a curl in her hair or flowers, just something. Maybe she doesn’t buy a $6000 dress, but she’ll do something for that one moment.” In the Afrocentrism of the 1990s, “there was a need for people to be able to express themselves culturally,” she says and “Essence, Jumping the Broom (Harriette Cole's best-selling, Jumping the Broom: The African American Wedding Planner) and other subsequent books and periodicals gave us [black designers] a place. I would go into Barnes & Noble and move Harriette's book in front of, say, a Vera Wang book.”
It was during this time as a part of the Essence fashion team that I met Cassandra, and at every show of her work, beaming proudly, camera in tow was Miss Elaine gleefully cheering her baby on. It was heartwarming to see her, all fierce maternal pride. While riding the Afrocentric wave, Cassandra leased a design studio on 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue near the garment district. “It was a blessing; it was exciting.” And, yes, her mom came. “Going upstairs was hard, but she came,” Cassandra says. “One of the last gifts she gave me was a refrigerator for the studio. She was proud I was doing it; I was making it happen.”
Another elder goddess who visited the studio was none other than Ruby Dee, whose assistant thought that she and Cassandra would get on well. She was right. “I was so surprised that she came on her own, on the train!" Cassandra exclaims. Though for subsequent visits, she'd take a car. "Miss Dee was a great supporter of small business; of businesses of color. She was gracious, and she knew what she wanted. Theater people are very aware of how what they are wearing affects how they move on stage. She loved the patchwork. Her SAG Awards gown changed my life. I became her stylist, so to speak.” She designed for the legendary actress/activist and went to her home to put looks together for her appearances. “She had very interesting jewelry.”
Unfortunately, by the time Cassandra began working with Miss Dee, her mother’s memory was failing, so she couldn't comprehend the good news. For the first time, she was unable to assume her lifelong role as her daughter's greatest supporter and cheerleader. How excited she once would have been to hear that Cassandra Ann Bromfield was designer to the illustrious Ruby Dee who'd attended Hunter College at the same time as her sister Hulda.
Cassandra worked tirelessly creating for her clients and serving as devoted caregiver to the woman who’d given her so much until September 23, 2008 when M. Elaine Bromfield passed into eternity, leaving her devastated. She slogged through her grief by blogging and beginning a years-long process of re-envisioning her childhood home into her “new old apartment,” sharing as she went along. In going through her mother’s things, she discovered a cache of treasures. From the 1960s through the 1970s, M. Elaine Bromfield had seldom been without her trusty Super 8 camera and a cassette recorder, so there were copious reels of 8mm film and audiotapes. Since she continued taking still photos well beyond the 1970s, there too were boxes and boxes of pictures and undeveloped film.
Through the Brooklyn-based company, DiJiFi, Cassandra had these analog materials digitized and began the cathartic experience of editing them, adding music and graphics to create mini-films from her mother’s original captures and uploading them to her 8MM Project on YouTube in 2013. By the following year, she received word from Ruby Dee’s camp that “people were coming by,” not initially realizing that it was to make their goodbyes before the legend’s 2014 passing. Though honored to be given that opportunity, Cassandra didn’t go. “It would be too painful,” she says. “I did go to her service; it was beautiful.”
She continued editing and posting videos, a joy in all the sadness. Many of her clips were from her Lindsay Park upbringing which caught the attention of filmmakers from Union Docs researching a planned documentary on the history of the housing cooperative. Although Cassandra was a bit skeptical when first approached about the documentary via email, she eventually consented to meet, and when she did, the filmmakers, Grace Remington, Sarah Keeling, and Ivana Hucíková soon realized that the film should be less about Lindsay Park and more about this special duo who lived, loved and recorded life there. They shot current footage of Cassandra as she shared her story, edited it with the Bromfield’s archival footage into a short film, credited M. Elaine and Cassandra Bromfield as Archival Cinematographers, and began to shop it around for inclusion in festivals. On a Skype call with the filmmakers, Cassandra jokingly said, “We’re going to Sundance, right?” The response, “No, Tribeca.” Cassandra was stunned.
In addition to its Tribeca premiere, Into My Life has been an official selection at Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival in North America (Toronto); Rooftop Films Summer Series (New York); Camden International Film Festival (Maine); Original Thinkers Film Festival (Colorado); Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival (Ohio); and the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival, for which it won Best Documentary Film Short. It has appeared on POV Shorts on PBS and is available for viewing on the website through September 2022 and on the American Documentary website.
This glimpse into their lives resonates with audiences. Nostalgic images of Lindsay Park youngsters confidently diving in the pool counter the pervasive belief that black folks don’t/can’t swim. A teenaged Cassandra shaking her shimmy on the beach with her similarly Afro’d friends speaks of black girl magic and black boy joy; free, beautiful black life. Miss Elaine, long before the hashtags, knew that representation matters, that black lives matter. With her intimate framing, “she wanted to take pictures of people and show them themselves,” Cassandra says. And as she says in the film, “there was some foresight that this would be happening.” Her mother claimed agency over her life and sought to amplify and chronicle the collective lives of her community for posterity. Although Cassandra is floored — pleasantly — by the turn of events, she believes her mom is “having a good time watching all that is happening,” knowing somehow that it would.
Cassandra has created a haven for her new normal and a space she’s proud to have clients visit, as drastically rising rents forced her to shutter the Manhattan design studio. She loves the subtle and soothing blue of her new kitchen, designed by Keita Turner. It is now wholly Cassandra’s domain; re-done yet without erasure. Nods to her mother abound, including a decorative pillow following the contours of a glamorous black and white photo of Ms. Bromfield. In this space of thriving plants, and boundless creativity she honors her mother's memory with love and her legacy as a maker and documentarian. As she says in the film, “I do kinda sew these stories together. I think it’s the same thing that I’m doing, just a different medium.” Whether it’s stitching together patches of fabric or merging snippets of audio and image, Cassandra is drawn to piece work. She can actualize the forest because she first sees the tree.
1. 4-ply silk. Four-ply yarn is made by twisting together four individual thread strands. When made of silk fiber, the resulting fabric is smooth and flat with a crepe finish and drapes beautifully. Cassandra uses it almost exclusively in her designs.
2. Movies. A film buff, she has several favorites.“I was a kid and when I saw these beautiful black people in Black Orpheus, I was in awe. It is the music, the look, the story, and I love it. Remembering the lessons that George had to learn in It's A Wonderful Life helped me through it [the illness and loss of her mother] I love this movie.” Though she thoroughly enjoys West Side Story, what stands apart are the opening and closing credits. “That shot spanning New York City and then closing in on this neighborhood that was in a cultural divide, and then the end credits of the walls graffitied with director, music, choreographer, and others were just so creative,” she says. “I saw To Sir With Love with my mother at the Paris Theater on 58th off 5th Avenue. At that time, theaters were like palaces, and then there were Lulu and Sidney Poitier. Plus my mother was a school teacher and I imagined she had a lasting effect on her students. I cried at the end of the movie for her.” Cassandra remembers seeing The Seventh Seal many times on television. “In New York, there was something called the Million Dollar Movie – a precursor to TCM. I saw it dubbed in English and I was glued to this strange, quirky gem. Years later, I took a film course in college and when the professor began to discuss The Seventh Seal, the Black girl from Williamsburg, Brooklyn had one up on the other students.”
3. My mother’s bulls. “She loved them; they remind me of her.” Although Cassandra’s Taurean mom collected crystal bull figurines and displayed them throughout the apartment, friends and family who knew of her collecting passion would gift her with bulls crafted from other materials. This wooden bull, draped in a silver bell choker, holds a prominent place in Cassandra’s living room today.
4. My father’s artwork. “I don’t know where he is, or if he is, but I do have this.”
5. Vintage eyeglasses. Her collection includes a cherished pair worn by her Aunt Hulda in the circa 1940s photo above.
6. Old photos of my family. “I have a bunch of old photos of my family. They looked like movie stars to me, especially Aunt Nona, she was a glamorous doll!”
7. Mango. “This is a sexy fruit. Tasty, juicy, sticks to you, and you know when someone has been eating one.”
8. Baby Lock Serger. The Eclipse model of the Baby Lock overlocking machine “sews like a dream,” she says. “There‘s a technique I can use to make French seams very thin and it is a lot neater on the inside of the garment. I also can create a patchwork garment much faster.”
9. Filmmaking. She started making short montages of photographs, vintage home movies and contemporary smartphone video clips with iMovie and Microsoft Movie Maker and has now graduated to Final Cut Pro. “What I really want to do is direct! I am having a ball, I love making movies.”
10. Duke Ellington. She’s loved the maestro since childhood, though she can’t remember exactly how she was introduced to his music. “My mother did make me watch a lot of PBS programing. It must have been there or that trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Harlem On My Mind. That exhibit was groundbreaking and I believe one of the noted musicians would have been Duke Ellington.” Her favorite Ellington recording is The Nutcracker Suite. “I even created some costumes — odd little sketches — and choreographed a ballet in my head.” She remembers the day in May 1974, when her teacher at the High School of Performing Arts announced in class, “Duke Ellington died today.” She was crestfallen.