Sunday, January 07, 2007

the autobiographical clothes closet, part second

Thinking of the brocade dress and my young would be poet ,who did in fact go on to publish much poetry, and write enormous tomes of cultural history, and appear in Time Magazine years after we parted--a magazine waved in my face by my father, who had not much relished my illicit relationship with the guy, but who did respect the glossy magazines--thinking on this makes me recall another dress of the time, and another encounter with my poet-love and his family.

The dress was pale green slubbed silk, and simply cut. Yes, my mother made this one as well. I wore it to my first Passover seder, an event which that year--the year I was 17--coincided with Good Friday. My love's parent's had invited me. It was the first time we all dined together--my love, his parents, his two younger brothers, and me. I can only recall one other time in all the years we were together that his parents joined us at dinner, and that was in a London restaurant.

His father was a chemist and a brilliant man, with burning dark eyes and a clever, mobile mouth. His mother, a nurse, had the eyes of a wounded fawn and the kindness of--oh, of shade on a summer's day. His mother and I loved each other dearly; his father, alas, did not love me. Not even a little. It was my first experience of being hated impersonally: as the representative of a different culture, a different religion, a different life. Had I been Jewish, his father would say to me years later, he might possibly have liked me a little.
So there we sat, at the beautiful white table, the damask tablecloth spread, the little dishes of what were to me exotic symbolic foods: the haroset made of apples and wine and nuts and raisins--I think there were raisins; the bitter herbs; the shank bone of a lamb; the salt water. And the wine glasses, and the deep red wine.
And we went through the telling of the flight from Egypt, and the family kindly explained everything, and I tried hard to sing the appropriate chants and follow along, much moved by the ceremony and the history behind it.
And reaching for my glass of unaccustomed wine, nervous in my pale dress, I knocked it over.

Well, it wasn't quite as bad as the River Nile turning to blood, but it seemed close. A deep spreading stain over the white expanse. I murmured apologies, I tried to blot it up, I felt tremendous shame.

Across the table my love's younger brother, the middle one, two years his junior, met my eyes and smiled. Holding my gaze he gently pushed his wineglass. "Seems to be a night for clumsiness!" he laughed, as his wine mingled with mine on the white cloth.

It was the purest example of kindness to a guest I've experienced in my life, and I cherish him for it. That brother now lives in Israel, and has taken up some of his father's prejudice, and would probably not speak with me now; but I think of him with great fondness.

As for the dinner in London, yes, I recall what I wore then as well: a gray velour dress with a high collar and pearly buttons, my favorite dress during most of that decade. It was a pleasantly shallow dinner conversation we had--about theatre, as I recall. I remember thinking how well the evening had gone. No one had shouted, no one had cried. I was pleased to see my love's mother, and could not repress the ever hopeful heart that liked his father as well, that thought if we could speak to each other politely we could surely love one another, surely he would see my great virtues and my love of his son and all would be well.

After that meeting the kind brother of the wineglass wrote to report his father had returned full of anger and despair; the hatred he felt towards me having become even more intense, more personalized. I cried then, and wrote and did not send letters, and wrote very bad poems.

I think now I must have had an emotionally sheltered life in many ways, to have imagined all one must do to be loved was to be, to be open, to be oneself--even if one were, as I must have seemed then, an emotional young woman so very focused on her own life. Well, it was the year of my brother's trial. I probably did very well to keep up my end of the conversation, there in my soft gray dress.

What I usually wore in the British years, as I wrote and walked and haunted museums and bookshops, were very American bluejeans, with whatever sweater I managed to pull out of my closet. It was a style of dress that certainly marked me as from over the pond.
And sturdy shoes. I longed to wear the sandals I was accustomed to, but it was much too cold for my Californian feet.

And sheepskin gloves, bought at a fair in...where was it? Some town outside London, where we had journeyed to visit yet another museum and have yet more strong pots of tea and talk about life and love and writing. The nice man selling the gloves looked at my small hands and brought out the children's sizes, which were much less expensive. With the money I saved I bought a huge bunch of daffodils in bud--and surely it was only January then. Daffodils were a life saver.
And the gloves were too, coddling my fingers, keeping all of me a bit warmer.

I don't think I've ever been so cold as I was in England, so perpetually chilled--but I hadn't learned then what I know now about layering, and silk long underwear.

It was the cold that made me make a strange purchase on the docks of a huge and hairy coat. I paid 8 pounds for it, which was a lot for me at that time, the equivalent of, oh, somewhere around 30 dollars when that much money would have gone far. Brown fur, and I was a tender hearted vegetarian (and am still). Brown, unknown fur. I think now--maybe--it was bear. It was an old coat ("antique" claimed the man hawking the vast pile of strange coats and other wares) and bits of the fur were strangely rubbed. It clasped with rusting metal hooks.

At the time it seemed a good idea. It was warm: imagine a large bear wrapped around you. It was heavy: imagine a large bear sitting on your back as you stroll about a huge city. It was a very nice shade of dark brown, like--well, like a bear. I could never wear it long, and I finally gave it away to someone who, for whatever strange reason, thought it was lovely.

(Maybe the bear who visited me this year was simply coming in retribution for his long dead ancestor, like something from a child's campfire story: "where is my coat? WHERE is MY COAT?")

The next major attempt at warmth was a down parka in stunning, screaming blue ordered from a company in...I think..New Zealand. My love ordered a black one at the same time. I wore mine a couple years until it was stolen, with my garnet and opal rings in the pocket, from outside the motel room I was cleaning.

Though before that there was the shawl. I finally threw away the shawl this summer: moths had eaten it, and mice used bits for nesting. But once, long, long ago, it was very beautiful.
It was made in Edinburgh, where I discovered it in a little shop. It was the color of the sky in summer, with weavings of dry-grass gold through it. It was mohair, and softly scratchy. It was expensive. It was my birthday--it would have been my 23rd, I think--and my love of the time offered to foot half the bill. All of the cost would have been excessive, he said. I accepted.
It was a wholly impractical thing to buy; I wore it, awkwardly, two or three times. In various homes it lay beautifully over a chair, or on a sofa, until it was finally stored away--and nibbled, and nested in, and finally thrown away. But it was indeed a thing of beauty, and for a time, after the birth of my first child, I would line it with a soft flannel blanket and use to to keep my little one snug, noting with delight how the blue of the shawl and the blue of his wide eyes matched.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

the autobiographical clothes closet/ Part one.

People who know me well would think I am the last person to think about clothes; for years I wore socks in whatever combination they happened to appear from my drawer: red with green, white and black, now and then, surprise, a pair that matched. From a very early age my daughter perfected the fashionista's stare and the "Mom, are you going to town looking like that?" cry, which was simply a variation of my own mother's affectionate despair.

And yet...if I were making a list (and indeed I am) involving things to wear, there would be a number of outfits, dresses, little hats, shoes and other bits and pieces that still stay in my mind, in a perpetual closet of the past, like the imaginary painted dresses of a favorite childhood book (100 Dresses) given me by my aunt.

She gave me one of the first dresses I remember with love: the fabric was probably nylon, given the era, but I thought it silk, and it was creamy white printed all over with a pattern of tiny blue flowers and ferns. The sleeves were puffed, and there was a plastic, black, shiny belt. But best of all there were five buttons down the front, black plastic also, but starred with little rhinestones.

I was four years old. I thought it one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.

From the same period there was a dress that shows up in the first kindergarten snapshot. The photo is in black and white, but I recall well the colors of the plaid: a red background with lines of sky blue and grass green and thinner lines of straw yellow. That was pretty, but best of all was the wide collar, with a strange fringe of--it wasn't rickrack, and it wasn't lace, and it wasn't braid--just little tabs of extra fabric kind of hanging down. I thought it lovely. The same seersucker plus tabs trimmed the two pockets.

For some reason this dress reminded me of my heroine, Dale Evans. I called it my cowgirl dress, and wore it with a belt that had jewels in it--three big glittery glass gems set in the worked leather. On very good days I hung my holster and cap pistol from this belt--though mostly, as I played cowboys and Indians with my rowdy pack of boy cousins, I wanted to play the virtuous Indian maiden.

Probably because I thought having long, thick, glossy black hair would be wonderful. My own was dandelion light and thin and stick straight except when painstakingly curled by my mother.

If we fast forward to my years in Japan all I recall are a series of pastel dresses: mint green, pale pink, pale blue--they all had sashes, they all had puffed sleeves, they were all of polished cotton. None moved my heart, nor did the saddle shoes I wore, black and white, with socks slipping down into the shoes as I walked through puddles. In those days what I most loved was the times I could borrow my brother's jeans and striped t shirts and ramble free, untamed, unconcerned with whether my sash was tied or my dress neat, through the wild woods and villages near the air base.

But I do remember a hat, because it was soft dark blue velvet, and fit to my head so beautifully, and had a decoration of tiny pearls. The pearls weren't real; one of the early lessons at my mother's knee was on how to tell real gems from paste, real gold from things merely plated, real silver from other shining metal. On special occassions I could wear my velvet hat.

And I recall a very frilly, lace embellished pair of underpants, sent to me by the aunt who gave me the blue floral dress. They were the prettiest things I'd ever in my life seen, a far cry from my usual modest white undies. They were like whipped cream, or something found in the chambers of a well loved princess.

I scandalized an entire schoolroom by innocently sharing my joy in this garment with the class during show and tell. It might have been then that my father began wondering about my moral fiber--what well brought up and virginal daughter would stand in front of a class and lift her skirt to show her beautifully made underwear?

In mid school years there were larger saddle shoes, and in the summer rubber sandals, which were cheap and worked okay after you got over the blisters between your big toe and the next one. And there were, the year I was 11, the red shoes.

They had black buttons on the side. They were well cut, shaped to my narrow foot. At night I would wake up and go to my closet and take them out, simply to look at them, to touch them, to admire their shine.

They were to prove totally unfashionable, and caused the in crowd to whisper that I was an odd one, and more hurtful things, but I did love them. And I was odd, wandering the playground murmuring poetry, carrying my New Testament in my pocket, trying to figure out the world there on the sand scoured desert lot.

That was the year my mother made all my dresses: one in black, with gold designs and lace at the neck. One with a high waist, in a pale blue cotton. One in green gingham trimmed with white rickrack. A red plaid with long close fitting sleeves. They were all ankle length, exquisitely sewn, and totally out of fashion.

When I look at photos from that time I see what I didn't see then--that the dresses suited me, and were more elegant, more beautiful than the tawdry fashions of the time. But then I writhed, feeling so out of place, so poorly dressed, longing for something storebought and trendy.

And we passed on to plaid skirts and pale sweaters, to a lilac party dress embossed with white flowers, to another party dress in pale pink with silver threads and a green sash, to yet another party dress, sewn by my clever mother, in a teal brocade with a hem that was scalloped and a little jacket to match. That dress I wore into college, and at the party in highschool at which a dark young man diffidently approached me and blurted "You look like a chair".

He amended this somewhat alarming statement by saying he meant, of course, a Louis the 14th chair.

We fell in love, and had a tumultuous relationship that lasted through highschool and college, through wanderings in Europe, and beyond. We still write to one another, all these years later.

And perhaps we should close the closet there for a while, leaving me in a brocade dress in a chair in a room lit by a candle, sharing my life story with an awkward and intense young man who wanted to be a poet. That dress was pretty magical.