My favorite coat was made by my father’s mother. It is gray like an overcast day, a dark, dirty-water gray, covered in rows of silver-dollar-sized circles, which remind me of cloud-covered suns. It’s double-breasted, with slightly peaked lapels, and it belts at the waist. The hem brushes the backs of my knees.
My grandmother made this coat for my mother around the time my parents got engaged. My mother hated it. Maybe because it was gray, maybe because she didn’t like my grandmother. (These are facts.) When I was growing up, the coat hung with the Halloween costumes in the basement. When I was in high school, I asked my mother if I could have it, and she said yes.
I wore it infrequently, but only because I didn’t want to bunch it in my locker and I didn’t want to stain it with beer at parties. But when I wore it, people noticed.
Once, an older girl offered me a hundred dollars for it. She said she loved it.
In college, one of my professors could not take his eyes off it.
I stood in his living room, drinking wine, wearing this coat, and he said, out of the blue, “Would you ever consider selling it?”
He was wearing gray slacks and a sweater vest. He was thinking of his wife in Spain. I said no, and told him that my grandmother made it for my mother. Designed it. He asked her name. I told him. He said it rang a bell. It couldn’t have. She was not famous.
Mostly, my father’s mother did not smile. In the mornings, she sat in her bedroom, at a breakfast table next to a picture window, with her bony shoulders folded toward her chest, dressed in a white nightgown and a blue cotton robe. She ate two pieces of bacon, an egg, and a piece of toast while she watched birds through the windows. She smoked Pall Malls through yellowed plastic filters, lighting the next before she finished the first. We were always separated by a screen of smoke.
When my father was young, his mother would, from time to time, lock herself in her room. If my grandfather knocked, she would not answer. Sometimes, she would shout or cry. Sometimes, she shattered plates and glasses, threw books and paperweights.
I saw her snap many times. Not just at my grandfather, but, for instance, at the small black man behind the counter at the grocery store. He had shaved the sandwich meat too thin. She was so indignant she could hardly speak. Thick cut, she said. I specifically requested that the pieces of turkey be cut—she thumped her finger against the glass. The deli man apologized, offering her more turkey, carved to her preference.
No, she didn’t want to waste the meat. No, she didn’t want him to slice more—he’d already had his chance to slice and he had failed. Failed. Another man came out, wearing a smock, trying his best to act official. He promised to make things right, but she did not want them to be made right. She wanted things to be done properly from the beginning. Quality service, that was what she wanted. She wanted one whole day to pass without having to deal with complete idiots.
When she was in high school, my grandmother picked out fabric for a dress to wear to a formal dance. She took her time selecting. There were considerations beyond the warp and weft. (Her parents struggled with the bills. She tried to hide this.) But she found a material that would work. She picked the pattern, but, as always, modified the structure and the fit. Subtly. She liked the idea of a unique, inimitable wardrobe.
The seamstress who made dresses for all the girls in Shreveport constructed her ensemble, and while she worked on that, my grandmother made a belt especially for the occasion. A fabric belt, cut wide, with a bone buckle. She worked on its design for weeks until she knew that it was right. When she took the belt to show the seamstress, the woman asked to keep it in her shop. She made such a big deal about that belt, my grandmother remembered. I was so proud. She left it in the fitting room with her unfinished gown. The belt made the dress.
Her hair was washed and set in curls. Her eyelids sparkled, and her lips were dark against her fair skin. She resembled Ginger Rogers.
When she walked into the room where the dance was being held, she was surprised. Every girl, it seemed, was wearing her belt.
They’d all bought their belts from the seamstress, who hadn’t mentioned where she found the pattern.
My grandmother graduated top of her class, early, and went away to Stephens Female College in Missouri, where lilies floated in the sinks. She was miserable among the moneyed girls she bunked with, actresses, socialites, and philanthropists-to-be, all fake smiles and insipid charm. She left and went to Louisiana State. From time to time, she was miserable there, too, but LSU was not as bad as Stephens. She kept the fraternity pins of boys who fell in love with her in a box—a conquered-hearts box. She majored in French. She was wild.
And then she met a man who danced, sang, shot craps, played poker; quoted Kipling, Keats, Frost, and whole passages from Ulysses, the Bible, andThe Odyssey. He was the nephew of a Georgia governor. He drank heavily and happily and didn’t seem to mind her moods. They got married in the winter, and she wore a long-sleeved, drop-shoulder satin gown with an illusion veil that trailed behind her train.
She moved from Louisiana to her new husband’s hometown in Georgia, where they built a small blue house. They had a baby boy—my father. She stayed home to mind him, to play with him, to read him books. She filled her days with projects, like any good 1950s housewife, and was proud of the work she did, her unparalleled efficiency and meticulous sorting. (There was a place for saltshakers, a place for aspirin. Here was the spot for silver, hidden; here, a place for notebooks and for letterhead; there, the basket for business cards.) Her husband practiced law across the street, played golf in the afternoon. She golfed, too (everyone went on about her beautiful swing, but it never delivered quite as nicely as it looked). She played Chopin on the baby grand. She went back to school, and got a Ph.D. in psychology. (Psychology!) She and my grandfather threw huge dinners, laughed, drank, and smoked. He sang; she danced.
When she went out to cocktail parties, she wore full, calf-length skirts, and there are photographs of her kicking up one leg from beneath layers of crinoline. In these pictures, her middle appears to be as small as that of a sixteen-year-old girl. Her waist is wrapped tightly in a shiny sash. The skirt’s fabric looks soft, and she looks, like a blooming peony, radiant.
She mixed her own designs and handiwork with items that she purchased. In pictures, like the photos from the party, it can be difficult to tell which is which, since everything she put on was striking. She no longer had to worry about money; she could afford store-bought accoutrements, but she continued to sew.
She kept everything she needed in a file cabinet in her project room; patterns (Vogue, Dior, de la Renta, Herrera), clippings from fashion magazines, and reams of graph paper on which she planned her own designs and modified the blueprints she had purchased. She organized her clothes by color in her closets, which stretched from one end of the master bedroom to the other. She safety-pinned scraps of coordinating materials to the garment bags.
Since she made most of the clothes, she had the scraps . . . And yet—
Although she mostly loved her baby, her husband, and the South, it was hard. But she tried. She stayed home, minded the baby, and made her own clothes, which were so chic that people in the small town where she lived still talk about the impression that she made, walking down the street or standing in a beauty-parlor doorway. (Those silk blouses with the billowing sleeves! That sunset-colored tulip skirt! That little green cropped-sleeve jacket! The netted pillbox hat! The blond mink coat!)
When I was about fifteen, I made my grandmother proud. It may not have been the first time; it may not have been the last. But I only remember this one day, or rather, I remember it more vividly than any other.
I’m not sure how it started, though I can guess that I was wearing sweatpants, and that she told me to go into her closets and dress myself in something more becoming. At any rate—
I dove in, dragged out treasures, and put on her clothes, which were too long for me, since they’d been made to fit her damn near five-foot-seven frame and I was five-two, if even that. Silks, cottons, cashmere—I don’t remember every material, but they were all there, spread out over the bed and its four posts, over the chests of drawers and cabinets and bookshelves, over the table and the yellow chaise longue. I twisted scarves she’d used to hide her thinning hair around my back and bound my little breasts up like a flamenco dancer. She laughed a little at the innovation, and smiled more then than I ever saw again. She was proud that her slim outfits fit my waist, though they puddled at the floor, and that the colors complemented my fair features.
Or maybe she was proud to see the clothes she’d made fall off someone else’s body. Maybe she was glad that her ensembles looked so perfect in motion that the fabrics caught the light as she’d imagined they would, and that the skirts cinched and flared out in all the right places.