Catherine Kasper’s books include Field Stone, winner of the Winnow Press First Book Award, A Gradual Disappearance of Insects (poetry, Pecan Grove, 2004), Optical Projections (short stories, Obscure Publications, 2004), and Blueprints of the City (a prose poem series, Transparent Tiger Press, 2000). Her creative non-fiction essays are forthcoming in several anthologies on illness, women, and trauma.
The Feminine Mistake
Because my mother has had a stroke, because my mother did not speak for a year, because she was temporarily paralyzed and now is in a wheelchair, because she had to relearn everything: how to breathe, how to swallow, how to name the days of the week—when she says from the corner of the stale-smelling nursing home room, You wore that to visit me?—I am elated. I want to pull out the crepe paper rolls and balloons. I know the first thing I will do when I get home is tell my husband, You won’t believe what she said today.
At the very beginning of her rehabilitation, we were happy with “Monday,” “thirsty,” or with “tired,” but as years move on, we become greedy for bigger miracles. Swallowing Jell-O isn’t enough, nor is being able to lift her arm up even with her shoulder. We spent a year shrugging off the imaginary names she called us, which was only frustrating for us because we live in an instant age: airplane, microwave, internet, cell phones, and fax machines. These things seem to move faster than the human brain, even before a stroke. Years before this, these things bewildered my mother. Don’t change the channel, she’d say when we picked up the remote control in her living room, You won’t get it back the same way. She watched the same television shows, only cooked at 325 degrees on her toaster oven, and every year, she’d wait for daylight’s savings time to right all the clocks in her house.
For my mother, there was one way of doing things and it was her way. Towels must be folded, folded again, folded again, sheets should be ironed, you should never see dust visible on furniture, and women should always look “proper.” As daughters, we were ripe for digesting the massive almanac that was essential etiquette for ladies. Never go out of the house in cleaning or laundry day clothes, or with your hair undone. Greta Garbo and Jackie Kennedy were ideal mentors because they never left their homes without being ready for cameras: their legs covered modestly in stockings, their feet contorted into high-heel shoes, their hair sprayed into ideal female anatomy.
She must have wanted to permanently ground her first daughter for wearing her frizzy hair au naturel, down to her waist, with bell-bottoms, and wide hoops through her ears. You’re not going out like that, she’d say to my older sister, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You would think that kind of rebellion would have broken my mother’s resistance, but the fact was, that under paisley shirts and platform shoes, my older sister was mostly my mother’s child. She loved make-up and curlers, primping and clothing, boys (formally known to my mother as “gentlemen callers”), and she absorbed my mother’s flirtatiousness around men. Like my mother, she was waiting for her Prince Charming to rescue her from a life where she had to do her own ironing and vacuuming, to a movie star’s life where presumably servants would do those tasks, leaving her to worry solely about which hat to purchase or how much she should bat her eyes.
My mother and my sister were shocked when they realized that I would refuse to wear anything but the hand-me-down pants with worn patches on the knees, a big oversized sweatshirt, and sneakers. This pattern would be repeated with slight variation by my younger sister years later as she negotiated between two sisters, and eventually ended up with what was a healthy compromise.
Don’t you want to be little ladies? my mother often demanded, and after examining the feigning frailty, the drudgery of housework, the choking odors of perfumes, colognes, hairsprays and other feminine warfare, we’d gladly respond, No!
You’ll never get a man if you don’t cover those legs with some stockings, my mother would yell after me as I ran out the front door, while in my head I’d gladly resolve, okay, better that than have my flesh crawling from itchy nylon. As it was, I had been born literally allergic to everything, and my mother had to slowly accommodate my hive-ridden body to foods and materials one by one. Perhaps it is no surprise that when I finally found ugly clothing that didn’t give me a rash from head to toe, I would refuse to wear anything else.
When I went to my after school job in high school, typing for a local hotel, my mother would yell after me, Don’t you want to put some make-up on? At least a little cover-up?
God forbid, Jackie would ever have the flesh of her cheeks susceptible to naked air or worse, to the sight of others! True, she didn’t have hives and acne, but who wanted to worry about that? The superficiality of fashion-devoted lives had been revealed to me after suffering evenings with my sister, who stretched my hair up into painful curlers with a shellac of Dippity-Do that ended by turning my scalp purple. We huddled over fashion magazines, where page after page was devoted to nothing but augmenting color palettes: what colors were right for you, which ones made you look too fat or too thin, too plain, or, what I guessed was most feared: too human.
Maybe it was the oncoming feminist revolution in the air, or maybe it was just that I liked to be comfortable. Women’s underwear consisted of medieval binding and strapping devices that left your skin permanently indented and scarred. Women’s shoes were impossible to walk in, let alone run in if you wanted to make a bus on time. And spending all evening creaming and exfoliating, prodding and pulling, extracting and firming, toning and searing seemed like preliminaries for a Salem witch trial.
I spent my evening reading books, and when I left the house and my mother yelled, You’re not wearing that…outside…where people can see you? I quoted medical research findings where women had an increase in heart attack risk if they wore girdles, or the findings on carcinogens that began with the petroleum used to make pantyhose, or the long-term effects of toxins found in spray starch, moth balls, dry cleaning solvents, shoe polishes, lipstick, and underarm antiperspirants. I was an insufferable teenager. If my mother wanted to primp herself up to go shopping, I’d tell her it was a waste of time. If she asked if I liked a dress she wanted to buy, I’d say, Where would you wear that?
She wanted to live a movie star life and instead, lived a life of drudgery married to a man who only knew any of his household of women were alive when he wanted dinner, laundry, lawn-mowing, dishwashing, or any of the other chores he believed we were put on earth to do. It was a long time before I realized not only did my mother escape by reminding us of Emily Post’s corrective behavioral hints, but she thrived on that escape. I caused her embarrassment in Field’s lingerie section, when, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt I refused to let her buy me bras I wouldn’t wear, but I learned to encourage her to buy what were, in my opinion, foolish hats and high heels, silk stockings and elegant dresses. She would have rather bought them for me. She would have rather seen all of her daughters with poofy hair and diamond tiaras, hoop skirts and layers of frilly undergarments, traveling to the ball in glass coaches with silver footmen. But ironically, none of us were willing to spend the hours it took to putty ourselves into a lavish and radiant spectacle. The least we could do was to let our mother have her delusions and dreams for herself.
At the same time, my mother had somehow taught us to be fiercely individual. Somewhere between, Why don’t you wear a nice dress for a change? and Don’t you think you need to cover that pimple? existed the other messages: Don’t let anyone make fun of you, and You can only be yourself, which carried resignation, perhaps, but also a kind of acceptance. I even remember her saying once, Let them laugh, they don’t realize what they’re missing out on. While we weren’t feminine enough for her, we were certainly as good as anyone else.
In the years before her stroke, my mother was too tired or too lazy, as she said, to care anymore. Pretty soon when we’d visit, we’d find her in the same jogging suit every time we came over. After her stroke, we discovered that hidden away in her house were the drawers of stockings, petticoats, and silk slips, boxes of narrow high heels and exuberant hats, party dresses with their perfect chiffon waves hung under clothing bags and still wearing their tags, and a box of costume jewelry: fake and made of paste and metals, but what my mother had for her whole life considered her “jewels.” For one night, my younger sister and I were perfect ladies, dressed in brand new chiffon garments, elbow-high gloves, and my mother’s baubles. We wobbled around the house in her high heels and toasted her: we were the embodiment of textbook femininity.
So when we went to visit her in the nursing home, we hoped to bring her nothing but pure joy: her daughters were finally ladies that Hollywood would be proud of. (By now, that actually meant something else my mother wouldn’t understand.) We were pressed and pink, gloved and hat-ed, complete with eye shadow and lipstick. We would be the tea party guests she often dreamed about, eager to drink from china cups, whisper politely about the morning glories, and shriek at a lack of dust anywhere in sight. Our hair was hardened into pillars and we stunk of hyacinths and lilac.
You look like idiots, my mother said. She finally understood what we had been trying to tell her our whole lives. We looked like idiots, and we were proud of it.