You know those mothers who say, “You look lovely in anything you wear. Please don’t do a thing differently”? My mother wasn’t one of those. My mother’s greatest regret is that her daughters never really got into the whole pretty frocks thing. I think that she, who was a bit of a clotheshorse, would dearly have liked to have fashion-forward offspring; but very early on, I took my clothing into my own decidedly fashion-backward hands. After many successive awkward moments during which she suggested some pretty skirt and I silently laid out, every day, the same jeans and red sweater to wear to school the next morning, she shifted to a more subtle tactic, which was to gift me things in the hope that sentiment or guilt might overcome my natural tendency to keep it simple. I grimly cut the necks and bottoms off.
What she didn’t know was that the boys in the little Swiss village school I attended made a practice of running around lifting the girls’ skirts and hooting with derision at their knickers. This pastime filled me with dread, and I vowed never to aid or abet it, thereby cementing a lifelong aversion to skirts. Also, Swiss schoolteachers distinguished soccer teams in the playground by shirt on versus shirt off, thereby cementing my lifelong aversion to soccer and Swiss schoolteachers. The clincher was the moment when a friend of mine, reduced to tears by a mob of leering little nine-year-olds, pulled off all her fig leaves in front of the school building and screeched, “You want to see? Look! Look, you little bastards!” She’s now a pastor, and I hope some of her tormenters sit in her congregation with their heads hanging.
I hope my mother drew some comfort from the fact that at least my brother was quite skirt-friendly in the days when the register of his voice was higher than than a kite. Skirt-friendly—and quite amenable to having us adorn him with lipstick and clips. When this lamentable phase passed, he turned into my mother’s dream son, dandily turned out and always appreciative of any labels on his clothing. My sister, too, started her working life in attire that was at least hip if not completely fabulous.
That left me. Apart from a short and inexplicable phase in which I wore shorts with sari blouses and long earrings and a bindi, I went through life wearing hand-me-downs—I’m still wearing, this winter, the sweater my sister wore through her college years and left for me in a box when I went to college in 1991—and gifts because I refused to go clothes shopping. My closet was always a bit of a happy mystery to me, filled with socks I had never seen before, some comfortable old skivvy of my mother’s and shirts that smacked of some older cousin. I didn’t mind, so it all came home to roost in my cupboard. not that I ever wore anything other than jeans and a set of five t-shirts in strict rotation with all the necks carefully lopped off with scissors because I don’t like necklines too close to my windpipe.
“You look like an orphan,” my mother still moans. “As if you have nobody to care for you.” When my brother is feeling complimentary he’s likely to ask, “How come you’re not looking like a Bosnian refugee today?” To be fair, anything presentable I have today I probably owe to my mother.
On the upside, for her, I hope she can remember that all in all I was a cheap child to raise.