My aunt sews matching dresses for me and my cousin; she buys the patterns, and when she makes my cousin a dress she often makes me the same. The dresses are wonderful. I do not know much about sewing, even now, but what I know mostly comes from those dresses, from hearing my aunt talk to my mother about the bric-a-brac, empire waist peasant dresses, smocking. I love going to the Methodist Church when we visit Waco, especially the day I am given a patent leather—bone white, not blinding white—clasp purse. Inside, I keep butterscotch from my grandmother and a dainty handkerchief. My grandmother sings in the choir, and after church my grandparents will take us all to the Tanglewood Farms for brunch. It’s the only time I really get to dress up.
My cousin and I are in matching dresses with purple buttons, lavender yarn in our braids. Our mothers take us to Sears Portrait Studio, where we sit together in front of a marbled blue sky. I’m into it, all of it. My cousin isn’t. She says, “I’m fatter than you are. Your braids look stupid.” My mother calls me skinny. I touch my braids, wrapped around my head like a milkmaid. I feel silly.
At the playground I wait for someone to push me on the merry-go-round. You don’t see those in parks anymore. Someone decided they were too dangerous. “Look at her,” my mother says to my aunt, “waiting for someone to come. I’m so pretty, someone will come to push me.”
But my mother still remembers the clothes and relishes them. She loves to talk about my early childhood and remembers every single one of the dresses; like snapshots, her descriptions spark my memory. A yellow dress with green smocking and ducks. A Valentine’s dress with heart buttons.
And then there is my Little House on the Prairie Dress. It is my favorite thing, my favorite dress, then and now. My aunt made me an apron to go with it, and even a bonnet. I wear it every day. I wear it so frequently that my teacher tells my mother I fit in very well with all the children, that I am well-adjusted, especially for a child of my religion.
My mother tells this story, this amusing anecdote, for years. Long after I have forgotten most of my classmates’ names, I remember the dress. I lost the picture years ago, but I used to look at it to tell me who I am, who I was. I am serious in the picture, my bonnet thrown back, long hair draped over one shoulder.
I have two best friends, Jenny and Lyn. Lyn says she is a tomboy, in jeans and red boots. Jenny has wire-rimmed glasses, and a Holly Hobby doll like mine. She has striped knee socks that go way past her knees, and her mother wears long, rough dresses without bras. Her mother has more freckles than I’ve ever seen.
When she tells me they are moving away, I go home and cry. Jenny doesn’t. The next day, she tells me she can’t be my best friend in Minnesota.
I have another best friend, I tell her.
Jodi Foster and Melissa Gilbert are my child stars. Fresh-faced Becky Thatcher, bucktoothed Laura Ingalls.
But I like Shirley Temple. Here is a child who notices her dimples, and uses them to her advantage. She uses them to promote world peace, and to make old seamen smile again. No one can resist her innocence and tap dancing abilities. At my grandparents’ house, I’m allowed to stay up until 8:30 p.m. if a Shirley Temple movie comes on. Shirley’s eyes sparkle. No matter her station or situation, she is smartly dressed and cute as a button. Her hair curls under lace caps, and dirt sticks to her cheeks in little thumbprints.
I only watch Charlie’s Angels at the neighbor’s house, and, later, we bottom-tuck our shirts through the neck holes and pretend we are Angels. This game mainly involves turning our shirts into bra tops and running around the yard posing with our toy water guns. Nobody wants to be the blonde Farrah. But we all want to play with the doll’s head, which comes with curlers and make-up.
At my new school, I do not wear white anklets or my favorite owl dress. I wear pants, bellbottoms, tee shirts. I look down at my feet. No more Mary Janes.
The 80s happen. Pink is for girls. Care Bears make me want to vomit. I’m not sure if this is the time when Legos become color-coded, but that’s on its way. Holly Hobby is replaced by dimpled, perfumed Strawberry Shortcake.
I am at a better school now, a parochial school where my mother teaches. The uniforms for girls have no waist, but when you enter junior high you can wear a skirt. I like the uniform, and wearing a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar under it. The things you wear matter, even though we all wear the same thing. On rodeo day, we come to school in checked shirts with ruffles down the front. On out-of-uniform days, the girls wear rainbow shirts. They make hair clasps out of Izod buttons and pretty ribbons. I buy some but do not wear them.
Once we can wear the skirts, if our shirts get washed and worn, you can see our bras through them. Only a few girls wear them now, but I’m one who does. Boys sneak up behind us, snap the strap. North, South, Equator!
Fashion matters a lot to the girl who picks on me. I’ll call her Jennifer. At school I carry a book around so I won’t have to talk. Jennifer talks to me brightly. Do I shave my legs? I would look so cute if I cut my hair in wings. Did I know Gus Alvarez wanted to “go” with me? (He doesn’t; I’m not a fool. I am too young to date, and have nothing but disdain for makeup and razors).
The girls will wait until they have a moment alone, which is not every day. The junior high hallway is outside, near the arcade, and somehow that makes everything noisier. Once, Jennifer points to a large pimple on my chin. “Pop it,” Jennifer says and two of her winged girls push me against the wall and press their nails into my skin. I don’t resist. It is over quickly. My chin trickles blood and pus. “You may be excused to the lavatories,” my teacher says. “Please don’t pick at your skin. You are old enough to understand the rules of personal hygiene.”
It is impersonal, their pimple-popping assault. Nothing like my father’s rages. Like they were picking at a scab, or drumming their fingernails in boredom. One of the girls wore purple glasses, and as she pressed her long fingernail into my skin, I could make out the blackheads in her broad nose.
All the girls want bunny fur coats. Never mind that this is Houston, they all have them, and wear them to school over their uniforms. They are not allowed to drape them over the back of the desks; they must stuff them into their lockers. The bunny fur comes off in patches. Jennifer has one.
I want one. I do not know why, exactly, I want one so much. If I get one, one that will be coveted, they won’t like me any more for it. But I want one. I want the cream-colored bunny fur coat at Foley’s, and I tell my mother this. It is so expensive. I have never asked for something so expensive.
My father gives me a choice. I can have the bunny fur coat, or we can sponsor a poor child in a developing country. For the price of the coat, we can do that for a year.
I take the coat.
I don’t wear it, though. My guilt hangs in my closet, all one hundred and fifty dollars of it. All one color, creamy and softer than clouds. I can’t bear to wear it. What was I thinking? I hate that coat, but of course I have nothing to say about it. If I do, it will only cause trouble.
At school, I search for signs of kindness in Jennifer. One morning, there is a frozen puppy outside our classroom. She cries for the puppy, for its little white paws. After lunch, she is sent to the office for painting her nails with liquid paper. Xoxo in erasable ink on top. I’d like to be so bold.
My vanity has been replaced by a hideous self-consciousness. I can sometimes catch myself blinking, and that makes me stop, makes my eyes tear up. My breasts are there, but they are still small, flopping. A man whistles at me once, looking through the armholes of my purple sleeveless shirt. He can see them, he whistles, and I run to the bathroom to hide.
I don’t even want to wear a bathing suit. Mine is cheap, leopard print, ridiculous. I put a tee shirt over it at the pool. The suit does not have a bra cup, and Lyn’s mother suggests I wear one with a bra cup. She’ll buy one for me, even, but I feel ashamed. Lyn doesn’t need anything like that. She runs as fast as she can; the lifeguard has to yell at her to slow down. She does a cannonball. She goes off the high dive, again and again.
I’ve never had swimming lessons, and what I do know about swimming, I learned from Lyn. I climb the high dive though, again and again. I don’t wear the shirt over my suit; what if it fans out, what will happen? Every time, I am not sure I’ll make it. Most of the time, I belly flop. I will never be a good enough swimmer to avoid getting the wind knocked out, belly-flopping, sinking to the bottom and experiencing that moment, beneath, looking up at my fellow-swimmers’ ghostly arms and legs, when I am not sure I can make it back up. Then reaching the top, gasping, coughing, that burning-in-my-throat chlorinated relief. It is okay. I did it, and it is okay.
I go to the beach with Lyn and her sisters, her mom. I swim in the ocean and let my braids dry, then unbraid them into to mermaid waves. We live in flip-flops, swimsuits, and gym shorts. We read the entire V.C. Andrews series. I love the books for their descriptions of fabulous wealth, for beds carved into swans, and a cruel, beautiful mother willing to poison her children with powdered donuts. We laugh and cry and laugh at the stories. “Don’t eat the powdered donuts!” We say to one another. We learn about sex from them, words like “come.” Lyn is silver-blonde, blue-eyed, like the children on the book cover. She isn’t as taken with the books as I am. She says the brother is a sicko.
We tell stories about princes on the beach. I imagine a great love, falling asleep on the balcony, listening to the ocean, and Crystal Gale on an 8-track. It’s so wonderful, to think about boys and talk about boys but have them be boys in books, in historical romance novels. When I get married, it will be on the beach, in a linen dress, barefoot, seashells in my hair.
Lyn’s mother, Beth, is beautiful. She paints our toenails, and the dog’s toenails, and makes us virgin strawberry daiquiris in the blender. I wish we could be there, forever, in a place where there is no dirt, only sand, and everything feels scrubbed-out, faded, eternal.
We pretend long past the age of others girls’ pretending, and I am always Cordelia, and my eyes are violet, and my hair is raven, my skin alabaster. My clothes are like the robes women wear in carved Greek sculptures, like something grown from the sea, and my crown is soft, golden, made of leaves. I’m a princess, of course, after I marry the prince Lothair. I look nothing like my ordinary self.
The suit is satin, too shiny, made for an older woman—someone in her early twenties, or maybe very late teens. It should be worn with heels. It is half-cream, half-emerald green, drape-y, ending in small puddles at the ankles. It is entirely slip-on but for the snap in front. My mother has left it out for me to find when I come home from school. It is a gift, from my father. He found it on clearance, my mother tells me, marked down from a lot. It is worth a great deal, more than a hundred dollars in fact.
I do not want to wear it, but I cannot tell them that. I am to wear it when he takes me out to dinner. Once on, the pantsuit looks like a costume. I slouch my shoulders. I am not grateful. I don’t want to go out there, looking like this, like someone I don’t know how to be, at least not outside the house. But saying anything will cause trouble. A few years ago, I watched poor cursed Bill Bixby wandering the country, never able to reveal his true identity, his heart breaking in almost every single episode as he helped people in between bouts of green Hulk rage. That, I believed, was my father. A man cursed by trauma, who ripped and smashed and raged. He didn’t know, he lost control, and his rage was reflective of a deep pain and a deep love. But that’s not true, I’ve since decided. It’s something else altogether now, his anger. It gets him what he says he wants. It works, doesn’t it? Then why can’t it work for me? Because it never does, and it never will.
I would wear the satin thing, and years later, in college, I would mock it. I will say, “All it needed was a long cigarette holder; you know, like Auntie Mame.” If you were to be my friend, you had to absolutely hate the pantsuit and what it stood for.
My style, in high school: I am not a rebel. If we are creatures who create our own personas, if our clothes offer a window into our soul, then in some ways I still feel like the girl I was at fourteen: big pink glasses, braids, still holding onto daydreams of Narnia and Avonlea. The girl who lives up to the ugly nickname that grows around me after I called myself, in a self-deprecating moment, “Holly Hobby.” A nice girl. A plain girl. A homely, sweet girl. A stupid, unthinking, sexually ignorant girl. A big dummy with big breasts who laughs and cries easily, who doesn’t get dirty jokes. I wear baby doll dresses and big loose skirts, anything to obscure my DD breasts.
I look at pictures. I indulge in Seventeen Magazine, and I am drawn to the photographs more than the articles about how to steam my face or prepare for a date. I often listen to music, with the door shut, and read J.R.R. Tolkien or fall into reveries over those pictures. I don’t want to be the girls in the picture—they are not prettier than I am, just styled differently. I realize even then that I pretty much conform to society’s standards for beauty—white, thin, big breasts. I don’t have an aristocratic nose, my nose is pug, but that is cute, that’s just fine.
I’m drawn, in particular, to a picture of a girl with messy blonde hair shelling peas. I do want to be this girl. She doesn’t look like a farm girl at all. She is wearing a beautiful striped tee shirt, and her feet are bare, toenails and lips painted a pure, bright red. Her hair is cut into a pixie. I just want to climb into that picture, sit on that porch, alone. I want to be in her clothes. I want to be comfortable, to wear red nail polish for absolutely no one, and to walk back into that gorgeous, sundrenched farmhouse and close the door forever.
My friend Melissa—who drives; I don’t —and I go to the Galleria, where I get all my waist-length hair cut off, just like the girl in the picture. It’s an Audrey Hepburn moment. No, better. We go back to Melissa’s and I dress up in everything in the closet, to see what it all looks like. Our favorite is a black dress, red lipstick, a simple necklace. Short, cropped hair slicked back. Melissa takes a picture of me in front of the piano. “Like a Robert Palmer girl,” she says, laughing. “Man! You look so white. Your eyes are huge!”
I’ve lost this picture, but I had it for years. I remember being proud of it, that I could look like that girl in the picture. Her eyes are huge, anime eyes. She looks a little sad, a little afraid—very sweet. She wants you to like her. There is nothing ferocious or predatory about her. She isn’t a Robert Palmer girl, because she wants you to see her. She isn’t a clothes hanger. But, she wants you to like her mostly for being pretty.
When I come home my father laughs and points. “Butch!” he says, laughing. It’s a joke I guess. He is teasing me. “Bull dyke!”
My mother says it looks very feminine. It reminds her of Mia Farrow, who cut off all her long golden hair. The cut matched her delicate features, making her more feminine. She is looking at my father as she says this.
In one of his fits, my father storms into the closet, ripping up the dresses—floral print dresses that come in at the waist, skirts that bubble over my round butt. Afterwards, the reconciliation. This wasn’t, I am told, because of the clothes but an outlet for his anger. He can’t stand that voice, my shrill voice. He cries into my shoulder. He wraps his arms around me, so tight, and I do not struggle. It’s my voice. It drives him to these things. See what you did. See what you did to your father.
After that I mostly wear jeans, button-down shirts. My hair in a French braid down my back. The shirts are sacks, nothing fitted. This will change on prom night, when I wear a Vanna White cream dress that shows my cleavage, my thin waist. Like my mother, I’m proud of the price; I get it on sale, at Sears. I curl my long hair, even wear eye makeup. I’m a mermaid again.
No more big pink glasses. I am miles away from Texas, in the Hudson Valley, in a land where ivy grows over stone rows. I ditch my old clothes. Most everything I wear now comes from a cold barn in Kingston. You have to knock on the door of a farmhouse, and if the old woman answers, she’ll unlock the barn full of vintage clothes for you. There are racks and racks of them, fitted bodices with soft cotton skirts, cloches in camels and red velvets, scarlet gowns, Kelly green woolen working woman suits with gloves to match. The things I want almost all fit (mostly), although I’m too buxom for some of what I buy, but that’s okay. The small cigarette burns and moth holes don’t take away from the glamour. They make me feel even prettier, like a will ‘o the wisp ghost. I wear the beautiful pinup sweaters with A-line skirts or jeans.
Lots of girls adopt the vintage dress look. It’s a look, definitely, one that does not reveal my economic or regional background. After a while, I tire of it, but I pick it back up again and again until my mid-twenties. In the summertime, I break out for a bit. I work at the Renaissance festival one summer, serving steak on a stick and mugs of beer. I wear a frothy skirt and a muslin top and put on my best European accent. The tips are great. I don’t need a push-up bra to get them. At the end of the day we servers share our tips with the younger high school kids who work in the back, washing dishes and doing the grunt stuff. They grumble a bit. I get asked out, but lie and say I have a boyfriend.
I don’t. But, I am a few months away from getting my first real boyfriend.
The man I will marry wears a long black coat and old Doc Martens. His hair is long and dark; he looks kind of Goth. We meet in Vermont, where I am trying to get on my feet after a bad breakup. I’m terribly thin, too thin, and my skin is bad. I look like someone who has had some trouble with drugs, although this is not the case. I’ve just been effectively homeless in New York City for a while, staying on friends’ couches, and finally, at a friend’s mother’s house in New Jersey. Away from college, my old wardrobe has lost its dusty glamour; I look a bit like what I am, a bag lady.
I can’t find a real job. My hands shake, my hair is a kind of chalky nothing-color, absorbing all the drugstore dyes I’ve subjected my short fine hair to— I don’t keep track of my temping money, but I always make enough for trifles like hair dye. I still dress up, for parties I hear about, and I show up for the food and drinks.
And then I am in Vermont, writing about lawn mowers. Everyone there wears flannels and jeans. I buy duck boots at the Goodwill. I am going to marry my boyfriend. He meets me every night at the Burlington Free Press, where I work as an assistant, preparing the sports agate and entering in the obituaries. I am thin as a magazine waif, in pretty dresses from the thrift store. I wear stockings and flannels over them. I wash them once a week, at the Duds and Suds, with my new friend Gretchen. We buy popcorn and lemonade, or beer, and watch VH1 as we wash. I’m employed. I have an apartment, a dog, and friends. Slowly, my collarbone stops jutting, my ribcage is no longer pronounced. I walk my big dog down Church Street, where we sit outside, with a bowl of water and a hunk of ginger candies. I am pretty. I am a bride to be. I am going to be a writer. I am going to live here.
My wedding dress is from the late 1800s; my mother wore it, when she was twenty. Her grandmother wore it when she was fourteen. There is no room for my bust. I leave it out in the sun to bleach; the old lace is too delicate to wash. I do not have any pictures of myself in this dress anymore, but I do have pictures of my mother wearing it. Her eyes are dark and serious. She is tall and reedy. The dress suits her.
We are living in San Antonio, and this is the unraveling of it all. My closet is filled with sexy bustier shirts and skinny cigarette pants bought from the Newport News catalog my ex told me to buy, after getting me to throw away all of my own clothes. I will do it; I will wear what he asks if it helps. No more girlish Peter Pan collars and knee-length librarian skirts. In the last act even remotely sexual between us, I put them on them for him, walking up and down the hallway, waiting for him to say something, anything, acutely aware of the back fat spilling out of my halter-top. I have never worn a bikini. He would like a woman with my breasts, who wears a bikini. He says I should wear black bras under my clothes. He looks at me now as if he doesn’t know me. This, I realize, is the only thing left—he likes the way I look. Or maybe he likes the way I look to others. I don’t know, anymore. My ankles were once delicate, but now they twist and I stumble. This isn’t right, of course. This is not right.
I am a divorced single mother, moved to Mississippi. I am a teaching assistant. My students pull bright rain boots over their dark-washed jeans, and on a good morning, I do too, walking to school from the cottage I rent, breathing in the rainy pines. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, they chalk pink stripes into their hair. They also bump their hair up beneath bandeaus, like my mother did before the hippies ran away with the sixties. My son is not a baby anymore, and he walks beside me in his button-down shirts. I am wearing a button-down oxford shirt, with either a straight gray or brown skirt. In the winter, my grandmother’s camel coat, buttons replaced. Beneath the coat, my own sweet rain boots, in the style of Holly Hobby. I got them at Target and they are my favorite shoes; tiny flowers twist and wind over a cream background. They go with everything.
It’s a new start. And by Christmas, I am going on dates. I dress for the dates, clothes bought at the Turtle Creek Mall. I wear a necklace. I buy shimmer lotion. I take selfies, trying to look my age and not my age. I use the mirror. I join: eHarmony, Match.com, PlentyofFish.
I grow my hair out, henna it into a burnished brown that shines red in the sunlight. I splurge on etsy for vintage combs. I go on a date at TGIF, spending much time considering my outfit. Denim skirt, boots. I have to pay for a sitter, and after the date, I feel a little tired. I’d rather look at pictures on eHarmony and read emails. The man I meet at TGIF wants to make out with me in front of his SUV, in front of the TGIF. I don’t know if he is handsome. I am so lonely, I don’t even really care; I want to kiss him. But I don’t. I meet him, later, at his house where he has set up candles. I bring coffee, a kind of host gift. He has a little dog he kisses and dotes on. He seems to like this dog a lot, but he is not interested in impressing me. He is a doctor, a heart doctor. He hates Hattiesburg. I’m wearing the denim skirt and a pretty blouse. This is not a date, he says.
Oh. Well of course it isn’t.
I leave as politely as I can, the little dog barking at the door. I should close the door quickly so she doesn’t get out. I don’t really want this, this was just a miscommunication, I tell him. I don’t mean to be rude. I don’t mean to be rude.
First date with a man in Alabama, a medical resident in Tuscaloosa. We talk on the phone. I’ve written him several letters, little essays really, about my life, about spring in Hattiesburg, always casting myself as a kind of upbeat, loving mother. Which is what I am, mostly.
I talk to him at night, after my son has fallen fast asleep, beside the little furnace I bought at Sears to heat our living room in the winters. There is a fake flame, and I warm my hands beside it. I wait to brush my teeth and put on my nightgown until after we’ve talked. That just feels like the right way to talk to him. He calls me the first time he delivers a baby, elated. I am crying, but I hide this from my voice. I don’t think he can tell. I am glad he can’t see me yet, that I do not have to dress for this. With the lights off and my ear pressed against my old flip phone, his voice is so beautiful to me. His name, Song, means something like pine tree, a kind of tree. I don’t want to mess this thing up with a bunch of selfies. In the dark, I am just my voice, and it is strong, clear. Never tremulous.
I am forty-three, and I am getting married today, in a gray and pink dress with small buttons. A friend made my veil, 1940s style, with flowers and feathers and a small netting. Pink lipstick. My husband is wearing a light suit, a gray tie; my son is in a white guayabera shirt and light pants. There is a small cake from Wal-Mart with an orange sunflower on top. We stand in a park, after sunrise. It’s all the colors of the early morning. I read him an e.e. cummings poem. He is beautiful. I feel finished. I think, if nothing else goes right today, it is all right. He takes my picture, outside his small efficiency. I take his. He has to work at the hospital tonight. We eat bowls of fried rice in the living room and we say, I love you.
Two children now. My body is the body of a woman in her 40s. I’m on the phone, kids in the backseat, driving somewhere. My hair is cut short again, skillfully, in layers so I can easily hide the grays, and I don’t have to brush it in the mornings. I don’t have many clothes now; I have outgrown most of them since my daughter was born, and we are on a budget.
I call my mother while I’m driving, running errands.
My father answers the phone. He sounds pleased to hear my voice. He actually sounds nice; he doesn’t start in on anything. He gets my mother on the phone.
She has cancer, the biopsy was positive. She is pretty calm. She is in her mid-sixties now. My husband will say, if they are scheduling surgery, that’s a good sign. He knows these things; it is his job to know them.
There are so many things she does not know, things I will probably never tell her. Things she probably does not want to hear. Stopped at a red light, I look down at my shirt. There is a mustard stain. Yesterday, my son told me, after his sister woke up from her nap, that my shirt was on inside out. I grew up feeling that this, somehow, was the mark of my mother’s goodness. But can lack of vanity, and pride in that, be a kind of vanity too? I can tell you what I am wearing today. Pajama jeans—a kind of fake denim that is generous in the waist, my generation’s equivalent of the elastic waistband. A loose tee shirt. No-skid, black Sketchers I just bought on clearance for thirty dollars at the shoe station. No makeup. Like my mother.
There is a pile of pretty dresses on my bed, hand-sewn, bright—one with watermelons all over it, one sailor dress, a Lilly Pulitzer pillowcase dress. Most of them were given to us by a professor and mentor when his daughter was two and mine was newborn. I love these dresses. My daughter’s hair is cut square across her cheeks in a bob, and I love dressing her up, but I suspect she mostly prefers to wear jeans, like Mama. Patent leather shoes and blue Mary Janes, lace tights, a toddler-sized Wonder Woman tee shirt. A long yellow dress with pale ribbons and a flouncy skirt.
I hold it up for her. “Mama! Dress! Dreesss,” she says, stretching the word out.
We are going to Sears Portrait Studio, to have her portraits made for my mother. I don’t know it yet, but all the portrait studios will close this weekend. It’s the end of an era.
It takes a while to button her in, and when it’s on, she wears it like a costume. She bunches it between her legs. She marches. “March!” she says, “Mama, march.”
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.