In my new book, Cook Your Marriage Happy, the first title in my Cook Yourself Happy series, I talk a lot about cooking and other tangible therapies and how they can prompt self-reflection. Growing up, meals were much more than food for the body, they were integral to identity and lifestyle; penciled into our family schedule in bold. Lunch was discussed at breakfast, dinner discussed at lunch. The itinerary for eating was revered and strictly adhered to and even late-night snacks took on the regularity of a 4th meal, ritualistic as worship, and as much about family time as food. But despite that, it’s the thread of clothes and shopping that I remember most, the thread that helps me chart my childhood and is a window into the memory of how my mom and I bonded. I suppose shopping, too, then, is experiential?
We were not fashionistas, mom and I, and neither once of us could boast great style, but we’d perfected the before, during, and after gestalt of shopping; it was our thing. Today it might be mother/daughter spa day or yoga and spin class; back then it was Bonwit Teller and B. Altman. My mom exulted in designing me and mostly I exulted back.
I was born the same year as Caroline Kennedy and she became my designated wardrobe avatar. Mom would study the inauguration, the outings on the great lawn, the frolics on The Cape and dress me in the same style as Caroline. There were party dresses with tulle undercoats and smocking (both itched terribly), Mary Janes in black, white, and red patent leather, anklets with lace ruffles to match, and one dresser drawer devoted entirely to headbands, hair ties and barrettes in every color. And then there were the coats. We lived on Long Island, in NY and thirty minutes away in Queens there was a store called Little Royalty. The store’s owner became my mom’s willing co-conspirator. It took no more than a phone call for her to drop everything and head to Queens. “Hello, Estelle? Have I got a coat for your daughter! Just like Caroline was wearing last week, navy knit with a mink collar and pearl buttons.” Whoosh. Gone in a flash, back with the coat by the time I got home from school.
In grade school, I got compliments from teachers. They’d ask where my mom found such adorable outfits. My mother was especially proud when Mrs. Selver, my wonderful 3rd grade teacher, told her that she’d never seen a child so beautifully dressed. By 6th grade I’d started to want input. A late bloomer, I couldn’t yet fit into the cool stores in town like Teen Scene or Junior Fair and frustrated, I sometimes chose wildly inappropriate dresses that I thought made me look older. I wanted to look like Georgette Tigler; who truly did have style, I suspect by age 3, and a great body not too long after that. It would be years before I could fill out a purple dress with boat neck collar the way she did in Junior High. Kudos to mom for letting me make those bad choices with a minimum of eye-rolling and an abundance of tissue for stuffing.
Early on I would embrace our shopping trips with almost intoxicating anticipation. Who could concentrate on Paramecium, fractions, or The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when at exactly 3:00 pm I’d be whisked away to the Miracle Mile (aka mecca) and an afternoon filled with Chiffon, Charmeuse and Chenille? To be sure, it was not always rose-colored. Or even blush or champagne. There were frustrations and tears too, at times.
‘I’m too fat, I’ll never grow, I have no boobs, I’m too short.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ was always the response, ‘you’re beautiful.’
And then there was the shirt, the silk cotton, long-sleeve, button-down, Cacherel shirt, beige background imprinted with red cherries, reminiscent of Moschino today. Soft as butter, and a fortune at $28 dollars, I can still see my mother holding it up, debating. Finally,
“Wrap it up,” she said to the saleslady, and to me, “don’t tell your father.”
I wore that shirt way past its expiration date, from its original pre-pubescent perfect fit through three years of high school and into freshman year of college when the boobs that finally grew had stretched the buttons to bursting and worn the elbows to threads. Arriving home for the holidays, mom took one look at me and said,
“The shirt is in pain, dear, it’s time to put the poor thing down.”
God, I miss her wit.
So yes, while I love what Cooking Therapy can do for memory and insight, and while I remember family dinners and weekend bagels and late night bowls of cereal and ice cream, it’s the fishnet panty hose and dirndl skirts, the Courreges boots and camel hair coats that remain sharpest in my memory. It’s coming home from school a week after a shopping trip and seeing the delivered boxes piled high on the landing of the stairs, Bonwit’s purple floral, Lord & Taylor’s red rose, Saks’ black script, all usurping our Sheltie from her favorite spot, that I can recollect exactly, along with that little, heart-skipping beat of excitement.
And so, it’s not lost on me that my final moment with mom comes in front of her closet, the day after we lost her to cancer.
I’m charged with picking out the clothes she’ll be buried in and the moment is powerful and sad and paralyzing but somehow also comforting. We’ve come full circle. And at the end, its once again about the clothes. There’s something so right about that. So, I fall into the hanging clothes a bit, bury my face in the smell of her, sob, and do my best to be perfect at the task. There is no manual, no ‘Glamour Do’ for what to where for eternity. Just a daughter, and a closet, and a lifetime of loving memories.