Monday, December 20, 2010

Mommy-Daughter Matching Outfits

(Picture of my family circa 1978) Note the patterned shag rug in the foreground, and the fabulous tan 3-piece suit on dad)

When I was 6 or so, my mom made matching outfits for us to wear to my first opera. It may actually have been my second opera. I think we went to Hansel and Gretel when I was five and La Boheme when I was 6. La Boheme: A light-hearted romp about impoverished bohemians dying of consumption. (For those non-opera people in the house - and I count myself among you - it's what Rent was based on). In order to prepare us, my mom made paper dolls of all the characters and we "played" La Boheme at home while listening to recordings of the arias. I particularly enjoyed making paper Mimi cough up a lung as she died, tragically young. Just your average suburban family fun. My parents didn't like board games. The outfits my mom sewed are long, to-the-ground skirts with matching vests and little tissue purses (purses for tissues - remember, we were going to the Metropolitan Opera to watch a tragedy).

For this story to make sense, it's important to know that four years ago my parents moved across the country to be near us. Well, to be near our then 2-year-old daughter...and us. Along with my parents came entire Fisher-Price toy sets in pristine shape; all my Barbies with their unfortunate mullet haircuts that had seemed like good ideas at the time; buttons to match pretty much any shirt that has ever been worn by any member of our family; miles of embroidery floss, categorized by color and shade; and my brother's and my bronzed baby shoes and favorite stuffed animals. My husband, daughter, and I live in a house with a garage and plenty of closet space, an attic even, and yet when we need fabric for a craft project or specific size screws for a broken gadget, we call my mom before heading to Michael's or Home Depot. Usually, she's got it. It's kind of a miracle.

Of course, when you grow up with a mother who has cards for every occasion perfectly organized in an under-bed box, your office supply area tends to be a bunch of random boxes filled with envelopes that don't match; rubber bands twisted around bent paper clips; and papers, papers, papers, important papers in recycled folders that are labeled with what was in them three lifetimes ago. It's not that I don't appreciate organization: it's as if my DNA forces me to reject it. Teenage rebellion so imprinted in my bones it's almost physically impossible for me to successfully organize. I try. I really do. I put labels on plastic boxes for my daughter's art supplies: "stickers," "markers," "assorted found and recycled craft stuff," but I can't keep up with it. My desk has several upright cardboard boxes - given to me by my mother of course - and I periodically make decisions: this one's for stamps and envelopes - things that have to do with mail; this one's for all my pages of notes that might find their way into my novel or a script or something brilliant I'm just about to write; and this one is for all the stuff having to do with my daughter's school. Did I mention that I love the semi-colon? My husband and I were working on a script for Nickelodean recently and he kept taking my semi-colons out of the dialogue. When I finally confronted him: "Where are my f#$&%ing semi-colons?" He told me that he'd been taught not to use semi-colons in dialogue because actors don't know what to do with them. Silly actors; semi-colons are your friends. A pause, slightly longer than a comma. A way to really organize a list. Hey, look at that: I'm all about the organization in my writing. M dashes, colons, semi-colons, commas - they are all my friends. But within a week, those desk boxes have begun to infect each other - school papers in with stamps, bills and receipts - where do they go? - in with my jotted note things, checkbooks and notepads sticking out like they're trying to breathe...

I love my mother. I love my mother more every day. Watching her volunteer her time to come to my daughter's school and read to the children, spend extra time running a center for second-language learners who need a little more attention, sew soft, squishy pillows for the school library and colorful aprons for the art hut...I just adore her. The things that drove me mad as a teenager I now find endearing and tender. They were tender then too, of course, but it's hard to take so much tender when your 13, 14, 15, when all you want to do is get out, separate, expand beyond! When I was six years old, I loved that matching skirt and vest. As a teenager and young adult, I considered that outfit proof that my mom wouldn't give me any breathing room at all, ever! "Look," I'd say to therapists and friends and in angry lyrics in my all-chick band, Big Panty (not kidding), "She even wanted us to dress alike - she couldn't stand for me to be different from her! I am different! I am!!!" (the lyrics held the sentiment, but were a little more...well...lyrical.) I've referenced that matching outfit so many times throughout my long, hard-fought differentiation that it's taken on a life of its own.

And today, for the first time in 33 years, I saw those matching outfits in the flesh. Or in the faux-velvet, I should say. From the miracle closet, my mother pulled out those matching outfits and I waited for the anger, the frustration, the feeling of not being able to breathe, of being shrink-wrapped or straight-jacketed, or otherwise...

What I felt was...tenderness. Love. All the love that my mom must have poured into those black faux-velvet matching skirts and vests over three decades ago were intact, in the material. For a moment I thought my mom and my daughter would wear them on Christmas eve. It took me a long, confused moment to realize that she had saved them with the hope that I would one day wear the grown-up one. My daughter was, of course, thrilled. "Let's wear them on Christmas Eve AND on Christmas Day!" she cried. "Sure, hon," I said, wondering if photos of us would be fodder for her therapy in twenty years. Something will, chances are, whether we put on these outfits or not.

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