Happy New Year to all my faithful followers! And if you’re a silent regular reader, I would appreciate hearing from you; a single comment perhaps, a raised hand from an otherwise empty seat? Every writer hopes for a full house.
“It’s time you bought a girdle.”
This was a pronouncement by my mother. A quite casual one actually, as she was combing through the messy, confusing racks at TJ Maxx, determined to find me something in blue – “Such a good color on you.”
When my mother and I had first made the decision to venture into T.J. Maxx – which otherwise I would find entirely too daunting, racks upon racks of mismatched clothes to fumble through – I was only looking to pacify her; she was stressing over the fact that she had no Christmas present for me. Her energy level, as well as balance, are too diminished for shopping expeditions by herself.
When my mother made her girdle pronouncement, I was trying on a blue slim-fitting sweater dress over my shirt and jeans. Granted, trying a dress on over your clothes can make you appear to have a tummy. Poor excuse though; I know I have a tummy. On my husband’s iPhone, there is a perfect profile pic he snapped of me at the beach this past summer. I’m in a magenta one-piece bathing suit and look nothing other than a good five months pregnant. And at my son’s school Christmas party, some far too astute and least tactful little first grader ran across the room to ask quite loudly, “Hey, are you pregnant?”
No. I am not pregnant. And I didn’t appreciate my tummy protruding on the vacation slideshow my husband downloaded to his computer for a cozy family viewing: “Momma, why are you so….fat?” asked my own first grader. And when that other less than tactful boy in my son’s class had posed his own tummy question, I had indeed blushed. Hotly enough evidently, for the mom I’d been chatting with to look at me, brightly, expectantly. “No. I am not pregnant. I just have a tummy.”
“I have something like that, some girdle thing I guess….” I said to my mother, as she pulled off more sweater things to hold up to me. I was remembering some black thing like a large headband I’d bought shortly after having my second child, when that prego look wouldn’t go away, and I’d made the mistake of buying some similar slim-fitting dress.
“But is it a good girdle?” she asked.
A good girdle? I was vaguely remembering glimpsing her own girdles. Thick padded ivory-colored things, that as little girl had seemed impossibly complicated with all those little hanging straps and garter clips. Though far more effective no doubt, than my oversized headband.
And later, after our T.J. Maxx expedition, I would go home to Google girdles.
I would discover that girdles are not regarded as girdles anymore, at least not beyond sites like orchardcorset.com, the closest I could find to memories of my mother’s own strippy garter clippy contraptions (though far more provocative).
Then there are those sites that might offer vintage “girdles,” in lacy reds and blacks and that are not at all reminiscent of my mother’s girdles. Sites I rather regret Googling and will spare you having to visit here.
Overall it seems, the term girdle has been softened by far more palatable terms such as “shapewear” and “body shapers.” At spanx.com there’s the Lust Have High-Waist Half Slip:
So if my mother’s pronouncement had been: “It’s time you bought some shapewear,” or a “Lust Have,” I might have warmed to the idea. Maybe even would have considered the slim blue sweater dress I had just tried on over my bulky clothes.
Instead, I was left despairing a bit. As when sometimes my husband playfully likes to pinch my tummy fat.
“I’ve hardly been eating,” I countered, which is true. I’m not a snacker and I barely remember lunch.
“It’s not about eating, Honey. It’s about age.” At 93, my mother patted her own tummy. “There just comes a time.”
A time. There were those earliest adolescent times: the discrete pink box of feminine necessities my mother mail-ordered, and with great expectancy that I kept hidden beneath my bed; my first bra after my mother took note of my breasts budding beneath my too skimpy smock 70’s blouses; my first deodorant stick, and Daisy leg razors; my first cheap Cover Girl makeup, clownish pink cream blushes and too shimmery baby-blue eye shadows.
Taking her cane, my mother started toward the restroom, saying, “Why don’t you go get that done now.”
“Get what done?”
“The girdle. A good one. Go to the girdle department.”
The girdle department? Is there such a thing at T.J. Maxx? Or would I have to wade through intricate racks and racks of undergarments, which I would enjoy even less than racks and racks of mismatched clothes?
Instead, I browsed a display of Christmas obligatory gifts you buy for people you hardly know: emergency car kits, barbecue utensils, electric shaving kits.
Truth was, I wasn’t ready for this particular time – a rite of passage far on the other side of adolescence. On that other however meandering and scenic side, the descending one of middle age. Of aging. Like the first time surrendering to professional hair coloring, no longer able to squeak by disguising my grays with cheap pharmacy boxes of comb-in highlights. My first time plucking those coarse nasty little hairs from my chin. My first time investing in eye wrinkle cream. My first tooth implant (hopefully my last).
I wasn’t ready for a girdle. Not even shapewear. Not even a Lust Have.
My mother emerged from the restroom to find me contemplating a digital photo key chain from the obligatory-gift table. “No luck?”
“I don’t think they sell girdles at T. J. Maxx.”
“Well, at least go and try these on,” she said, of the shopping cart full of the clothes she’d held up to me and selected with my vague approval.
“In a dressing room?”
“You won’t be able to tell properly whether they fit.”
I’ve barely stepped into a dressing room since my first C-section eight years ago, when my wardrobe was whittled down to spit-stained T-shirts and stretch pants. Since birthing two babies, chasing them down through toddlerhood and now picking up after them, I’ve developed a true distaste for actual clothes shopping, beyond ordering online from Lands End. Having children has necessitated the practical of jeans, plain turtlenecks, and crew sweaters. And simple slip-on-and- off shoes as I primarily live in socks.
So there I was, in a dressing room, walled in by mirrors and florescent lights, and by mother – She came right in, relieved to sit down on the dressing room bench.
She handed me that slim blue sweater dress.
I frowned at her.
“Oh, try it on. You’ve always had the figure and you still have it. You just need some tummy control.”
And there we were. Embraced by one of those moments that as my mother ages and deteriorates, I seek out and treasure. Moments that while growing up, I lived out as ordinary ones, when it was expected that mothers would take their young daughters shopping for school clothes and each summer season, bathing suits. When I was too young to consider my mother anything other than what she’d always been, a pillar of strength and security, as well as a careful nurturer of my own still developing fragile sense of self.
Such moments once so ordinary, have become extraordinary. More ordinary now are moments when I am the mothering one, zipping up her coat as she has trouble with her arthritic hands. Helping her to navigate the aisles of stores as I would my toddlers when they’d begin to stray in the wrong direction.
But here I was stripping down to my bra and underwear, feeling no less self-conscious than when I was a young girl trying on a confirmation dress for my mother, or bathing suits – she was always trying to get me to wear bikinis when even at sixteen, I wanted to hide behind a one-piece. Shopping with my mother has always reinforced a far bolder image of myself than I’ve ever been able to conjure on my own. I’ve deeply appreciated her daring choices; she has loved me enough to feel I deserve to be noticed, and still is able to seek out what I am afraid to, the sleek blue sweater dress that actually didn’t look half bad on me.
My mother smiled. I didn’t see her smile much these days. “Oh, that’s so striking. And it so brings out the blue in your eyes. What do you think?”
She bought me the dress. She was unhappy about not being able to surprise me, and I reminded her that I was not a little girl in need of surprises, though I knew that all the same, she would go home and carefully wrap her purchase, painstakingly, with arthritic hands, decorating it with tissue handmade ribbons and pine cones as she’d always done. I remember the delight of waking up to those elaborate packages, way before I knew that she was the secret behind Santa.
I liked the dress. Enough perhaps to even consider finally some shapewear or a Lust Have. But in truth, when she asked me what I thought, it didn’t finally matter whether I really liked the dress or not – her Christmas present to me was that sweet small ordinary moment together. A moment I will cradle carefully in the palm of my being.