In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Although no one else was home, I took care to open my parents’ closet door quietly, as if they might hear. If either of them caught me, I’d be in trouble. My father’s clothes, pushed to one side, were all brown, gray, or black. He was a contractor who worked with his hands and smelled like sawdust and sweat. My mother’s clothes, which took up most of the closet, had bright colors and patterns. She was vivacious and quick to laugh, but she could also be short-tempered.
I ran my hands over Mama’s dresses, noticing the abundance of green, her favorite color. The beads on her emerald gown seemed to pulse under my fingertips. What would it be like to wear such a dress, to look and feel so exotic? It’s not that I wanted to be a girl; I just didn’t want to be me. At the age of ten I already knew that I was different, that I didn’t seem to belong in rural North Carolina. My brothers and the other kids at school — and even some of the teachers — had made sure I was aware of that.
I didn’t know when my parents would be home or whether my brothers might come crashing in, so I couldn’t be sure I’d have the time to slip on the dress and then return it to the closet unnoticed. No, the dress would have to wait. But what about the boxes of shoes that lined the closet floor? I pulled out a pair of blood-red high heels and turned them over in my hands. Then I took off my grass-stained tennis shoes and put on the heels. My feet fit perfectly. Those red shoes transported me to a place where I belonged.
Woodstock, New York
Kenna was a student in the writing class I taught at juvenile hall. Only sixteen, she’d been arrested for prostitution. (In youth advocacy, they prefer to say she was a “sexually trafficked minor.”) She had no family except for a sister who was incarcerated. As her teacher I grew fond of Kenna, with her dimpled cheeks and constellations of tattoos on both arms. In one piece she wrote for my class, Kenna mentioned an older man who had bought her a matching blouse and pants, and how that had made her feel grown-up and special. (I’ve been told that pimps often lure girls into prostitution with flattery and promises of clothes, manicures, and hairdos.) Kenna also often wrote about her shame and depression and how badly she wanted a second chance. “Emotional pain hurts more than physical pain any day,” she said in class. “I got both. I know.” My other students nodded in agreement.
On the day of Kenna’s court hearing, I took off from work to testify to her good character. When the court ordered that she be placed in a low-security youth facility, where she would be safe from her pimp, Kenna said the only clothes she had were the black pants, black canvas shoes, and gray sweat shirt issued to her by juvenile hall. After the hearing I hugged Kenna and whispered, “Don’t worry. I’ll get you clothes.”
I spent a few days assembling a wardrobe for her, culling from my own closet and shopping at resale stores. I picked outfits that I thought were pretty but not too revealing. I washed and folded the clothes and placed them in a white canvas bag with some toiletries, a hairbrush, and two composition books. Then I called a social worker to find out where Kenna was staying, so I could deliver the clothes. I was informed that Kenna had gone AWOL the night after she’d arrived. Her pimp almost certainly had been waiting for her on the streets.
I wonder where Kenna is now. I still have that bag of clothes for her.
In May 2010 my seventeen-month-old daughter, Hudson, died suddenly from bacterial meningitis. One day she was an otherwise healthy toddler with what seemed like a common fever; the next she was fatally ill. She was our first child and our only child at the time of her death.
A year later, the day before I went into labor with our second child, I finally forced myself to clean out Hudson’s room and prepare it for the new baby. I readjusted the crib and changed the sheet, and then I opened my daughter’s diaper bag. It still contained the clothes she’d been wearing the day she’d been admitted to the hospital: A pair of navy-blue leggings with white whales on them. A light-blue top with puffed sleeves. Plain white socks with her initials on the toe. Little pink shoes that her grandma had given her. After she’d died, I would sometimes pull the clothes out and hold them, thinking about her. Now I was unable to bring myself to empty the bag, even though I knew we’d need it for the new baby.
For our son’s first trips to the pediatrician, we took diapers and wipes in a ratty canvas tote bag. A few weeks later, as we prepared for an outing, my husband asked where the tote was so that he could refill it. I sighed and said I would empty Hudson’s diaper bag, and we could use that. I went to the closet and bent to pick it up, but when I touched it, I burst into tears.
We took the ratty tote bag with us.
I doubt that I’m ever going to empty Hudson’s diaper bag. Four years and two houses later, it remains filled with the last clothes my daughter ever wore.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
My sister and I are just fourteen months apart in age. When we were young, our Christmas gifts were usually identical: a doll or a sweater for each of us, differing only in color. As teens we were best friends. We went on double dates together and even passed boyfriends back and forth. The worst fight we had was when she got mad at me for moving up to a bigger bra size than hers.
Then, during my senior year of high school, my sister got pregnant. When she began preparing to marry and move out, we had trouble separating our clothes. There was no “hers” and “mine”; we had always treated them all as “our” clothes.
Somehow we decided which half she would take, and then she was gone. For the first time in my life I did not share a bedroom with my sister. There was no one to talk with before falling asleep.
After I’d moved out of our childhood home, I began to see just how different my sister and I really are. She tends to play it safe and doesn’t like to be noticed or to bother anyone. She wants life to be orderly and has a low tolerance for disruptions in her routine. She shops for clothes only when a garment is totally worn out, and she buys understated outfits in muted colors.
I like taking risks. I court change and enjoy the unpredictable. I don’t mind being the center of attention and quite like it when someone admires my unusual shoes. I sometimes buy new clothes just to treat myself.
We’re older now. My sister lives two states away, but we talk on the phone most days. Her adult children have moved out of her house. She is indifferent about her job, and she and her husband are beginning to talk about where they want to live after retirement.
I, on the other hand, am just hitting the stage in life where my kids are not my central preoccupation. My career is very important to me. I feel young and sexy and excited about the future. Still, I wish just once my husband would look at me in awe of my beauty, the way my sister’s husband looks at her every day.
My best friend in grade school had delicate features and beautiful clothes. Her family shopped at expensive stores, and she came to school wearing the sort of outfits that I’d seen only on the collectible dolls my grandmother gave to my four sisters and me every Christmas, telling us not to touch them.
Although my family lived in a middle-class Chicago suburb, we didn’t have much money for “extras,” like fancy clothes. My sisters and I got new dresses twice a year — at the start of school and for Easter. Sometimes we’d get one for Christmas, too, if we’d asked for it as our big gift. Many of my friends in junior high received clothes allowances, while I got hand-me-downs from my older sister and cousins I had never met.
The year I was eleven, my mother and I went shopping for an Easter outfit. It was just the two of us, which made me feel special, and I was excited about the coral linen suit we eventually picked out.
On Easter Sunday I put on my new suit, and my father pinned a white carnation on the lapel. But at church my best friend looked as though she had stepped out of a magazine. She wore a garden-print dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a black grosgrain ribbon trailing down her back. Her mother had bought the outfit from an exclusive shop downtown. I burned with jealousy and resentment.
In my early twenties I spent a lot of time and money acquiring fashionable clothes that I thought would help me become the person I wanted to be. Fifty years later I sometimes think I’m still trying to buy self-esteem at Macy’s.
When I was ten, my younger brother and I spent several hours alone each day after school, because both our parents worked. Two WACs — members of the Women’s Army Corps — lived in the apartment above ours, and at precisely 4:30 PM I would hear the clicking of their high heels as they walked from the parking lot to their apartment. I’d peep between the slats of our venetian blinds and watch them.
They were beautiful in their starched uniforms with shiny brass buttons and badges, their dark hair glistening beneath their caps, but what fascinated me even more as a girl was that they were unmarried and making it on their own without men.
I saw them laugh and gaze into each other’s eyes, and sometimes the taller one touched the other’s arm. I imagined them in their kitchen, nuzzling one another as they stirred the pots, then sitting at the table and feeding each other bites. At night I pictured them falling asleep in each other’s arms. They were two women in love.
I worked up the courage to approach the WACs on the sidewalk one day as they arrived home. I introduced myself and pointed to the apartment where I lived, just below theirs. I told them I wanted to grow up to be just like them. When I mentioned how great I thought their caps looked, the shorter one smiled, took hers off, and handed it to me. “It’s yours,” she said.
Months later the two women moved out, but I didn’t forget them. I wore the cap constantly, even to church on Sunday. My mother despised my cap and grimaced every time she saw me in it. At night I laid it on the pillow beside me before I went to sleep.
One Sunday afternoon our family drove to the park to see the fall colors. My brother wore his baseball hat, and I wore my cap perched at a jaunty angle, just as the WACs had done. At the park, as I was getting out of the car, my cap hit the top of the door frame and fell to the ground, right into a dog turd.
I reached to retrieve it, but my mother snapped, “No! You leave that right there!”
I was devastated — and certain that had my brother’s hat been soiled, my mother would have picked it up and cleaned it.
Eleven years later I came out as a lesbian. My mother said she had suspected long before, recalling my early fascination with our neighbors and my sorrow at the loss of the cap. She had hoped that leaving it behind at the park that day might somehow change me.
Kerry Lee Daniel
Asheville, North Carolina
Like most people, I’ve been taught to believe that being naked in public is taboo — especially when you’re fifty-five. I’m self-conscious about my belly fat, the dimples on my thighs, the cobweb of varicose veins spreading above my knee, the surgery scar on my left breast. But today I’m visiting a nudist resort to see if baring it all will help me accept myself the way I am.
In the office a secretary clad only in sandals reads me the rules: I can’t wear clothes, take pictures, or “be lewd.”
“Nudism is not sexy by itself,” she says. “What’s sexy are thongs and bikinis that flirt with the imagination. Nudism isn’t about sex.”
The secretary instructs me to take off my “textiles” — that’s what many nudists call clothing — right there under the fluorescent lights. Then she bids me a “happy nude day.”
I step outside and try to act as if I walked around in the buff all the time, but when a man emerges from the recreation center, I instinctively cover myself. He smiles and heads in another direction.
Before long I’m sitting awkwardly by the pool, talking with four nudists while scrupulously maintaining eye contact. My towel is positioned to obscure my pubic hair — a tactic the veterans might say isn’t in the spirit of being nude but is forgivable for a first-timer.
Plenty of people over fifty saunter around the pool with no apparent self-consciousness about their bulging midriffs, cellulite, scars, and sagging or missing breasts. I think how much better they would look with clothes, then feel ashamed for being so judgmental, particularly when I glimpse my own alabaster pudginess reflected in a window.
“We check each other out. It’s normal,” says the older woman on my right. “But once you see what’s there, you move on and focus on the person.”
Over the course of the day, all the naked bodies gradually begin to seem natural to me. I even find the rounder, heavier people — women especially — the most attractive.
The breeze is pleasant as it riffles the tiny hairs on my stomach, and being nude in the water is even better. By late afternoon I am feeling happier and more alive. I think of a twenty-something gym rat who recently suggested that I cover the varicose veins on my thighs, and I don’t care. I realize that I’ve come to accept this imperfect body.
There on the thrift-store rack hung a beautiful, silk-lined, pinstriped navy suit and cream blouse, miraculously in my size, with matching pumps and a bag. I had to stuff tissue in the toes to help the shoes fit, but it worked, restoring a sense of possibility I’d long forgotten. Buoyed, I didn’t want to take the suit off. So I put the clothes I’d been wearing in a bag and went to the checkout.
I was in a strange city, staying at a women’s shelter after my husband had beaten me one too many times. My two young daughters and I had two weeks left of a strictly enforced three-week stay.
I handed the thrift-store clerk the voucher that a shelter caseworker had given me, bringing my wardrobe tally to three outfits: the one I’d left home in, another that the shelter had donated, and this suit to wear to work. I’d have to wear it every day until my first payday — if I found a job somewhere.
On my way to the bus stop, the heels clacked an upbeat rhythm on the sidewalk. I dropped a bus token, which was all the currency I had, into the slot and slid into a seat near the driver, hoping he would alert me to my stop in this confusing city.
For years my husband had screamed at me that I was “stupid” and “damaged goods,” insisting that I’d never make it “out there.” I was terrified that he was right. I silently begged for rescue: help me, help me, help me. But giving in to panic was not an option, not even for a moment.
“White people got everything,” a woman behind me sneered.
“I know that’s right,” said another.
Their comments had to be directed at me, the only white person on the bus. I wanted to stand up, shake my empty purse upside down at them, and announce that every item I owned, down to my underwear — even my damn deodorant — had been donated. I had no home, no job, no car, no furnishings, no friends, no family, no money, no credit, and no serious work history. All I did have were a madman searching hard for me and two scared, confused kids looking to me for answers and safety that I worried I couldn’t provide. If I didn’t somehow find a job and a place to live in a couple of weeks, I would be camped under a bridge, and my children — my children — would be gone from me, too.
I wanted to tell them all of this, but I didn’t. I sat mute, staring out the smeared window at the daunting, unfamiliar terrain, my only armor that secondhand suit.
When I was a little girl, my family lived in a small town and did most of our shopping via the JC Penney catalog. With four kids in elementary school, my mom closely managed the budget for everything from groceries to school clothes, but it didn’t cost anything to dream. My sisters and I would flip the pages of the catalog slowly, circling the outfits we wanted and the colors we preferred. When our Catholic school started allowing us to wear pantsuits instead of uniforms, we argued over who would get which style and pattern.
For me, though, buying clothes also provoked shame, because I wore what were referred to as “chubby” sizes. The cutest styles didn’t come in those sizes, so I often got clothes that made me look like a middle-aged fifth-grader. I acted the part, too — always a little more uptight and serious than my classmates.
Now that I really am middle-aged, I wonder: Would wearing cuter clothes in elementary school have made any difference in my developing sense of self? Would it have eased the battle I waged with my body for so many years? And how many young girls out there right now are both fantasizing about and dreading the yearly ritual of back-to-school shopping?
After high school I began working at a high-end women’s-clothing store in downtown Chicago. I admired my boss, a stylish and intelligent woman in her forties, who invited me to participate in the store’s buyer-in-training program. I attended classes, spent time with the marketing and finance departments, learned how to do window displays, and began to consider a career in fashion.
Gradually I replaced my skirts and sweaters with expensive, sophisticated suits. I started wearing high heels and carefully applied makeup, and I got my hair styled at a salon. I was looking more and more like my mentor and the other buyers.
I soon learned that, every year, top fashion designers chose a different shade to be the “it” color. This color would appear not just in clothes but in interior design, automobiles, dishware, and so on. One year graphite gray, which I’d never liked, was deemed the new fashionable color. I attended a clinic presented by our store’s fashion coordinator, who was dressed all in gray, with a gray handbag, gray shoes, and a grayish necklace. She showed us gray dresses, gray sweaters, gray gloves and hats, gray everything, and she ended by sternly announcing, “You have to believe in gray.”
I couldn’t join the others in their enthusiasm for this new trend, especially knowing that next year the fashion coordinator would announce I had to believe in an entirely different hue.
One day I asked my mentor, “Do I really have to ‘believe’ in a color?”
She gazed at me for a long time, then responded, “Yes, my dear, I’m afraid you do.”
That autumn I started college, with a major in journalism.
Throughout my childhood I was forced to wear frilly, flouncy, feminine clothes. Every holiday, birthday party, bar mitzvah, wedding, or funeral warranted my wearing what I felt most betrayed my spirit: a dress. I preferred pants, especially the khakis my brother outgrew, which I was allowed to change into after school. Boys’ pants had more pockets. Boys’ blazers, too. My brother’s blazers had deep interior spaces seemingly designed to hold my baseball cards, my gum, and my Swiss Army knife. My stupid girls’ blazers looked like his on the outside, but when I reached within, there was no place to put anything.
I bought my last dress for my brother’s wedding (shortly after realizing I was gay, but just before I shared that news with my family). I danced, posed for pictures, and afterward flew home with the dress and hung it in my closet. Five years later, when Beatrice — the beautiful woman I’m now married to — didn’t have anything to wear to a benefit, she borrowed it. She looked amazing that night, wearing the last dress I ever wore.
Sag Harbor, New York
Ever since I first became a mother, I have kept a bin full of sentimental items: the outfits my children wore home from the hospital; their tiny booties; the soft, worn blankets in which I swaddled them. Although these keepsakes no longer retain the aromas of infancy, if I hold them and close my eyes, I can remember those moments in the rocking chair and feel a rekindling of the powerful love I felt as a new mother.
My own mother died in 1989, after multiple heart procedures. My father, who had lived with her for thirty-eight years, was ill prepared for the loss. For the next eighteen years, until his own death, Dad never removed Mom’s clothing from the drawers and closets of their home. The house remained the same as she had left it. The only thing missing was Mom.
A few times I cautiously asked Dad if he wanted help sorting through Mom’s belongings. “No, not yet,” he always replied.
I often imagined him sitting on the bed, holding a sweater or a blouse of hers and letting his mind drift back to a time when she had been wearing it.
In high school I didn’t have many clothes. Once my boyfriend asked me not to wear my green corduroy pants and blue Fair Isle sweater to the football game. When I asked why, he pointed out that I had worn that same outfit four Fridays in a row. Humiliated, I pictured my rich friends making fun of me behind my back and gossiping about “Pam’s Friday clothes.”
In college my roommates generously shared their colorful sweaters and skinny jeans, but I did not own any clothes like theirs, because I still couldn’t afford them.
When I moved to the West Coast with the man I would eventually marry, I was so tired of feeling embarrassed by my paltry wardrobe that I rebelled. I cut my hair short, threw away my makeup, and stopped shaving my legs and armpits. I bought clothes exclusively from the fair-trade store and the thrift shop, and for footwear I had only hiking boots and Birkenstocks. It was a lovely, simple time.
Then we moved back east and became a two-income family, and I started shopping at nicer stores. At first I purchased just a few skirts and heels for work, maybe a pair of designer jeans and some trendy jackets. But I didn’t stop there. I finally had a respectable wardrobe of my own, and I obsessively added to it over the years, acquiring more than I could wear and sometimes purchasing multiples of the same item by mistake. It became so bad that I once had a panic attack in my closet, envisioning myself suffocating under mounds of clothing.
I considered tossing everything and making a fresh start, but that didn’t seem practical. Besides, I was attached to my evening gowns and cocktail dresses, my vintage cowboy boots and costume jewelry. I could never get rid of it all.
At Christmas that year, as I opened gifts, I felt a resurgence of the panic I had experienced in my closet. I wanted to shout, “No more clothes! Please!” A few nights after that, my teenage daughter had a group of her friends over. There was lovely, dreadlocked Samantha, who plays fiddle and mandolin and wears her sister’s hand-me-downs. There was young Emily, her hair shaved on one side of her head and dyed purple on the other. And there was Hannah, who’d found out she was pregnant two weeks before she was supposed to leave for college. I looked at these young women lounging in my den and had an idea.
The next morning I started going through my clothes. If it hadn’t been worn in a year, I put it into a pile to give away. I moved the mound to our den and told my daughter to invite her friends over and let them have at it, which they happily did, racing around in their bras and underwear, trying on items and tossing what they didn’t want. As their bags filled, my mind cleared.
I like to imagine these young women wearing the clothes they got from me. I picture Samantha in my old leather jacket on a street corner, dreadlocks falling over the collar as she plays her fiddle. I see Emily with her purple hair, strolling through the halls of the nearby high school in my persimmon-colored coat. I imagine my sundress on Hannah in the summer as she pushes a baby stroller around her neighborhood. I love the thought that parts of my past are now draped around these young women.
Even in her nineties, my mother is still more fashionable than I am. Every week she travels five miles to have her hair done, and we often go shopping at a big department store, where she fills a cart with new clothes to try on — or to buy without trying on. She owns more clothes than anyone else I know and regularly gives me bags of almost-new garments to dispose of for her. Unfortunately for me, she’s a size small and I’m an extra large, so I can’t enjoy her castoffs, but my friends do.
My mother and I also have very different taste. Almost all of my clothing is secondhand, and I keep garments for decades. Now that I live on an island in Florida, I wear only loose, sleeveless cotton dresses that I’ve collected from yard sales and consignment stores. Sometimes I wear the same outfit for days at a time.
Last winter my mother woke up one morning with chest pains. Alarmed, she called me, and I rushed her to the urgent-care facility. While the medical staff tended to her, I wondered if she’d survive the day.
After a quick exam and an EKG, the doctor recommended that my mother be taken by ambulance to the emergency room for more tests. Then he left us to make the arrangements.
My mother, lying on an exam bed, called to me. Her voice was weak, and I moved closer to hear her, bracing myself for what might be her end-of-life advice.
“I was wondering,” she said. “That dress you’ve got on — is it the same one you were wearing the other day?”
My father loved to wear T-shirts. He collected so many that he had a room in his home in which he stacked hundreds of them on wide wooden bookcases. Looking through his collection was like traveling with him to all the concerts he’d attended: Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Michelle Shocked, John Prine, Ani DiFranco, Lyle Lovett.
After my father’s death, his wife and I decided to give all of his T-shirts away. At the memorial we piled them on a table and asked each guest to take one. Some people dug for favorites; others took from the top, satisfied just to have something he’d worn. Of the hundreds of people who came to that service, I believe every one of them left with a T-shirt.
I have seen children wearing my father’s T-shirts as pajamas and women wearing them as dresses. I’ve seen them on dolls and on friends and family members. Whenever I put on an old shirt of his, I almost feel as though I am getting one of his hugs.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I was twelve years old when my parents flew to London to see my mother’s family for the first time since they had been married. For the five weeks they were away, my older brother, my younger sister, and I stayed with our aunt Doris.
I had an interest in sewing, and when Aunt Doris realized this, she loaned me her old foot-pedal sewing machine and arranged for me to spend a couple of days with her neighbor, Mrs. Pender, who was an accomplished seamstress. We went to the fabric store, where I selected a red-and-white floral cotton material and a pattern for a wraparound dress that was the latest fashion. I worked industriously beside Mrs. Pender, laying out the pattern, cutting the fabric, and pinning the pieces together. As I began sewing, however, my aunt’s sewing machine stopped working. Mrs. Pender sent me home with assurances that she would finish the dress for me on her fancy electric model.
Aunt Doris later found me sitting on her steps, forlorn and quiet. She sat down beside me and asked how the project was going. As I told her what had happened, I tried to hide my deep disappointment in not being able to finish the dress myself, but she sensed my feelings and eventually got me to laugh. Then we went to bake cookies.
The next day Aunt Doris persuaded Mrs. Pender to let me use her sewing machine to finish the dress, and I did. Aunt Doris complimented my “marvelous creation” and insisted I wear it to every important occasion for the rest of the summer, telling anyone who would listen that her brilliant niece had made this dress all by herself. I was delighted and filled with pride.
Weeks later, when we went to pick up my parents from the airport, I wore the dress. As my parents came through the gate, I noticed that my mom was stumbling a bit. She looked at me with disapproval, then mumbled drunkenly, “Where did you get that thing?”
That was the last time I wore the dress.
Santa Cruz, California
When my sisters and I were younger, we would insist that our parents take us home and let us change after any events for which we were required to wear our traditional Indian clothes. We didn’t want to be seen in public in saris, and our parents mostly humored us.
Once my newly immigrated uncle and cousins, all dressed in traditional garb, walked me home from school when I was ten years old. A car drove by, and its passengers shouted at us, “Go back to your own country!”
I have many other memories of getting strange looks because of the way my family dressed. In the 1980s being Indian wasn’t “fashionable,” and in many ways it still isn’t. My nephews were recently teased for wearing turbans. I often feel like a foreigner in this country I call home.
I keep my Indian wardrobe under my bed. Outside of formal events such as wedding parties and prayer services, I wear T-shirts and jeans or slacks. On the rare occasion that I leave my house wearing a sari, I get stares. Sometimes I worry that someone will shout, “Go back to your own country!” When I confide my fear to others, they often tell me that I don’t even look Indian. My short, curly hair; fair skin; and Western clothes hide my true identity. Because I straddle two worlds, when I see my people in traditional clothes, I find it both unsettling and beautiful.
© Suzi Q. Varin
A few years ago I spent several months as a novice monk in a Zen monastery. I’d wake each morning at four to the ringing of a bell and begin a regimented schedule of meditation, liturgy, personal study, manual labor, and more meditation until 10 PM.
My fellow monks and I wore Japanese monastic robes shaped like heavy kimonos with full skirts. When we held our arms straight out at our sides, the enormous sleeves would hang down past our hips. In these robes even the most ordinary movements could be tricky. Bowing in them, which we did dozens of times a day, was particularly difficult. One time I failed to notice that my sleeve had gotten caught under my knees when I knelt and prostrated myself. As I tried to rise to my feet, the sound of cloth ripping reverberated through the meditation hall like a fart in church. Later I spent one of our rare free afternoons sewing up the long tear in my robe.
We novices watched the more experienced students, copied their habits, and slowly began to navigate our daily routines without mishaps. After a month or so I forgot that my robe had ever felt awkward and foreign.
One young monk who had been in the monastery for two or three years carried himself with a confidence that sometimes struck me as arrogant. He would gather up his left sleeve in his hand as he bowed and knelt — a practice typically followed by ordained Zen priests, whose sleeves were much longer than ours.
Our daily work period was the one time when we didn’t wear monastic robes and could speak freely. Once, as we gathered in a circle to receive our assignments, the young monk stepped forward and said, “I’ve been asked to leave because of my inappropriate sexual behavior.” The temple had very strict guidelines about sexual relationships, and any violations were grounds for expulsion. The young monk apologized for not having respected the standards of the temple and added that he hoped this would give him the kick in the butt he needed to finally face his problems and figure out how to deal with them.
He left his robe behind in a shed we called the “Salvation Dharma Store.” A few weeks later I saw a new monk fumbling around in the robe, struggling to master its billowing sleeves.
My grandmother was a skilled seamstress. During the muggy summer months she would make stylish dresses for me to wear in the coming school year.
When I started sixth grade, my grandmother gave me the most beautiful dress I had ever owned. It was a blue shirtwaist with a pleated skirt, short sleeves, and a little white jacket. On the chest she had applied a butterfly fashioned out of the same fabric as the dress. I felt grown-up when I put it on, and I tried to walk and sit with perfect posture whenever I wore it.
Later that year I was diagnosed with scoliosis — a curvature of the spine. The doctors said surgery wouldn’t be necessary, but they encased my upper body in a cast. From under my arms to below my hips I was covered in plaster. It was hot and heavy and uncomfortable. The only clothes that would fit over my cast were loose, tentlike blouses and ugly slacks with elastic waistbands. All the clothes my grandmother had made were relegated to the back of the closet.
One day my grandmother came to visit carrying a garment bag. She slowly unzipped it, and there was my beautiful blue dress. She had altered it to fit over my cast. The skirt was missing some of its pleats, but she’d changed it so artfully that it hardly looked any different.
When I wore it, my cast suddenly didn’t seem as heavy and didn’t chafe as much. I even thought the dress made me feel stronger. Of course I know now that this strength didn’t come from the dress but from my remarkable grandmother.
Diana L. Storrs
San Antonio, Texas
In tenth grade I joined my high school’s a cappella choir. The director booked us for a spring concert at Glendale Civic Auditorium near Burbank, California, then broke the news that each girl had to wear a formal dress. My mother couldn’t afford one, so I wrote to my father, who’d left when I was six, and I asked him for money to buy something appropriate. As the weeks went by, it became apparent that he wasn’t going to answer.
Finally my mother phoned her friend Madge, who was a secretary at a major movie studio. Madge drove me to the wardrobe department and led me to a rack of dazzling formal dresses. “You can choose whichever one you want,” she said. “Just don’t eat anything while you’re wearing it. I have to return it!” I picked a peach organdy dress that the actress June Haver had worn in the movie Look for the Silver Lining. It was a perfect fit.
After my father died, my stepmother discovered my thirty-year-old letter asking him to send money for a formal dress. She’d found it in a drawer that held fifteen pairs of his expensive cashmere socks.
Patricia Wheat LeVan
South Colby, Washington
At the age of seven I wasn’t sure what my mother meant when she said clothes were her life, but I enjoyed peeking into her closet. Her dresses, skirts, and blouses all smelled of perfume. I remember one night when she went to the opera with my father and how her beige organdy dress shimmered as she walked.
When I was ten, my mother left my father, and she began wearing darker colors and sleeker lines. She’d wear a tight black dress, with red lipstick and stiletto heels. Even as she took my hand on the street, she didn’t seem to notice me. She had become a glamorous stranger.
She eventually began designing her own outfits with a seamstress who skillfully brought them to life. Together they made a brightly colored jacket trimmed in fur, an exquisite white satin gown, and a one-shoulder, black-brocade cocktail dress.
My mother was determined that her elegance would rub off on me. When I wore jeans and T-shirts in high school, she took it as a personal affront. “You’ll never amount to anything,” she once told me. “You look like a vagabond.”
In her many years as a widow in Florida, my mother developed a fondness for white linen skirts and blouses and matching wide-brimmed hats. She often wore a small red kerchief around her neck. Clothes, I eventually came to understand, were her camouflage, helping her to define herself and bring beauty into the world.
New York, New York
After my dad lost his job and my mom started drinking, I began to gain a lot of weight. My mother called me “piggy” and would tug at my waistband and oink. I was only eight.
My clothes never fit well, and I dreaded the embarrassment of shopping. I took to wearing large shirts and baggy jeans because they helped hide the rolls of fat around my middle. My mom often looked at me with disgust and asked why I couldn’t dress decently. But whenever I donned a skirt, I felt all wrong. I hated looking in the mirror, and I loathed having my picture taken.
At thirty-five I’ve been seeing a therapist who has helped me address my alcoholism, my compulsive overeating, and my mother’s emotional abuse. I’ve taken up running — something I never thought I could do — and now I run half marathons. I have lost eighty pounds. For the first time since I was seven years old, I am at peace with my body.
I am a part-time chaplain at a retirement community, and also a story-teller and a musician. I used to try to keep my extroverted performing persona separate from my work as a chaplain, dressing for my job in what my husband called “church-lady clothes.” But over time I have realized that to be a good chaplain is to be authentic, which for me means wearing drapey, dramatic outfits that allow me to play with color and texture — and, I admit, also make certain parts of my postmenopausal body less noticeable.
One day I was feeling down, and the cold, wet March weather mirrored my mood. I was scheduled to make multiple hospital visits that afternoon, so I decided to try to brighten my day with a pair of tomato-red pants and a satin peasant blouse with a pink-paisley print. I added a beaded necklace and matching earrings. When my husband saw me, he made a V with his fingers and said, “Peace and love, baby.” I shot him an annoyed look.
My female co-workers and I often compliment each other’s clothing and accessories, but that day no one said anything about my outfit. I began to wonder if I had crossed the line from artsy into eccentric. I slogged through my hospital visits, and every time I glanced in a mirror, I felt like a fraud: a “real” chaplain wouldn’t have cared so much about how she looked, and a “real” artist would have had better taste.
My last visit was to a woman named Maria. She had dementia and spoke in broken sentences that didn’t make sense. I figured I would hold her hand, say a brief prayer, and go home to my comfy gray sweats and my couch.
When I sat down beside Maria, she reached out and stroked my sleeve. I asked her if she liked my blouse, remembering that she had a favorite pair of glittery pink slippers. Maria took in the rest of my outfit, smiling and mumbling. Then she looked right into my eyes and spoke the first complete sentence I’d heard her say in four years: “You look so pretty today.”