Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Second Skin: Writing, Memory, and Clothes

Writers’Day at Bay Path is coming up in two weeks, on Feb. 15!  Seven very different and accomplished writers will be on hand for a lively day of discussions and workshops on memoir writing, publishing, food writing, and children’s books.  One of our guest writers, Elizabeth Peavey, will also perform that evening, in a solo play she wrote about her mother’s clothes, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother.

Clothing—that of others or our own—can be both a powerful memory trigger and a literary subject in its own right.  I’m thinking right now of the play Love, Loss and What I Wore by Nora and Delia Ephron, based on the illustrated memoir by Ilene Beckerman. Who can resist a memoir that opens with an image of a Brownie uniform?  (Immediately, I’m back in the basement of a rec center making a “beach cabana” with a giant communal box of Elmer’s glue and a constantly collapsing pile of popsicle sticks.)  Or ASecond Skin, a favorite collection of stories and essays by prominent writers (Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, A.L. Kennedy) that explore the significance of clothes which have marked a particular point in their lives.  A mother’s sumptuous red velvet dress, a lost cashmere coat, a pair of ridiculously beloved stripey socks: all serve in these narratives as Proust’s famous madeleine

This morning, thinking about Elizabeth Peavey’s upcoming show, I find myself remembering not my mother’s clothes but instead the outfits she chose for me. Specifically, I’m recalling a red plaid dress with a white sailor collar, worn with white ankle socks trimmed with lace and a pair of clunky Oxford shoes.   The year was 1969, my father’s new business had gone bankrupt, and my parents, unable to afford even the school’s modest tuition, withdrew my siblings and I from St. Francis De Sales School and transferred us to Fremont Elementary.  At first, I was exultant.  No more ugly uniforms, no more tight-lipped Sister Agnes and her obsession with exposed knees.  I could wear color!  Skirts above the knee! I wouldn’t have to cover my head anymore in morning chapel (we were given caps for this purpose, which itched and wouldn’t stay put).

My joy was short-lived.

The first day at Fremont I was packed off with a “Lost in Space” lunch box, wearing the above-mentioned red plaid dress, my feet stuffed into the lace-up shoes and my hair forced into tight pincurls.  “You look just darling,” my mother said, sealing my doom.  “Darling,” as it turned out, cut no ice at Fremont.  I crept into Mr. Citarella’s fifth-grade class to find a sea of girls in Peter Max minidresses, go-go boots, and hot pink fishnet stockings. (Fishnets!  Sister Agnes would have a heart attack on the spot.) Their hair was long and straight, their attitude tough and appraising.  Some even wore white lipstick.  I wouldn’t be allowed lipstick of any kind or color until high school, my mother had made clear, and here were ten- and eleven-year-olds with Yardley Lip-Smacker in Silver Frost boldly visible on their pouty mouths.  Cool, the outfits telegraphed.  Modern, fashionable, free.  “Dork!” screamed my red plaid ensemble.  And dork it was, instantly and irrevocably, a label that lasted, as it turned out, for years. 

There were other reasons for my social failure besides the radioactive sailor collar, the “taunt me now” ankle socks.  I carried library books with me to the playground, and sat alone on a bench reading Little Women while my classmates raced, screaming, across the grass or bounced basketballs off each other’s heads.  I took piano lessons, not guitar, in which I learned to play “hit” songs like “Born Free” (“As free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows…”).  I got As in school, which made the teachers like me, which made Mrs. Rankin (no, please don’t, please don’t) think it was a good idea to have me read my essay about cats in front of the class.  

But it’s the outfits I think of first when I remember my agonizingly long dork phase: the baggy Lee’s jeans instead of the mandatory Levis.   Childish socks instead of purple tights.  A summer “pool” dress my grandmother made of two matching bath towels splashed with a design of giant roses and stitched together, an outfit that so mortified me I cried each time I was told to put it on. “But it’s so cute,” my mother insisted.  “Just perfect to throw on over your bathing suit.”  (My sister’s was identical, except her roses were gold.)  My pleas for go-go boots and miniskirts, for bellbottoms and pierced ears, fell on deaf ears.  “You don’t want to look cheap,” my mother informed me, her lips tightening like Sister Theresa’s when I arrived for Mass one morning with my head uncovered.  She seemed blithely unaware that “cheap” was exactly what I wanted to look like.  I had no idea what it meant, but I knew I was desperate for it.

I wanted clothes to help me make friends.  I wanted clothes to protect me from mockery, to announce to the world that I, too, was in on the secret of growing up.  Sailor collars were for little girls; I was anxious to leave childhood—that realm of the powerless, of the small and frightened—as far behind as I could.   The right clothes, I believed, would get me there. 

Now, what they do for me is bring back a time so vividly I can smell the strawberry lip gloss, hear the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” blaring over the loudspeakers at the public pool.  And see the ten-year-old clutching her library copy of Little Women, unaware then that books, not clothes, were someday going to take her precisely where she wanted to go. 

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