It’s 1984, and I’m inside a women’s dress shop in a suburban shopping mall, an artificial cedar-shingled village surrounded by acres of parking lot and eucalyptus trees. I’m modeling the dress I have picked out to wear to my elder sister’s wedding. It’s chiffon over charmeuse: a layer of diaphanous hand-painted periwinkle and lavender silk attached to a pale blue sheer slip. The sleeves are unlined. A broad sash at the hip twists into a rosette. The round neckline fits close to the throat. The back zips up, and closes at the top with two buttons. The blouson waist falls into a gently gathered skirt.

“Let’s see,” says my mother, turning me around by the arm.

My father, because he wants to reward me for coming home for my sister’s wedding — I haven’t seen any of the family in almost two years — has said he will pay for the dress. He says he doesn’t need to see it if the bride approves — which she already has, on a separate junket — but my mother insists on a viewing of her own. Deborah, my elder sister, the bride, loves the dress. For herself, Deborah chose a two-piece skirt-and-blouse combination edged in tulle lace and a broad-brimmed straw hat trimmed with silk roses.

“How much is it?” asks my mother.
The sales assistant turns over the tag. “$280.00”
“That’s quite a bit.”
“How much did Deborah’s dress cost?” asks my father.
“It’s Deborah’s wedding.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I don’t know, four hundred.”
“Four hundred. I told Deborah I’d buy the bridesmaid’s dress. I have two-hundred-eighty dollars.”

I cannot recall a time in the past when my father has taken my part, especially over something on its face so frivolous, and I am secretly overjoyed.
But the fact remains, my mother doesn’t approve of the dress. Actually what my mother mostly doesn’t approve of is me.

“What do you have in mind?” asks my father. He looks at his watch. He has to get back to work. My mother glances around the store for a few moments, stalling. She points to a blue jersey knit with a nautical collar hanging from a dowel on the wall. A sailor dress with white piping. A little white tie down the front.

“Something like that.”
The salesgirl looks at me. “Do you want to try it?”
“No,” I say.
“What’s the price?” asks my mother.
The salesgirl gets a pole and takes it down. “$220.”
“I think you ought to at least try it on,” says my mother. “It’s more in line with what’s appropriate for the occasion.”
I finger the sleeve of the dress I’m wearing.
“I don’t want to.”
“Your hand is trembling,” says the salesgirl. “Are you okay?”
“Too much coffee,” I say, lowering my hand to where she can’t see it. In truth, my hand is the single outward sign of what is really taking place: an epic struggle for identity between my mother and me.

In high school, my friends and I pretended that we didn’t give a damn about looks — ours or anybody else’s. As a group we were so recalcitrant on the subject of dress, party manners, and grooming in general that the school got exasperated and dispensed with the prom for that year. We were, of course, kidding ourselves. We were obsessed with looks. Not focusing on looks — or rather, focusing on not focusing — was as much of an obsession as if we had spent hours and weeks shopping for prom dresses, or stashing away pieces of silk and lace for our trousseaus.

“If you add up the amount of money we never had to spend on a prom dress or on any graduation dress from anything, it will come to more than this,” says my father. “If she wears it twice, we’re ahead of the game,”.
“I still think she should try this one on.” My mother fingers the sailor dress, now laid out on top of a glass case.

My mother has never worn anything more revealing than a suit and stockings. For the past several years, she has taken to wearing dark glasses and large hats in public to obscure her face, which was once darkly attractive, but is now partially paralyzed by Bell’s palsy into an uneven loose-lipped frown.
I’ve spent the past week at my parents’ making a virtue of necessity, stifling my most critical and unflattering thoughts. Sweet and demure, I cook salade niçoise and chocolate mousse for my sister’s bridal shower, willing myself to turn a deaf ear to the persistent themes that drove me far away from my family and the violence of my childhood. When I was young, I vacillated between extremes of self-destructive rebellion and ultra-conformity, which resulted during most of my teen years in crippling migraines, and in my early twenties in acting out sexually and a second trimester abortion. Now it’s Deborah’s wedding, and all week I’ve been determined to be the Good Daughter.

Today, however, I’m unable to contain myself. I don’t want to be good. I want to own the dress I’m trying on.

“Try this dress,” says my mother, holding out the knit with the nautical collar. “You really don’t know if something looks good til you try it.”

My mother uses clothing to disguise a persona I believe was at one time full of life and creativity. When I was a child she once told me she had wanted to be a sculptor. But between the time she was young and had a dream and this moment, more than thirty years later, my mother donned my father’s desires and ambitions whole cloth and tailored herself to fit them. My mother outfits herself to look the way she thinks she ought to, according to the part she chose to play in life — one which has never made her happy. I feel badly for her, and yet there has never been anything I could do to make it better.
Except for once, during my teens, when we lived in East Africa, I have never been able to mother my own mother.

One night, my mother got sick at a big party at a Nairobi hotel. She vomited and passed out in a formal hall. My father brought her home.
In spite of her illness, my father left the next day on a long-planned trip to the western Congo to see the mountain gorillas.

At twilight, I sat at the edge of my mother’s bed with a flashlight — the light hurt her eyes, she’d had the curtain drawn all day — reading aloud from a tropical medicine diagnostic manual.

“Mom, you have to open your eyes,” I said. “If you have hepatitis, your eyeballs will be yellow.” Finally she opened them. She winced as I shone the light at her face. I peered into two jaundiced orbs.

Later that night, my sisters and I sent a my parents’ driver to find an American couple we knew, a doctor with the flying doctor service and his wife, a nurse. They arrived a few hours later, promptly piled my mother into their car and drove to the hospital, sixty miles away.

It took some doing to locate my father: a series of point-to-point radio calls across three countries; eventually a Peace Corps volunteer who was going that way anyway who said he’d try to find him.

The doctor and his wife stayed with us until my father got home, refusing to allow us to visit my mother in the hospital. My mother spent a week in a hepatic coma. Karen, the doctor’s wife told us later: “I didn’t think she’d recognize you guys.” A few days after that she confessed she thought my mother would die.

It became clear to me the night my mother was hospitalized that my father couldn’t take care of her. In a wife, he required a tireless, unbreakable cheerleader dressed in khaki to gallop alongside him on his adventures. My mother wanted someone to provide for her, and take care of her without her having to ask. Neither of my parents was capable of giving the other what each of them most needed.

Years later my sisters and I had choices that simply were not available to my mother if she wanted to be, by her own lights, a respectable married woman with a husband and children. We could choose careers whose paths veered off from the conventions of her generation, when women like her had three choices: teacher, nurse or full-time housewife.

Since I left home at age seventeen, what I’ve worn mostly matched how I felt. During times I felt badly, I wore nothing but shapeless heaps of dark flannel, sweatshirts, sweaters, oversized trousers. I wore jeans to school, and let my hair grow, uncoiffed, into a tangle of curls. Nothing fit; everything had to be large and multi-layered, so I could hide inside it.

Deborah, who was a year older than me, and my sister Andrea, who was four years younger, were confused by clothing. They did not understand the subtleties of matching color and texture to best compliment their figures and skin tone. I know my criticism of their choices at times was tainted with a sibling’s special brand of cruelty. They, on the other hand, often found my own choices at times too slovenly, at times too risqué.

But regardless of our relative degree of success at self-enhancement or camouflage, we were all locked in the same sartorial morality play.
My father pays for the dress and leaves. I change back into my jeans, surrendering the dress to my mother to take home with her in the car because I’m on a bicycle.

Back at my parents’ Deborah’s happiness establishes the ambience. Deborah loves the dress, loves that I will be in her wedding wearing the dress, and is in love with love altogether. Everyone is happy — everyone, that is, except for Andrea, who is deeply hurt by the fact that Deborah excluded her from the wedding party.

Andrea’s molestation at the hands of an uncle as a child of eight caused her to balloon from a lissome child into a corpulent adult. She refuses to countenance my father at all, and now also refuses to go shopping with my mother.

A few days before the wedding, my father asks me to take Andrea shopping. At Macy’s, we make our way to a rack of party dresses. There are only a few size 14s and none are right in Andrea’s eyes.

A salesgirl approaches us helpfully, pulls a few dresses off the rack, holds them out. Andrea turns and walks away.

I say, “Thanks, we’re just looking anyway.”

We try different stores, that night, the next night. Andrea tells me what an ass my brother-in-law is. I don’t want to encourage her so I parry demurely, even though I dislike him intensely — I’d recognized him immediately as an alcoholic — and I know he will bring my elder sister nothing but trouble, which he eventually does. Andrea can’t find any dress she thinks is right.
The day of the wedding, Andrea appears in a blue dress that she already owns with a Peter Pan collar. My mother wears a collarless magenta silk dress with a pleated bodice and an elastic waist, falling to a skirt that has a sheen in the sunlight. She wears her hat and sunglasses and a string of pearls. I compliment her even though the magenta does not become her because it accentuates the sallow tones of her skin. She looks better in cobalt blue, or in a particular shade of lavender. She tells me to retie my sash.

Now, at fifty-one, I am eight years younger than my mother was the day Deborah got married. I’ve chosen an unconventional path in life — one fraught with risk and uncertainty but one I felt I had to follow. My clothes haven’t followed any sort of rational plan: Nomex forest fire fighting gear when I was reporting on forest fires; the dress I got married in — white chiffon over charmeuse, topped by my mother-in-law’s hand-made, floor-length french lace veil that she herself wore when she married fifty years before. (Even though I’m divorced, I’m still happy I wore it.)

Sometimes I wonder how my life might have turned out if I’d convinced myself to wear tailored suits and sensible heels. Then I try to imagine the kinds of dresses my mother might have worn over the years if she had not spent her life trying to conform to my father’s demands and her own rigid notions of what it meant to be respectable. Perhaps skin-tight leopard-print leggings with high heels? Perhaps diaphanous, off-the-shoulder blouses with elasticized waists? In truth, I haven’t a clue.

Writer for NYT, Sci Am Nat‘l Mag Award. Climate, mental health, wild things. Newsletter

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