Dressing My Mother

“Look Aunt Winn, I just want to prepare you,” I heard my mother hollar into the phone. “I don’t wear pantyhose anymore. I wear jeans. And I wear Nikes. They’re cool Nikes, like really cool, but they’re Nikes… Yes. That’s right. Those are sneakers. I wear sneakers. Everywhere.”

My mother’s version of dress shoes.

My mother and I were loading up the car, getting it ready to take us to Canada, when she stopped packing to place the call. It was an unplanned midweek trip to attend my Great Uncle Bob’s funeral. The day before, Aunt Winn, his wife, had asked Mum to “say a few words,” because my mother is, apparently, the funny one in the family.

I could feel the panic radiating across the room.

“I just had to call her and warn her,” Mum said as I gave her the stink eye.

She was folding my favorite brightly-hued Club Monaco blouse into the suitcase. “I’m the New York Niece. They’re expecting Madison Avenue. Since I stopped working, I’m more Gap… on my fancy days. I just don’t want her to get a shock when I show up to Uncle Bob’s funeral in running shoes.”

(My mother doesn’t believe in black at funerals, which was why, apparently, I was to wear royal blue pants while she asked to borrow my “big bird” yellow silk blouse.)

“What do you plan to wear at my wedding?”

“White Nikes… actually, I hate white sneakers. They’re such old ladies shoes. Maybe green ones? I don’t know. Let’s see what your colour scheme is — I’m sure I can ID something.”

When my mother retired from “The Bank,” she retired a certain corporate executive dress code. I remember coming home from school and seeing a pile of pantyhose in a Bloomingdale’s Big Brown Bag. There were one or 2 unopened pairs, and these were passed on to me. The rest — burned, or might as well have been. Her St. John’s suits were moved into the guest room closet. The year I graduated college, she had her first hip replacement. This shelved her Ferragamo high-heel collection. Her second hip replacement after my grad school graduation sealed it — the pumps were toast. I was free to salvage any that fit, but the majority went to Dress for Success.

She lost 50 pounds, and then eventually, she turned 70.

And so, with Retirement, 2 hip replacements, and being “over 70,” as her Get Out of Jail Free Cards,  it was: Good-bye, formal! Hello, comfortable!

My mother may have as many sneakers as Imelda Marcos had shoes — 3,000 pairs? Sure. It’s getting there.

She has become the Imelda Marcos of sneakers while her collections of designer handbags and jewelry remain her main source of pizzazz.

Most “occasions” result in an “I have nothing to wear!” crisis. This includes evenings when Mum and I decide to have a mother-daughter girl date. Eventually, she gives up.

“It doesn’t matter what I wear,” is usually her final remark before she settles on jeans, Nikes, and an embellished t-shirt. “If I decide I want a good table, I’ll just shove you in first. You’ve got great clothes. People think you’re cool, so you’ll just look good for both of us. Don’t forget your pink lipstick. I’m not going anywhere with you if you don’t wear your pink lipstick.”

I guess that just because she’s given up skirts and suits in favor of a wardrobe of leisure doesn’t mean she’s given up taste… there’s no velour in this retiree’s future. Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the cast-offs. One can never have too many Ferragamos.

 

 

 

 

The Ticket

Let’s go to France together.

We’ll walk along the Seine, counting the bridges and lampposts we pass. Then maybe we’ll take the train down to Aix where lavender and honey sweeten the air.

And then, when we’re tired of David, Delacroix, and Manet, coissants, fromage, and crepes, we’ll pack our valises, roll the top down and head to Madrid, Spain, for tapas and Velazquez.

On the balcony of our small apartment in Florence, we’ll sit and I’ll write about my artist while you read your Dickinson and your Thoreau. Maybe I’ll pick up the violin again and maybe you’ll finally write that novel, the one about the couple and the war.

We’ll fill up albums with the black and white pictures we took outside the Coliseum and the Vatican, the Parthenon and the Acropolis. We’ll buy postcards of the paintings that captured our hearts and miniatures of the sculptures that shook us to tears. I’ll pen a note for my folks back home and tell them about the weekend in Venice and the gondola that nearly sank.

Our plane leaves on the 28th. Maybe we could leave tonight, my bags are already packed. It’s a round trip ticket with a return date stamped in the corner. But I know I wouldn’t mind if we decided to stay a lifetime.

 

Note: Once upon a time, I was a romantic. I was a graduate student when I wrote this… I don’t remember if it was a kind of unwritten letter to the boy that inspired me to start this blog, or an open-ended request to the boy I hadn’t met yet. I was also an optimist. An optimistic romantic — the most nauseating kind. Sometimes, I think I miss that girl.

Considering “Speed” Dating

As a rule, I generally mistrust people who just meet me and decide they like me. You say you want to get drinks sometime? That we should go here or visit there? Why? What do you think I can do for you?

This is, of course, an unhealthy reaction, but it’s also the by-product of being in a position in life where people generally DO want something from you — like my economics problem set or a solo exhibition or access to myroladex or a no-pants dance party.

So, not surprisingly, when a date expresses interest to see me again tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, I balk. But unlike professional relationships, there’s more to it than a skepticism in the sincerity or intentions behind his enthusiasm.

Cut to scene:

I’m sitting on a corner stool at the counter at Diner, a vintage diner done slightly upscale in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, munching on northern-style southern-style fried green tomatoes, recovering from 3 hours of over exposure to glaring sun, swapping life and dating updates with JC, the requisite “big brother” figure every girl needs to have in her Little Black Book.

(Aside — if you’re a single female in Williamsburg, you have exactly 4 dating options: Mr. Tattooed sleeves, Mr. Bearded, Mr. Tattooed Sleeves and Bearded, or stay single. Apparently, diversity is not counter-culture’s strong point.)

His flame of less than a month was proving a challenge for a number of reasons.

“We’re seeing each other once a week, at best.” He started. “She’s going away. I’m going away. She wants to spend the long weekend with her mother. We live 4 miles apart but that 4 miles is an hour and a half commute.We’re dancing around the issue that we’re just not hanging out. I’m sorry, but I want that big, all-in romance. Where you see each other 2, 3 times a week.”

I wasn’t sure if the scowl I felt forming on my face was visible yet, but I’m pretty sure my “that’s just silly!” made my point.

By “that” I mean the sentiment that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect someone you’ve just started seeing to give you three days in the same week.

In past generations, “walking out” with someone was a weekly occurrence, not a 3x a week event.

When our parents generation was dating, couples saw each other once a week, on weekends. That was sufficient. We seem to need someone’s constant availability to feel like we’re in a new relationship.

To me, that’s jumping the gun.

We live in an age of over sharing and hyper exposure. We move fast. We sign one year leases. We put in 18 months at one firm before we start searching for an opportunity at the next firm. Problems are solved with the swipe of our index finger and the aid of a logarithm. We live in a city that never sleeps and offers endless opportunities for the next best thing. We strive for bigger paychecks. We clamor to build ever-expanding networks. We believe relationships of all forms can be forged on social media or at a cocktail party, and forget that real meaning builds over time.

As someone who has dated guys who have absolutely no out-of-work interests, I wonder about a person whose calendar is so void of commitments — work, family, social, community service, whatever — that they can just squeeze me, a relative stranger, in at beep of a text message. I have things to do, why don’t you?

More over, I’m skeptical about someone who is so fickle that they can make me the single most important thing in his life and toss out everything to make time for me. I haven’t earned a listing on your “favorites,” so why are you bumping drinks with someone else to meet me for dinner? What does this mean for an “us” in the long run? When will I get bumped for a better offer?

It seems to me, we date like we’re hyped up on amphetamines –we date on Speed. It’s all hot and passionate for a brief while and then it fades. We’re on to the next, and it’s the same. There’s no building smolder. It’s just on, at full intensity. And then it’s off.

While I’m flattered by your enthusiasm, and yes, I want to see you 10 minutes after we say good-night too, I just can’t believe this is a healthy way to get to know someone.

When I look at the most successful couples I know, they began slow and steady. Their approach to dating was “old school.” Some didn’t even like one another when they first met. It took the prodding of mutual friends and gradually spending time one on one to make the relationship blossom. In one case, it was a long distance affair for months, and when the two were finally sharing the same zip code, it was months before they started seeing each other 2 or more times in the same week.

I’ve survived both the slow build and the intense fire. While so far neither approach has got me to a happily ever after, it was the relationships that developed over time that were more satisfying while I was in them, and more painful to lose.

To wrap it all up, I think you need to earn your place in someone’s life. Yes, there comes a time when it’s reasonable to expect spending a whole weekend together, or several nights a week, but not at the start.

We expect Platinum privileges when we haven’t even earned Gold Status.

Take it slow is old advice, but perhaps there are reasons why it’s endured so many generations. Balance and restraint are surprisingly sexy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to Walk in Shorts

The great advantage kids have growing up in the age of digital cameras is that the odds are low that one day they will stumble on a collection of printed photos labeled “Quebec Summer: FAT PHASE.”

It's photos like this I mostly wish were never taken of my awkward tween years.

It’s photos like this I mostly wish were never taken of my awkward tween years.

Remember when you’d take your roll of film to the local drugstore and you would automatically get duplicates? So, not only did you have one set of photos you’d rather burn, you’d have 2… that’s 4 double chins.  And while there was no social media circulation, you had the distinct non-advantage of having tangible proof that once upon a time you were the size of a blimp.

I stumbled upon the “Quebec Summer: FAT PHASE” envelope in the midst of some appliance-melt-down-induced cleaning. The photos, along with others from my more youthful summers, were striking reminders that when you grow up the chubby, knock-kneed girl, you grow up with an awkward relationship with shorts.

When your thighs touch, there’s almost no short length that doesn’t ride up when you walk. Instead of neatly aligned horizontal hemlines, the bottoms of your trunks form a wobbly V. It’s not only unattractive, it’s uncomfortable. Walking in bunched-up shorts is like walking with a golf ball wedged between your legs. So you learn to adapt.

First, you try the “Cowboy Walk.” The idea is to look like you just got off a horse after finishing a cattle drive. You point your feet away from each other and widen your stride, attempting to keep your legs as far from each other as you can.

It’s equal parts swagger and waddle. It’s also highly inefficient.

Next, you try the “Shake-it-Out.”

 

When you realize this is about as effective as the Cowboy Walk in ridding yourself of the ride up, you give into the walk, stop and pull down. It’s painfully obvious, but it gets the job done.

If you’re hell-bent on wearing shorts, these adaptations are better than the alternative, which is obsessing over something you can’t really change — the gap between your upper legs. Or, you can do the far more sensible thing and forego the shorts all together. Skirts are classier anyway.

 

 

Considering Birthdays Past

The advantage to sharing a birthday with a loved one is that no one ever forgets it.

My father and I share a birthday. It’s also Canada day. My mother — a smart woman — has been milking this for years. What more does my father need, she says, when he has such a wonderful daughter!

This year, he turns 75. This is not insignificant. We’re having dinner at our favorite local restaurant and he’s getting some things from LL Bean and Nike. (I swear — if my mother and I didn’t give him clothes and shoes at every gift-giving holiday, the man would walk around wearing a sheet and flat-tire rubber sandals. We love him any way.)

Meanwhile, I’m hitting the big 2-9 — an unremarkable number save for the fact it marks the final year in another decade. I don’t plan to go through the same “29 Crisis” that some of my other single friends have — they upgraded apartments to ones they can’t afford, chopped off and died their hair, and got trainers. Every day, they post fitness selfies and “I’m an empowered single lady” quote on their social media feeds.

But perhaps, it’s too early to call for me. If on July 2nd, I post a photo of myself at the gym, in a sports bra flashing a “look how tight my ass is” pose, captioned with some motivational mumbo jumbo, you have permission to put me in a straight jacket (or at least, hand me a shirt.)

I digress…

A friend enjoys the magic at my 7th birthday party. 20+ years later, we're still celebrating birthdays together.

A friend enjoys the magic at my 7th birthday party. 20+ years later, we’re still celebrating birthdays together.

As the child in the family, the celebration of my new year typically eclipsed my father’s. My birthday fetes were famous — at my 10 year high school reunion, girls I hadn’t seen since graduation day came up to me to say “I’ll never forget all your parties! You need to have another one, for old time’s sake.”

“I’m pretty sure that magician is dead,” I said.

For the first 14 years of my life, I took birthdays pretty seriously. Magicians, hot dog carts, excursions to the stables for horse-back riding, buses hired to the chauffeur us to the Jekyll & Hyde Club, virtual reality adventures, swing-dance lessons, fabulously fanciful cakes — there were distinct advantages to being an only child of older parents. Each year, I came up with a theme that felt au courant, researched the possible venue or vendor, and designed my own invitation. We always ended up at my God Mother’s pool and no one wanted to go home.

And then the parties stopped. I started fencing and National Championships always fell on the first week of July. Often I was competing on July 1 and all of a sudden, my father and I were in different cities on our birthday. This was strange.

I turned 21 in Atlanta. My Mother had been trying to get me to drink since I was a teenager — her theory was it was better to learn how to have a nice cocktail or glass of wine in a refined social setting rather than binge drink like a sorority girl. I was 16 when she sneaked me into a wine tasting in Napa. Ironically, when I ordered my first legal drink, a grey goose cosmopolitan (it was the heyday of the S&TC reruns on TBS, after all), she was painfully uneasy. I wasn’t allowed to finish it. A refill was out of the question.

When we finally got to celebrate at the Intrepid, we made the most of it.

When we finally got to celebrate at the Intrepid, we made the most of it.

My 24th birthday was the first one in about a decade when my father and I didn’t have to phone each other to say “happy day!” I had just come back from Texas where I had contracted a terrible case of Swine Flu. I was Tennessee’s first confirmed case and had to spend several hours on an IV drip.

That year was also my dad’s 70th, and my mother and I had big plans to make our celebrations about him. We intended to go to the Intrepid (he likes planes) and then have dinner at a South African wine bar in Hell’s Kitchen (Dad’s a Springbok.) Instead, we spent July 1 in the ER. Dad had gone in for what should have been a routine test a few days earlier, but  ended up with a massive, deadly infection.  Back to back trips to the hospital for us both was enough — we skipped this birthday. The Intrepid plans would wait for next year.

25, 26, and 27 each had their celebrations. One involved boats and friends. One was unremarkable. One came with terrible tan lines and an amorous bouquet.

I intended to celebrate 28 in this dress with lots of baked goods and Tanqueray... that is not how this went down

I intended to celebrate 28 in this dress with lots of baked goods and Tanqueray… that is not how this went down

And then we come to #28… I bought a strapless mini dress — a style totally outside my normal wardrobe choices — and made plans to hit the town when I got back from Columbus, Ohio… Not. So. Fast.

I took a week off work to accompany Mom to Nationals — she’s the fencer now — and visit family in Canada. At the last minute, I made the less than wise decision to compete in a sub-elite division.

The competition was on my birthday and my primary goal was to finish early enough to get to happy hour. As I made my way up the elimination bracket, I could feel my age and old war wounds. At a 13-13 tie to go into the final, my knee gave out. The medical team diagnosed 2 torn ligaments and a sprained ankle on the strip and I was forced to withdraw.

A sprained ankle and damaged ligaments, but at least I was smiling. I wouldn't be later. Happy 28!

A sprained ankle and damaged ligaments, but at least I was smiling. I wouldn’t be later. Happy 28!

For the next hour I lay at the medical tent, friends and teammates gathered — I was serenaded with a happy birthday while some referee friends tried to assemble my belongings for me. I was loaded into the car and my mother picked up two bottles of sake for me to drink (to numb the excruciating pain) as we drove 6 hours to Ann Arbor — our pit stop en route to rural Canada. My bellhop played football for Michigan and as I slurred my woeful story, we bonded over torn ACLs. He offered to carry me to my room. In retrospect, I was a fool to decline, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t showered yet.

Birthdays are a funny thing. When we’re young, we count the days till our next one. As we get older, we recoil at the thought of another and mostly want them to go unnoticed. And yet, we can’t help feeling slighted if they pass un-celebrated. We usually remember each one — where we were and who we were with — and use the day as an excuse to reaffirm or rewrite our New Year’s resolutions.

These days, my father and I have a simple rule when it comes to our birthdays — however we chose to celebrate them, no one is allowed to end up in the ER.

Giving Up the Gun, Or What the Psychic Said

Once upon a time, I impulsively dropped $75 on tarot card readings.

That’s right, in an 18 hour period, 2 different psychics had their way with me and the entire contents of my wallet.  What, in God’s name, was I thinking?

At the time, I was broke, uninsured, verging on broken-hearted, and in serious need of a disinterested 3rd party’s reassurance that “Everything will be alright.”

I just didn’t plan to lose $75 for that reassurance. Luckily, neither psychic really told me what I wanted to hear.

The first reading happened at night, in the back of a French restaurant on red leather couches outside the restrooms. The psychic, (a man!), didn’t want to waste any time on assessing my career. After a flash reading, he determined there were no uncertainties there. I knew what I wanted, and it was only a matter of “when,” not if I ‘d get it. He looked at me sideways. “Tell me about the guy… he’s been around a while hasn’t he?”

Caught.

I quickly related the story of the guy I met as a freshman in college, became best friends with, and accidentally and mistakenly fell madly in love with. After 7 years and dozens of close encounters, we were toying with the idea of becoming something more.

My psychic dealt the cards and though he slowly deciphered their placement and relation, he quickly painted an accurate portrait of the relationship between me and HIM. The slow build up. The intellectual underpinnings. The unbalanced emotions (“he’s the one that has all the feeling”). The punchline? Drop him. “You’ll have a long and stable romance, but you’ll lose something of yourself,” the psychic said. “If you leave him behind, as in drop him entirely from your life, you’ll get everything you really want.”

While I was less than satisfied the less than specific assurance about my career, I was devastated by the suggestion to drop the love of my life (up until then.) So of course, I sought a second opinion…

The next day I met my girl AB for lunch at Crema, a nouveau Mexican place on 17th street in the heart of Chelsea. In those days, Chelsea was still the original Hell’s Kitchen, home to the most beautiful beef-cake gay men and flamboyant drag queens. Crossing the street was the equivalent of perusing a visual candy store… but it was not the place to pick-up straight men making it the perfect neighborhood for a girls-only girl date.

It only took one bite of our flautas and 2 margaritas for me to convince her that we needed to have our palms read across the street, under the neon glow of a giant sign that screamed PHSYSIC. That day Madame was offering a deal: free palm reading with tarot.

I honestly can’t remember what she told me — she may have promised I’d meet my soul mate before the end of the summer or that I’d have a job offer tomorrow — but I do remember AB and I sitting in City Bakery an hour later, sharing  chocolate chip cookie and wondering if we’d just been had.

We pooled our remaining cash (#brokegradstudents) and bought another cookie — for when in doubt of life’s next step, chocolate usually solves the problem more certainly than a foggy crystal ball.

Chocolate has all the answers. (Image from the City Sage)

 

The Boy Who Played with the Brontosaurus

They say opposites attract… well, we were very attracted opposites

“I don’t understand why you’re still single,” Vince said to me after our first kiss.

I was undeniably smitten.

On paper, there was nothing about the two of us that suggested any kind of compatibility. I was the 25 year old Ivy-Leaguer, All-American athlete with a career in the arts and a passport with more stamps than pages to fit them. My motto was “you rest, you rust.” Vince was the 30-something former state-school frat boy whose sport was beer pong and whose great ambitions were to grow old, fat and retire to Florida.

Our common interests began and ended with the New York Yankees and a love of laughter. The former brought us together, while the latter seemed to inspire a closeness and familiarity with one another that was entirely unfamiliar, at least to me. It wasn’t love at first sight, and he didn’t have me at hello, yet from our first shared drink to our final kiss, every moment felt like a moment spent alongside a long-lost bosom buddy.

A few days after our third date, I got a text message that would simultaneously verify he was serious and mark the beginning of the end of our budding romance:

“I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but when you have some time, give me a call. There’s something I want to tell you about myself because I like you so much.”

I panicked.

I knew I had counted my hens before they hatched. Sure he lived with his mother. And sure, he had an anxiety disorder that meant he had a fear of crowds, but he assured me a new prescription meant he’d be up for coming to an exhibition opening. So what was it that he had to tell me before we could go any further? A thousand possible scenarios ran through my head.

Maybe he wanted to warn me about how fragile his heart was. Maybe he thought he liked me more than I liked him and didn’t want to be disappointed.

Maybe he lived with his mother because he had just been released from prison, serving time because he had taken the fall for a fraternity brother who stole a keg from a gas station.

Worse! Maybe he was really a Red Sox fan.

In all the “maybes” I conjectured, it never occurred to me that Vince was a father.

“I wanted you know sooner rather than later so you have the chance to get out now, before I fall any harder.”

A bizarre mixture of relief, confusion, and attraction knocked the wind out of me and I paused to take it all in. I was 25. I had avoiding being in a serious relationship, and yet here I was, falling for an older man who came preloaded with a family. Could I handle that?

“Well?”

“Don’t think you’re going to get rid of me that easy.”

Vince’s son knew his dinosaurs from A to Z

With a chuckle, we both exhaled and he let the walls come down. He began to gush. He revealed that having a son forced him onto the straight and narrow, that his heart broke when the boy’s mother took him away to California, that every night he would read “Dinosaurs A to Z” to his son over skype, and that his adult life was as much shaped by the daily absence of his son as by being a father.

I was flattered by desire to let me in. I was touched by the tenderness and pride in his voice. Most of all, I was relieved he didn’t have a criminal record.

Children and I have a notoriously tenuous relationship. In theory, I want one, but not yet. But Vince’s suggestion that I meet his son had my mind wandering. The zoo, the dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History – all of a sudden, I was planning family-style afternoon excursions and making mental notes to pack extra sunscreen so the little tyke wouldn’t get sunburned.

A few more dates happened. Sitting along the Hudson one unseasonably cold summer night, he  told me his son was coming to visit him for a few weeks. When I got home, I went to my bookshelf and pulled off a beautifully illustrated fantasy book about worlds where men and dinosaurs co-existed. It had always looked funny next to all the Jane Austens and John Steinbecks. Vince and his Brontosaurus-loving son would appreciate it better. I wrapped the book in paper mottled with baseball caps and catcher’s mitts, stuck a flirtatious “I just can’t resist temptation ;)” card with it, and set the package aside for our next date — his birthday.

There was no next date.

Like so many before and so many will after, our relationship quietly evaporated until we officially ended with an apologetic/well-wishing set of emails.  He had decided to be a father, and that meant picking up and moving west. Of course, I understood. I’m not sure we ever would have made it much further than we got, but it doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wonder what he’s up to, and if his son still likes the Brontosaurus best.