They dress for dinner, my father’s generation, and this is a point of pride for them and me now. No matter how small the occasion or how family-friendly the restaurant or home, when they leave the house for it, they are dressed in Sunday best with manners fit for high society.
For a decade or so in my early adulthood, I didn’t understand that this mattered and, worse yet, spurred on by my mother in particular, I resisted it, too. After one particularly fiery argument—in which my clothes passed billing, but my shoes had me catching holy hell on a planet that had not yet invented hot mitts—I silently went along to that family gathering determined that, no matter what, from that moment to my last breath, no one could ever rightly accuse me of being a clothes horse without lying through at least two teeth. The vow took so well that I’ve mostly not thought of it since, but life has a way of putting such memories on boomerangs slung hard into now.
We made supper last night for our nearest neighbor. He is a dead ringer for Walter on the Peta Wilson La Femme Nikita series, complete with the long gray ponytail and thin headband and the snappy wardrobe for all activities, and one of the most likable people I’ve ever met. Undeterred by our mid-rehabbed house and yard, he visits often and we have the best conversations, but lately we’ve been too busy and have only connected over the farm gate a few times in passing. Last night the plan was that we’d make homemade tamales, corn-and-pepper mush, and strawberry daquiris, followed up by my famous sopapillas and desert honey and then a nice hot fire under the wide starry Mojave sky. He was bringing pine knots for the fire and I was counting on three people nursing mugs of Sonoran hot chocolate (brewed with a touch of Madagascar bourbon pure vanilla extract, hand-grated cinnamon and nutmeg, and a tiny dollop of marshmallow fluff) before the first shooting star made its arc.
Because hannah forgot to pre-soak the tamales or put milk on the grocery list, the menu went improvisational by mid-afternoon. Still all homemade, of course: pan-seared drag-assed burritos with side salads, strawberry daquiris, followed up with pumpkin pie topped by hand-whipped whipping cream and a dusting of hand-grated nutmeg, with an option for hot tea by the fire. (Or iced water, which rum inexplicably sets up cravings for, even in the most undistinguished of palates.)
The ad-hoc food and mixed drinks came off signally perfect, ready when our neighbor stepped through the door. His shiny black leather loafers and black textured shirt made (sock-footed, t-shirted) me smile and, while we visited and I plated the food, I remembered my mother and that last quarrel about my shoes.
They were Birkenstocks, closed-toed, expensive and comfortable, brand new and intended to last. (This is a photo from 21 years later and, yes, I still wear them.) We were going to a family reunion, and I’d chosen clothes that I’d worn for a Money Magazine photo shoot for their 20th anniversary issue and a slew of speaking engagements: red cotton shirt from Banana Republic (before it went city and lost its style) and tan duck skirt. These duds had been acceptable for the nation, I figured, so I was hoping they’d pass my mother’s muster. She glanced over them with only the briefest pause of pain and disapproval, and headed for my feet with a working woman’s focus and drive. “What are you wearing on your feet?”
There are times when being lost for words is a genuine talent. I responded by bending forward to stare at my shoes while sliding one forward and tipping it up, toe to floor and skirt raised slightly, so she could see the fine craftsmanship unimpeded.
“What are those things? They look like boats.”
If a woman from the lower end of the Mississippi River brings boats into a conversation off the water, you are in trouble.
“They’re Birkenstocks, Mom. Really good for your feet.”
“Walk over to that door and back,” she said. And I did. Promptly, with just one more remark about podiatry and my high arches and these shoes.
“I don’t care how good they are. You look like a duck. You can’t go out in public in such no-account excuses for shoes. Go get some of mine out of the closet. We can wad up some tissue paper into the toes so they fit.”
I lost my talent for being lost for words about then in my effort to avoid wearing size 10 church shoes to the reunion, but my mother—despite bringing up the facts that I was off in college studying something nobody else knew anything about (anthropology) and had I lost some part of my mind in that desert in Africa or not?—lost the battle. I went to the reunion in my own clothes and shoes and, to my knowledge, nobody got a photograph of what was on my feet. (Though it is important to add, I believe, that every woman there got treated to a lecture about my footwear, and I was summoned to each session to demonstrate my ‘duck walk’ for them as they took guesses as to how badly these shoes were going to manhandle my spine. My father’s oldest sister, always my least favorite for highly deserved cause, hit it out the back forty with a suggestion that some part of my brain was already showing signs of malfunction.)
All afternoon I smiled and showed nothing but the respect due to elders because that is the rule and I actually agree with it (they have been here longer than me, and that alone takes some stomach and guts), but I was never more glad to leave kin than on that day. My mother, by contrast, went home feeling so validated by it all that she never again, not a single time, said a word about anything I wore. Shoes, skirts, trousers: nothing. She might occasionally cut an eye or a sigh my direction, but she never said another word to me. And, for my part, I exercised one of the perks of adulthood and being a single working mother and stayed outside the Mississippi state line when a family reunion was underway.
That was likely a mistake on my part, I realized last night while tipping the light rum into the blender for daquiris. As perhaps has been my approach to haberdashery. It’s not that I have always tried to dress down, but that I genuinely like cottons and linens and corduroys and non-polystered, un-prissy clothes with Blundies or Birks. The more handmade and mis-matched and wrinkle-happy, the better. All better suited, like me, for the backwoods than Sunday School. All requiring less thought than breathing and leaving my funds and time free to serve other purposes and venues than looks and shopping malls and fashion trends. My mother could not make peace with any of that or much else about me, but after the shoe dust-up, she let it alone, right down to the last time we laid eyes on one another. I admired her dresses and hose and heeled shoes to the end and often told her so. But I wouldn’t have donned a pair of stockings and high heels to save my life or somebody’s I liked a whole lot better, either.
I am not opposed to clothes, of course, or even clothes horses. I have dear friends and now a spouse who dress beautifully. I like this for them, admire them for sticking up for their choices, and pointblank refuse to join them. (The world has enough of that; surely it can do without me.) Years ago, as part of my senior thesis at the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles (now promoted to merely The Autry) in its first year of existence, I systematically experimented with how visitors were treated based on their clothing, and did not like what I learned. In recent years, distressed by societal mores that don’t reflect any of my values, I’ve begun to dress down more on purpose, precisely because I so disagree with judging human beings by such superficial measures and so I think it important for some of us to skew the data set. I utterly detest the notion that ‘first impressions’ based on looks are valid. I pride myself instead on looking for the soul inside, and it is there that I put all my energies.
The question has so long ago been asked and fully answered that I simply don’t think much about it anymore. I like to sew or knit my own clothes, I avoid brands that exploit their workers or put their brand on the fabric, and I’d rather slug cod liver oil by the barrel than spend more than one hour per year purchasing things to wear. Other people have that all covered; I attend to other things, and, to be frank, most days I wouldn’t notice what someone else was wearing if s/he showed up buck naked. It’s just not my thing.
So the arrival of our neighbor, nicely dressed to convey his respect for our ramshackle, but oh so welcoming little abode and for us, the people within, woke me up and reminded me how much I appreciate people who dress for dinner. Some portion of that, surely, I owe to my mother. In another decade or so, my Birks are likely to finally die. In her honor, I plan now to bury and not replace them. Blundstones are more comfy anyway and cost less to boot. Especially in Alice Springs. When I believe Mississippi is ready for its next little earthquake, maybe I’ll cross the Pacific again for a new pair. My mother will turn in her grave, and things will be normal again in my world.