Elizabeth Marcus parses her affection for a tattered nightgown she inherited from her colorful mother-in-law.
A few years ago, when we dispersed my mother-in-law’s possessions after her death at 96, I accidentally ended up with one of her nightgowns. Pearl’s long, floaty, pink gown was not quite new and not my style. And yet, on what seemed like a whim at the moment, I tried it on and found I liked it. In fact, I wore it until it became raggedy, the lace springing holes and the bodice beginning to detach. That I loved wearing it made no sense: Pearl and I never got along.
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I met her, appropriately, on Mother’s Day. It was my second date with her son Michael and one of their family’s high holy days. Pearl was effusively welcoming and had a Zsa Zsa Gabor kind of glamour—so refreshingly unlike my own impossible-to-please, executive mother. Arriving for lunch, we saw the immediate, clamorous family of 40 seated around an elegant table that extended into the next room and was covered with a mash-up of courses all offered at once. By contrast, a few hours later at my parents’, under the glare of their scrutiny, we were served a formal dinner by the uniformed cook, with the only guests my two widowed aunts. From this vantage point, Pearl’s lavish, anything-goes luncheon looked to me like a joyous, alternative universe. I was enchanted.
Pearl’s long, floaty, pink gown was not quite new and not my style. And yet, on what seemed like a whim at the moment, I tried it on and found I liked it.
But after the wedding, cracks appeared in her welcome. The first time my in-laws made their yearly trip from Brooklyn to visit us in Boston, I cooked for days to impress them. My food was too rich; Pearl was watching her weight. Year #2, I made a low-cal lunch; Pearl came with deli sandwiches and a cheese cake that my in-laws ate at their end of the table, leaving the lean cuisine to Michael and me. Year #3, Pearl called to prepare us: she was bringing her "famous sweet-and-sour tongue.” Pearl took a polite compliment I’d once given the dish and ran with it; the tongue was now billed as “Elizabeth’s favorite.” This was a turf war—and the turf was Michael, a passionate eater. Pearl’s sweet-and-sour foray was where I drew the line.
“That’s it! Your mother’s tongue is not going in my refrigerator!”
Calling his mother to say she didn’t need to bring food, Michael slipped and said the unforgivable:
“We don’t need your food.”
“I’m not coming!” Pearl shot back.
Michael acknowledged he’d misspoken, and instantly it was as if the skirmish had never happened. Pearl and I patched things up, but we both knew I'd won.
Thus, we arrived at a cordial standoff. Pearl could still drive me crazy: having worked in promotion, she put an iffy spin on everything, including her oddball gifts—a sterilizing tray from her husband’s medical office (“perfect for serving vegetables!”), a brown and orange Afghan crocheted by two blind patients (“they made it just for you!”). I never completely recovered from her slipping into to our New York Times wedding announcement that I was a student at MIT School of Architecture, which had turned me down, but eventually I came to view her truthiness in a humorous light. From the first, I’d seen her as day to my mother’s night, but in this essential way she truly was the opposite of my mother, about whom I could see nothing at all funny; she scared me to the marrow. Pearl wasn’t just my flamboyant, competitive mother-in-law, she was the mother I could stand up to! Still, whatever induced me to try on her nightgown?
I wore it until it became raggedy, the lace springing holes and the bodice beginning to detach. That I loved wearing it made no sense: Pearl and I never got along.
The first time I put it on, I told myself I was just being curious, but I should have known something deeper was going on. Fifteen years earlier, when my mother died, I’d discarded all her intimate clothes, which I’d disliked even touching; they’d seemed almost haunted, radioactive even. Unlike me, Pearl was buxom; when her nightgown seemed magically to fit me—the elasticized lace notwithstanding—I pictured the Disney clip of Cinderella’s gown falling from her fairy godmother's wand and throwing off sparkles as it settled perfectly into place. The costume was a portal into the past. In my mind, as I put it on, I was stepping into Pearl’s glamour or into another era, when women were mysterious and alluring. Pearl’s big hats and floral prints seemed so different from my mother’s smart suits, I told myself it was that difference that drew me.
But over the decade that I wore the nightgown, long lost memories began to surface, rose-colored images of my own mother. I remembered my mother eating breakfast in a floaty peignoir before dressing for work. I recalled her lacy corsets, hats with veils, elbow length gloves, and other 50’s paraphernalia that fascinated me as a child. It was her curvy body I’d feared mine could never match. In the end, I was forced to accept the strange truth: Pearl’s nightgown was a portal to my own mother.
However much I’d focused on the differences between my mother and Pearl, they had much in common. Both were independent Jewish women married to men in medicine, the only women in their families to pursue a college education and a career at a time when wives who could afford to generally stayed home. And if Pearl had a Gabor glamour, my mother, the new “modern woman”, had the Hepburn variety. Both were vivacious. They liked to travel. Each bequeathed me a dozen wooden plates from trips to Haiti. They even had the same bedroom wallpaper—and no doubt similar lingerie in their top drawers.
It was the aggrieved daughter in me that liked to emphasize their differences, since Pearl was a visibly passionate mother and my own a reluctant one. Having been talked by my father into a role for which she feared she was not cut out, my mother felt defeated from the start. Even worse, back then, not wanting children was deemed abnormal.
The first time I put it on, I told myself I was just being curious, but I should have known something deeper was going on. Fifteen years earlier, when my mother died, I’d discarded all her intimate clothes, which I’d disliked even touching; they’d seemed almost haunted, radioactive even.
Certainly, my mother believed it was. The last of her parents’ four failed attempts to have a boy, my mother tried her best to be the son they wanted, and downplayed her femininity. She was hard-driving and successful in a man’s world, and when she became pregnant she was so convinced the baby was a boy, she prearranged my circumcision in the hospital. For more than 30 years, I heard her tell this story, laughing, before it dawned on me to ask the obvious question: “What made you so sure I’d be a boy? You’re one of four sisters!” Cornered, she blurted out the crazy truth: “I thought I wasn’t woman enough to have a girl.”
It’s clear to me that my mother didn’t understand children, was afraid of them, and in fact reversed the natural order by looking to me for reassurance. Instead, as I grew up, I repaid her relentless efforts to improve me by seeing her as a terrifying witch, confirming her worst fear that there was a void where her maternal heart should have been.
Over the decade that I wore the nightgown, long lost memories began to surface, rose-colored images of my own mother. I remembered my mother eating breakfast in a floaty peignoir before dressing for work. I recalled her lacy corsets, hats with veils, elbow length gloves, and other 50’s paraphernalia that fascinated me as a child.
But once upon a time, though I’ve long denied it, I loved her wholeheartedly—and I have the hard evidence to prove it. When my parents moved to smaller quarters toward the end of their lives, my unsentimental mother surprised me with a collection of mementoes. “I found these when I was packing,” she’d said, as she handed over a bag of cards I’d made for her when I was a child. She was a puzzle enthusiast, so from cardboard I’d fabricated jigsaw valentine hearts inscribed with “BEST Mom!” and birthday and Mother’s Day cards of cross-word puzzles whose solutions proclaimed: “hostess with the mostest” and “best mom ever!” When I first looked through the cards, I’d thought, “How pathetic! What a little sycophant you were,” so hard was it for me to accept that my adulation had been sincere.
Now, I can see that because Pearl’s nightgown was very similar to but not actually my mother’s, I could allow myself to wear it and so fulfill a yearning for closeness with her I could never acknowledge. How else can I explain the occasional strange sense I had of being wrapped in her womanly body as I sank toward sleep? The sensation may even have been a replay of the rare and extraordinary experience of being handed down naked by my nanny to my naked mother in her bath. So intimidated was I by my mother that I’ve only just begun to feel how much I loved her as a child—and, if forced to admit it, loved her from afar, always. My anger at her has been receding for some time, but only now, almost thirty years after her death, do I notice it is gone. Could the nightgown have played a part in this transformation?
What I’ve been learning is that a relationship with a parent doesn’t end with her death, and a troubled standoff can yet be overcome. With your parent safely gone, you may come to see what was behind her mistakes, to see her as a complex human being—not just as your imperfect mother—and thus may arrive at a new vantage point from which to revisit old wounds. You may remember better times, moments that don’t quite fit the nasty person you describe to the judge in your head when you are arguing your case against her. You may come to realize how hard it is to overcome your history and to be the mother you want to be.
Such are the thoughts that may float up, when you are waiting for sleep to come, when seemingly disconnected memories drift by on their way to finding a place in the fertile ground of your dreams. Perhaps the nightgown, like the valentines, put me in touch with who my mother was to me before I began constructing my barricade against her. Now, I see the sadness in her returning those love notes to me; now I see that she was reminding me, hopefully, of how openly I’d once loved her.
In the end, I was forced to accept the strange truth: Pearl’s nightgown was a portal to my own mother.
Unlike my mother, Pearl lived into her dotage, so I watched her grow old, her personality and memory slowly slipping away. I made peace with her, even with her need to remain the center of her children’s lives. By now, at 76, I'm fast becoming an old woman myself and find I cannot throw out the nightgown. Twice, I’ve put it in the trash and twice retrieved it. Discarding it feels like dishonoring old age, like throwing Pearl away, like rupturing my late-life attachment to her—and to my own mother.
The less these two women threaten me, the more their strengths emerge. Now, I see my past focusing on their flaws as a way of cutting them down to size, to my size. Now, I can appreciate the raggedy imperfections that made them who they were, all that they took with them when they left, and the precious little of them that remains.