“Don’t blame it on me, blame Grandma Ginny,” she said as she let the luxe dress fall to the soft green bedroom carpet. “Your grandmother never could abide a lack of good taste or elegance and from the start it was impressed upon me that all girls need a good dash of both as well as civility.”
I glanced at a silver framed photo on her dresser, the one showing Mother walking down the street between Grandma Ginny and her Aunt Tess. It had made the “Lifestyles” page of the Kansas City Star back in 1950. Even then my mother held the hint of a person who knew her mind.
“A little, sure–not so much that it enters the room before you even say a word. I think you must have been born with a dash of ostentatiousness.” I hoped she would take the hint for tonight’s dinner.
She made a sharp turn, hand set at her waist. “Now, don’t be smart.” Then she snickered. “Well, maybe there’s truth to that– but your father likes it and I like it, so…” She held her hands palms up. End of discussion. “Let’s keep that one.”
I picked up her crumpled ice blue brocade dress from the floor, hung it neatly on a satin padded hanger and put it in the closet in the blue section. It was one she wore to the opera sometimes. I loved its texture, its weight in my hand. By seventeen I had sometimes wished I wore the same size, but she was taller, bustier, smaller-waisted and broader shouldered. Somehow I ended up with my aunt’s slight frame. Mother was shopping in her own closet, trying on a number of items that she had forgotten or found too… something the past seasons. Now the year was inching toward a surprisingly early spring from the tedium of winter. She was at it full steam.
She stood in an ivory lace-trimmed slip before the mirror, her palms slipping over her rounded hips, her lips pursed. She refused to do without such fine lingerie items. It didn’t matter how many times I told her it wasn’t necessary. Her slips, like nylons, were so outdated she had to special order the antiquarian brands. She wore a substantial garter belt, a garter belt even though there were pantyhose to be had if one insisted on covering legs with such things in cool weather. I preferred tights or leggings. Everyone did who was under forty and even then, but not my mother. She still wore high heels every day, despite going fewer places that required them. Mother was sixty-nine in two weeks.
“I want the plum silk and then the black sheath, the one with a tiny ruffle at the armholes, Marianna. Oh, and bring out the silver heels and the black ones with the rosette on each toe.”
She stood on tiptoe, then lowered to the floor, up and down a few times. I knew this without looking. She always did that when trying things on, as if exercising her slim calves. Perhaps priming them for the strain of supporting feet in high heels when she should be wearing more sensible shoes. Stalwart clogs might be a good idea, or a walking shoe. I was here partly to encourage her to get rid of her vast collection of more formal clothing, the ones she and my father had long worn to concerts and fund-raisers and luncheons and conferences. He was a lauded professor of forensic science and an expert witness. She had been a lawyer for three decades, newly retired.
As for me, I was only a teacher, sixth grade. I wore chinos and skirts with leggings and shirts and sweaters to school, with strong leather shoes or boots. I’d wear jeans if I could but it was a school that didn’t encourage that degree of relaxation.
“Ah, this one stays,” she said.
“I do agree with that one. The plum suits you even better than before, now that you’re a little paler…I mean, it contrasts well with your more salt than pepper hair.”
In the full length mirror I saw her right eyebrow raise, her lips form an “o” with a sudden thought. “Does it bother you?”
“What? That you’re getting older? Of course not. You will be a terrific old lady.”
“No, that the plum still suits me, still fits!” She caught my gaze in our reflected images and held it with steel-blue eyes. “I keep feeling you wish I would morph into someone different, sink under the weight of age and broaden and shorten–as if it’s indecent to stay in good shape pushing seventy. But if I changed shape I might start wearing things that would pass unnoticed on the street, shoes that made that awful heavy contact with sidewalks and oak floors. It’s as if you feel I’m managing to look pretty good just to irritate you, Marianna.”
“Oh, Mother, really.”
I disappeared into her closet again, irritation flicking at my chest. She was such a prima donna, concerned with presentation and place in society. Well, that wasn’t quite fair. She, in fact, was less self-conscious than I was about many things. She was given a certain status after so many years braving a path in the legal profession when women were much more sparse in the ranks. And my father had his own well-earned honors. They were rather formidable together, regal with height and heads of excellent hair, their congenial, well-bred ways and so on. I knew that at dinner they would mark their spots at either end of the dining room table with a pride of place that came from proving themselves.
I, on the other hand, was a mere teacher of children because that had seemed the easiest thing when the alternatives bored me more. Law and medicine, though pressed upon me as being the best routes to take, held little appeal. I’d have rather taken coursework in botany and then landscaping but the university to which I embarked–my mother’s alma mater– didn’t offer such an agrarian program. Education held an attraction: security and comfort for someone like me, an underachiever who loved kids and appreciated sharing knowledge with them. I had been a fine baby sitter, after all. I now worked hard and long at a job I enjoyed more each year.
Those beautiful shoes, though, I thought as I picked them up and handed them to my mother. They might fit now that my arches had fallen a tad or whatever happened with over two decades of hiking and backpacking. But I wouldn’t manage to walk serenely across hallways and down many stairs in them for the big dinner without falling over at my boyfriend’s feet–if I made it that far. I sighed loudly.
“Are you feeling nervous about Dennis coming for dinner?” she asked from over my shoulder.
“Not at all,” I lied. “He met you at the art museum already so he knows what to prepare himself for, he knows who you both are in this city.”
“Well, it’s about time he got to know us better and vice versa. Now that you say you are serious! I do like that he likes art. Hand me the black dress, will you?”
I watched her pull it on and then helped her with the back zipper. It stopped three-quarters of the way up.
“Take it slowly, dear, it will get there.”
I tugged but it refused to slide up. “It’s resisting. I don’t want to pull harder.”
Mother ran her hand over the top of her wavy pouf of hair, squared her smooth shoulders, gathered in a deep breath. “Now try it.”
With some effort, the dress was zipped but both of us could see it was too snug, how it creased at her waist and flattened her ample bust. She held her breath until I started to laugh, then she let it out.
“Alright, quick, off with this, before the seams pull apart. What happened since last year?”
I wanted to say: You’ve changed, you just don’t want to accept it but you are compressing, the muscle is becoming flab at last, despite tennis and daily swims and eating fresh figs and greens and handfuls of almonds. You are not what you once were, not so gorgeous and proportioned and enviably thin. Even aging royalty has to put aside the princess gowns.
“I suppose things are shifting,” I said.”Don’t they for us all after twenty-five at least?”
As Mother shook her head a wavy hank of hair fell over her eyes and it softened her. I remembered when it was long and thick about her shoulders, how it’s ebony luster was streaked with silver for so long. It was one thing I inherited. Now I saw her hair was less full and shiny, that chin length was more suitable. I felt a pang, wished it was long enough to be pulled into a voluminous chignon as it always had been when I was growing up.
Mother peeled off the dress and disappeared into her walk-in closet. I followed. She was elbow-deep in the greens to blue-greens section, fingering a pale sage linen tunic, then sateen turquoise pants. I liked those pants and told her so. She agreed and moved to a royal blue flyaway sweater, which she wore often. She put it against charcoal grey slacks and an oyster grey blouse. She took all three and put them on a dressing stand.
“For dinner, I think. Gads, what to do with all these white shirts I’ve accumulated? I don’t even like white unless paired with black. Or red.” She ran her hand over the sleeves and dismissed them until later.
“Mother, did you even get a good impression of Dennis? You never said anything last month after meeting him. Of course, we hadn’t planned on bumping into you, we had come from the trails.”
She looked at me a moment, then grabbed black jeans and a black cashmere sweater, went to the mirror and stripped off the slip, then put on the dark ensemble. She turned this way and that. The jeans looked tight in the seat and thighs.
“How could I get a correct impression when scads of other people were milling about on a Saturday afternoon opening of Rothko’s work? He seemed perfectly fine. A little hairy. Friendly look. You said he was in building trades?”
The irritation prickled again. She knew what he did for a loving and more. “He has a good beard, that’s all. He’s a builder, yes, Mother. Remember? Houses of finest repute.” I paused. “Those jeans do need to go, along with the black dress.”
“Perhaps, dear. Into the ‘maybe’ pile. Well, if you find him so interesting, I’m sure we will manage the same.”
“No, they go in the ‘toss’ pile, they’re too tight and you are too old to wear tight things. It’s not becoming, anymore. In fact, one third of your clothes should have been tossed a few years ago. You have the tastes of someone who is forty or fifty, not late sixties!”
Mother frowned at me and pressed her hands together, bit her pink, thin lip. She was getting ready to defend her position with that tongue of fire–so useful in court–so I disappeared into the closet and blinked back tears.
Why was she getting on my nerves? I knew well all her expectations. I knew what she had wanted for me. I’d endured therapy for three years to get beyond my underachieving, the self-worth issues. Our afternoon started out fine with a delicious lunch I paid for, then the seasonal clothes sorting. We used to do that together when I was home. It was fun, a time when she put all else aside and I joined in and then she’d help me with my things. “Our gabby girl time”, she called it. Even though I had found it more a chore except for the chance to have her all to myself. We used to swim together each week, yes, but we each swam in our own lane, gliding through the water like two mute, very fast fish. Now even that had gone by the wayside.
The woolen items hung in a small section near the end of the row. I pulled up the protective plastic bags to finger them, then pressed my face against the fabric. I loved the smell of wool, its animal heartiness, how it was rough and smooth at once on my skin, how it was pure, somehow, clean and rich. Substantial while refined, to my liking. Mother in trim work suits and then over those, her shawl collared, camel woolen coat.
She came up behind me as my face was buried in the folds of the very same coat.
I pulled away from the woolens. “Oh! I just love this coat… anyway, nothing is wrong that won’t be gone after dinner.” I turned to her. “Keep the jeans if you want. I was just–”
“No, you’re right. I need more stretch than I used to. I need more room, I guess!” She patted my back as we left the odd safety of the closet. “You go to the solarium with a good book and relax. Dinner will be ready at seven. Your father is cooking tonight. And I do like that tweedy skirt and caramel colored sweater on you–I used to wear that sort of thing when I was younger. Fine Pendleton standbys.”
I smiled at her and left. So that’s why I bought and rarely wore the skirt.
When she entered the room even my father stopped what he was doing, which was lighting his pipe. Dennis and I were sitting in the living room, having just enjoyed a chat with him about the quality and types of area soils and how this impacted building houses. Father had been into the discussion, seemed like he was looking forward to the evening. Then we heard her voice as she called out to him.
“Thad?” Her strong voice had moved around a few corners before she arrived. “Ah, there you all are!”
Father smiled and it simply telegraphed how much he still adored her. She paused in an archway and surveyed our trio. Dressed in a fiery red silk tunic with a long keyhole opening at the chest and black, loose pants, she floated toward us. Her hair was swept back and her long bangs were held aside with a gleaming silvery barrette. Long black and silver oval earrings dangled from each lobe. Her feet were clad in the heels with leather rosettes at each toe.
As usual, a statement had to be made, her identity established, no mistake who was ruling the roost: Ms. Helena Halbrecht.
She put forward her hand to Dennis as he rose. “Welcome to our place, Dennis. Lovely to see you again.”
“Thank you for having me.” He took the hand and nearly bowed, but just stopped himself.
I rose, too. “Mother, aren’t you amazing tonight,” I murmured through half-closed teeth. “I should have had my fairy godmother whip up a gown to wear.”
She lifted a perfect eyebrow at me and Dennis took my elbow. Father chuckled at the scene, then lit his pipe before getting us cocktails.
“I, too, find my work exacting, Mrs. Halbrecht,” Dennis countered. “Timing is often the key no matter what we do, don’t you think? I have to make sure the essentials of a house are well in hand before making complex decisions. The foundation must be entirely sound before all other actions proceed, right? I have to coordinate many laborers’ efforts as well as work closely with architect and owners. Everything has its own time and method. Each material has its strengths and even a corresponding weakness if not placed in a manner that coheres with the others. I also am the one to bear bad news–I have to finesse my way through! If I am not a good communicator, that I may as well take down my business shingle.”
They had been talking about the importance of logistics in the field of law, how you have to know when to make this move or that, how to execute it without doing damage to the whole scheme while putting pressure one place and alleviating it another. How to command, manipulate, execute the power of language. My mother was finishing her salad and she now put down the fork slowly, took her napkin and pressed it against faded scarlet lips.
“I see. That is a lot to consider. And I somehow imagined good houses were just a matter of perfect schematics and able-bodied workers.” She laughed lightly as if to say she was certainly not that dim, then quaffed her iced water.
“I think he’s made an excellent point!” My father’s eyes swept over our plates and found that we all had enjoyed the salmon. “All decent work requires detailed plans that leave a margin for unforeseen variations in data–or error as it happens–and just as valuable, strong teamwork.”
His sharp eyes crinkled as he beamed at Dennis and then nodded at Mother. She shifted in her seat. She had no choice but to admit that the man I had brought to dinner was a good conversationalist as well as a successful businessman. But I had hoped she would discern more than that.
“And what do you think of our daughter’s teaching career? Do you have an interest in education? Or children’s welfare, for that matter?” Mother asked.
Her cheeks were flushed, or it was the red of the shirt radiating upward. She looked beautiful despite being demanding of our guest, my boyfriend. I knew she was sincere, but it had begun to seem she was interrogating him a bit. It was her habit after years of prosecuting, of cross-examining and rooting out the loose thread in the fabric of things.
“I know children ought to have someone like Marianna teaching them. They need people who are not only smart but compassionate. Someone who shares her enthusiasm about life with children who become jaded too soon. I know she”–he covered my hand with his before I could grab my goblet to wet my ticklish throat–“thinks she might have done something splashier with her life but she’s very trustworthy as well as persevering. Those qualities matter in teaching, I’m sure, as in other parts of life. Marianna is the sort of human being who gets respect from others because of her character first, not because of achievements. Although I suspect she will be rewarded well for all she does for sixth graders and her school. I am in awe of her dedication and patience, really.”
And he gave my hand a squeeze, then reached for the pitcher and poured me fresh water. Mother had both eyebrows raised and she wet her lips then bit the lower one to stave off more questions–I knew that “tell”. But Father leaned back and studied Dennis with a level look.
“I guess he truly likes and loves me,” I said somewhat defiantly and everyone laughed.
“As we also do, Marianna,” Father said.
Mother gave me her doe look which unnerved me, it was so warm and soft.
It was extraordinary that Dennis had spoken this way to my parents. All my growing up years friends were more intimidated by them, especially Mother, and I seldom brought home a boyfriend to hang out. Not even during or after college. She was so much to take in. It usually required a willingness to get past her ultra confidence, the intense questions. And my father, well, he was devoted to forensic science and how did one casually converse about that over a well-set dinner table? Did one query how the dead were maintained for, uh, further review?
After Dennis left due to a big job starting early the next day, I found myself lingering before heading back to my place. My parents were in the kitchen; the low rumble voices passed through the swinging door. I went upstairs to refresh my face and then walked around, peering into bedrooms. My childhood room, with its window seat for daydreaming or reading and the skylight over the bed that gave me a star-pierced sky, a wash of morning light. I wandered back to my parents’ room where their luxurious, quilted king bed belied insomnia I knew they both had. Then I found my way to Mother’s closet again.
I turned on the track lighting, stood in the middle of the deep space, turned slowly so neatly separated clothing ran together. Became a kaleidoscope of hues, like a child’s toy turned slowly to illuminate patterns of jewel colors. I stopped. The extravagant room held a surplus of design, and the rigid order felt oppressive as well as sumptuous. But it was my mother’s place. It held her choices and desires. The area was imbued with her unique mixture of scents. As I touched the fabrics they felt as if they had just been worn by her; they held her energy somehow. This was her place of safekeeping for parts of an identity– what it had been, maybe still was. An inner sanctum for preparation for the days or nights. Later she’d shed clothing along with her roles. It held some of her tools for work and play. Beauty to make the ordinary world more palatable, vibrancy to grant the day a warmer tinge of hope. It was her realm and her pleasure.
I loved her for devising this quirky oasis from the cruelties of the world she had stared in the face over and over as a prosecuting attorney. And now she was finding these props and valued pieces did not fit in the same way. Elegant and vital, she was nonetheless a woman reconfigured by time. That, she could not negotiate. But she would find something to her liking and benefit. I turned out the lights, exited their private domain.
It came to me that I should resign from the job of assisting my mother with clothes sorting. It was up to her, after all, whether or not she would keep on with the old or make way for different goods and her changing life. No matter what, she would still reign over her small kingdom and be happy. And I had my piles to sort as well as my own romantic life to manage. I looked forward to it, thanks in part to her expert, even loving tutelage. But whether or not her style would ever mix well with mine still remained to be seen.