The Yellow Negligee
After spending a little over a year on the manuscript for A Dozen Ways, I finally sent it to the printers for a proof last week. I had been chained to the keyboard or chained to the stove and within 5’ of a camera at all times, and I was done for now. Heaving a tremendous sigh of relief, I decided to address the much needed spring cleaning. There were far too many hats and labels I don’t wear anymore – the one with perfect hair and hair color, the stars in the eyes fresh graduate or the confident worker bee. Until about 7 years ago, most of these labels applied to me then they morphed into parenting kind: the wanna-be-skinny 30 something new mom or the 'I can do everything' young mom. In the last decade, I have learned, that frankly there is too much important stuff to do and very little time to do it in, and I need to stop caring about the small stuff that does not change who I am.
Parenting has obviously redefined my priorities. With no spare time to chase everything, I’ve not really taken time to do a careful re-evaluation of my closet. In this newly parenting-prioritized life, the clothes that I needed were simply added in, the ones that I did not use – just got moved to the back, to back, and further back. With the book finally off my plate I could change gears into the new hats that may come my way, so spring cleaning became even more important, like a cleanse.
With age, things like hairline, personal dimensions and of course dress sense changes. As the grays increase, for people like me, so do the numbers on dress size. For me, it meant that the skinny jeans, skimmers and all the rest were out, comfy pants, forgiving patterns and solid colors were in. I needed clothes that I could run if needed, allowed me to breathe and be comfortable v/s something that was going to choke my breath, starved me, or worse, did all of the above. I needed clothes that did not need dry cleaners every week, but could withstand the rough and tumble life of parenting, dirt, mud and grass stains and all. As I sorted, I began to see the evolution of my choices – favorite colors, favorite styles of outfits, and an unusually high number of blue jeans I hoped to fit into - all emerged in tall stacks.
Amidst all this, I found my daughter picking up each piece of clothing, checking its size to see if it would fit her. All little girls do this, with shoes, make-up, jewelry and clothes. She found several shirts she liked; she became more and more curious about each one, asking, as she picked up each ...
When did you get this mamma? Why don’t you wear this anymore? This is so cute, since I fit into it, may I have it? Oooh, pretty… is it now mine? I don’t believe you don’t fit into that! Why did you buy this if you’ve never worn it? You could have returned it you know!
At 10, and taller than what I was at her age, this was an amusing exercise for both of us.
As the evening progressed, I was reminded of a story I once heard about a mother and her teenage daughter. In a similar situation, while spring cleaning, the daughter had found a beautiful yellow negligee tucked away in a big suitcase with a bunch of other old clothes. It was not indecent in any way, just a cute, short synthetic nightgown, with puffy sleeves and lace, with the ‘come-hither’ look, from the 70’s. It seemed brand new, almost never worn, and was out of character for her mother to have purchased. The teenage daughter begged to have it or at least wear it (with another modest layer underneath), since it seemed like it would fit her. But, the mother had a fit of rage and snatched it back, stuffed it into the suitcase and told her daughter to never ask for it again. The daughter was confused, why wouldn’t her mother let her have it? Perhaps she would, when I get married, thought the daughter. They never talked about it again. Many years later when the daughter was about to get married, she had one of those ‘heart-to-heart’ talks with her mother, and gingerly asked her about the yellow negligee. With a somber expression, the mother told her the back story. She had purchased it herself to wear for her husband in a futile attempt to curb his womanizing ways. Unfortunately, it never mattered to him; he did not change. She had held on to the hurt, in the form of the negligee because that gave her reassurance that she had once cared enough and tried. But if she passed down the negligee to her daughter, she believed it would transfer a burden of disappointment onto her, and so, never did, or tell her the story behind it. She never could give it away because she simply could not pass along that hurt to anyone, or forget that she once loved that man enough to try to keep him. And that was the lesson she wanted to pass on, on the eve of her daughters' wedding.
I was also reminded of a recent conversation with a widower who was still mourning her spouse a little over a year after his passing. As she was getting ready to move on and invite new experiences into her life, she wanted to give away most of her husband’s clothes hoping that by giving them a new life, the love of her life would live on, and be taken care of, elsewhere.
Both women talked about love as their personal investment in their relationship: one everlasting love, enduring even though unfinished v.s. another that remained unrequited? Which kind of story was better to hang on to? What needed to be kept or set free.. Who knew that hand-me-downs could cause such an introspective evening.
As I sorted, I reflected and wondered how many such stories were hidden in my clothes. There were a couple special dresses, the T-shirt that I wore on a special date or a memorable trip. There was a torn hem that was never fixed because it was a reminder about that day. Or an outfit my mother sent me, that I never wore and never told her because it would hurt her feelings. Each garment that I did not wear, but had kept had a story, mostly happy ones, but several that were carefully concealed within its seams.
I asked myself, how many of those stories did I need to share with my daughter? Would those stories affect the decisions she made about herself, people and relationships? In this age of growing up to fast, too perfect, to unscathed, what role did my life experiences play into shaping hers? I needed to share, but only those that were important.
My daughter did finally settle on an armload of pieces that she hopes to wear soon or grow into in a few months. Some came with stories I told her and others she didn’t have to know about. As I packed things away, I acknowledged that I had become a different person from all those individuals that once breathed in those clothes that my daughter now inherited. I also acknowledged that clothes did not make a man or woman, they are designed to fit a conventional role, but they only amplify what already exists in the wearers' own personality. If the wearer ‘felt’ pretty, cute or beautiful or smart in something, it was not because of the dress / outfit, but it was of their own self confidence, not the before or the after of the dress or garment or the stories that went with each. We do not need the approval of someone else to validate our opinion about our own self image. We just need to amplify the genuine good within us; that we so frequently hide away because that makes us feel vulnerable to criticism or critique.
And with this in the back of my mind, I realized as mother and daughter, we both are growing into our own new ‘lives’, using the stepping stones of one lifetime to build a path all our own, taking some stories, but leaving the rest behind.