And so the shopping began.
We started in handbags. My sister had been looking for a backpack type. There was a black one that she was considering. However, there were two black ones. One was a little fatter than the other. I suggested that she check to see how much of the fatness was tissue and how much of the fatness was, in fact, part of the structure of the handbag. She did this. She ransacked the fat purse and found that, indeed, it was stuffed with a lot of tissue paper. “Still” she observed, “it’s a hefty little purse”. I looked at my watch. It was 2:00. We had not yet begun to look for a gift for my mother or my sister. We decided mutually to have the most favored handbag held while we did our other shopping. That way, if she felt she had to have it after a cool-down period, she could come back for it.
Shopping for our sister was a piece of cake. Sherry has a definite style, a look, and when we landed on an outfit that seemed to scream “Sherry!”, we just glommed on to it. No problem. It was now 2:15.
Great! One down, one to go. Since we were already in Macy’s and in the women’s department, we figured, “How hard can this be?”. But it proved to be very tricky, indeed.
First of all, when you’re shopping for your mother, you’ve got all that “baggage”. This is my mother – the woman that gave birth to me – the one who took me downtown every year for my new school outfit. She would tug and pull at the dresses, trying to discern the quality of the fabric, the tailoring, and the fit. When I got a little older she would make me abandon any dress that didn’t fit just right on top, declaring: “There’s something wrong with the bosom!”. I was never sure whether she meant my bosom or the bosom of the dress. She made me endure orthopaedic saddle shoes. She argued with my father so that I could buy that Bonnie and Clyde-style dress for my high school prom.
She could be the height of chic in a little black dress with pearls, but more importantly, she could be equally gorgeous in a worn out pair of Levis and my father’s old shirt.
I was proud to have the only Mom on the block who was a “tomboy”. Never a slave to fahion, her favorite outfit was a pair of bermuda shorts, an Alligator polo shirt, and a pair of cleated shoes, topped off by a sun visor to protect her eyes. Mom was a golfer, and as she herself would frankly admit, “A damn good one!”. She had the lowest women’s handicap at the country club, save for the amazonian club champion, Rena Smith(not her real name), who “hit the ball a ton”, in part, at least, because she was about 6 feet tall (to my mom’s 5’3). I remember being so proud watching Mom tee off from the seventh green (easy to see from the vantage point of the swimming pool). She had a cool, easy lope to her walk. She would drop her cigarette behind her, take her stance, and execute a perfect swing that arced way high behind her shoulder and followed through in a straight line sending the little white ball flying a couple of hundred yards toward the green. Even from my vantage point beside the pool, I could just about make out the twinkle in her green eyes as she pulled the sun visor a little lower down and allowed herself the slightest hint of a smile. She stooped, picked up her cigarette unhurriedly, maybe tamped back a divot, and walked on, chatting companionably with her caddy about her choice of clubs for the next shot. She was a study in strength, athletic ability, and grace.
At the same time, Mom was anxious to have her girls dressed appropriately for certain occasions. We were all dressed in our organdy party dresses if we were going out to dinner or to the theater. When we traveled to New York (my parents believed in exposing us to the Arts), Mom used to polish our little white shoes every night and even wash out the shoelaces along with our white cotton gloves.
Mom got “dressed up” to go to the bank. Everyone did, back then. I have a distinct memory of Mom dressed in a scarlet knit dress with black trim, nylons, a pearl bracelet, and black high heels, carrying a simple black clutch under her arm. Yes, to go to the bank. She must have been about twenty-eight at the time.
So, here we are, about to celebrate Mom’s 77th birthday. The cigarettes finally caught up with her, and because she has breathing problems, it’s been a while since she golfed. Times have changed, and no one dresses up, it seems, to do anything. The gorgeous red knit dress would no longer fit, nor would the little black one. The bermuda shorts are long gone. Whereas Mom used to make concessions to the conventions of dress, she no longer considers it worth her time or attention. And being a senior citizen on a fixed income, she has neither the means nor the desire to have anything in her closet that she can’t put in the washing machine.
Mom needs practical clothes that she can wear to walk her beloved dog, Mugsy. She needs something she can wear, not to the theater, but to Marie Callendar’s when we go for our weekly lunch there. She needs something she can wear to the doctor’s office. She paints now, and she needs clothes that will not get in her way.
The problem for my sister and me is that we still see her as she was at 28 – and we want to dress her accordingly. Time after time we linger over cashmere sweaters in pale yellows and greens and think, “Wouldn’t Mom look gorgeous in this?” We long to buy her a silk Japanese kimono style robe with a slit up the side. We wander up and down the aisles at Macy’s and Bloomingdales. We browse at the other shops in the mall, too. We know she needs clothes. That seems to be all we know.
It is now 5:30 p.m. We are exhausted and punchy. We have considered many, many possibilities. We finally settle on a soft, grey pair of sweats with a matching hoody, three pretty t-shirts in colors that complement her eyes, and a warm, soft pair of silver-blue socks. It is all very comfortable, very practical, and very Mom.
We hug and I make my way back down to the valet parking, congratulating myself that I had the foresight to park where I could not lose my car. Of course, I get lost finding the elevator down to the valet parking and have to go to the information booth to get that straightened out. When they finally bring my car around, I am so dazed and spent that it takes me about five minutes to recognize my own car. The attendant discreetly acts as if I am not crazy. I pay him enough for a small down payment on a condo in West Hollywood. I drive around the valet parking area twice without finding the exit until the same discreet attendant waves me in the right direction. I feel like I want to cry. I point my car North on La Cienega and prepare to slog my way home through the rush hour traffic just as the sun is about to set out over the ocean, which is the color of my mother’s eyes.