In my thirties, I worked as a buyer for the home shopping network QVC. Because of my job, I was able to introduce my mother to fashion designer Bob Mackie. Upon meeting Mr. Mackie in the QVC green room, while surrounded by the Mackie design team, my mother explained why she was such a fan of his embellished knit pants suits. “They’re great for travel,” she told him. “I have to be comfortable when I’m sitting on a plane. You can’t travel with a tight crotch. That’s why these are so great.” To illustrate her point she grabbed a fist full of fabric from between her legs, squatted slightly, and pulled. “See? Plenty of room.”
When my mother was younger and her crotch could withstand the pressure of fabric, she favored Liz Claiborne’s high waisted wide-leg jeans. The jeans rose to her navel and wrapped her crotch in denim the way you’d wrap a leftover chicken breast in Saran Wrap. But as she got older, Bob Mackie became her go-to designer for casual clothes.
While listening to my mother, Mr. Mackie smiled and nodded. I think he enjoyed meeting her in the way you enjoy an exotic dinner out in a foreign country. You’re happy for the experience but not certain how soon you want to repeat it.
For years later, during merchandising meetings with the Mackie design team, if we got stuck on a style or silhouette, we’d volley ideas around. Did the leg need to be wider or the inseam longer? Were the pockets too small or the wrong shape? We’d come to an impasse and inevitably design fatigue would set in. Then someone would offer up a reminder of our purpose, of the thousands of customers who appreciated our efforts and sacrifice, and yell out like a battle cry, You can’t travel with a tight crotch!
Like the mothers who forbid their children from playing violent video games or with toy guns, my mother did not want me to play with baby dolls for the same reason. She was afraid that if I pretended I was a mother, there was a risk I would engage in such behavior in real life. Baby dolls, toy cradles, and plastic kitchen sets were all off limits for the same reason. My mother, a proud feminist, wanted to ensure I avoided the mistakes she had made in her life, namely getting married and having children. “Do as I say, not as I do,” she’d tell me.
While mothering a pretend human infant was objectionable, mothering pretend baby animals were tolerated. I amassed a huge collection of stuffed mammals, reptiles, and arthropods. My older sister sewed a baby sling and coordinating outfit for my teddy bear in her junior high home ec class. For one year I carried that bear everywhere like a Kenyan bush mother.
Barbie dolls were something of a gray area. I found a few dolls in our basement that had once belonged to my older sisters, relics from the era before my mother raised her consciousness. Barbie was a full-grown woman so there was no mothering involved, nor did my mother seem concerned with the doll’s obvious anorexia. However, she did object to Barbie’s lack of professional opportunities, but my mother’s propensity to never throw anything away proved stronger than her feminist principles, so the dolls stayed.
Every year on my birthday my mother liked to give me an educational toy: Simon, Master Mind, Comp IV, Little Professor. It was hard to get excited. I’d get my doll fix from my best friend Michelle who lived down the street. Michelle’s mom was very nice though foolishly unconcerned with Michelle’s future political leanings. At Michelle’s house, I fed Baby Alive food packets mixed with water and waited for the substance to move through her so I could change her diaper. When Michelle and I played with her Barbie dolls and United Airlines Friend Ship, Barbie never demanded to fly the plane herself.
As my seventh birthday approached, Michelle’s mom asked me if there was anything special I wanted. A doll I said unequivocally. On the day of my party, she handed me a huge box. “It’s what you want,” she said when she wished me a happy birthday. Later that night I opened the box. It was a beautiful doll, a doll fit for a princess, the tag said. It was a doll that didn’t eat or go to the bathroom. There was no string on the back of her neck to make her talk. Her hair didn’t grow long and shrink back. There was no airplane sold separately. It was a doll of exquisite artistry that gave its owner pleasure simply by her very existence. Even my anti-doll mother was impressed. “Oh, that’s a beauty!” she said. “What a special gift. But its not a doll to play with—its too expensive.” She took the doll and placed it on the shelf in my bedroom. There it remained untouched for 23 years.
When I was twelve, my best friend “Michelle” got the first Walkman I ever saw. Our mothers were best friends so I expected that once I told my mom that Michelle got a Walkman, she would run out and buy me one too. But my mother was not socially savvy in the ways that are important. She never cared about things like keeping up with the Joneses. She thought the Joneses were idiots. In fact, the more money she and my father made, the worse she insisted we live. Gone went my father’s Cadillac. Why drive a new car with excellent reliability when you can pay $250 for my cousin’s twelve-year-old Chevy Nova with rusted panels that was in the repair shop once a month? She loved trying to shock people by driving a shitbox. “Reverse Chic” my mother called it. “Irrational” was how the neighbors saw it.
My mother wasn’t fooling anyone pretending to be poor. A compulsive shopper by nature, by the time I was in high school she had amassed a fleet of these shitboxes. There was the Nova shitbox that started her collection, then came the Mercury Cougar shitbox, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme shitbox, the Buick Skylark shitbox, and the Pontiac Grand Safari shitbox.
She appeared to have a special fondness for buying the cars of the deceased. I drove to high school each day in the car previously owned by our deceased travel agent who died unexpectedly in her fifties. Another shitbox had been owned by the mother of a good friend who died after a long battle with cancer. No car cost more than a few hundred dollars and none could be described as attractive. They all suffered from rust covered in a lumpy Bondo DIY repair from my father. Not all the panels were the same exact color. Trim might be there. Might not. Matching hubcaps was never a guarantee.
She once bought a BMW shitbox and bragged to my sister about what a fancy car she had gotten, what a steal! she said. My sister replied that she was surprised my mother bought a German car, since she had always declared she would never travel to Germany or buy German products, unlike our Jewish neighbors who had no issue with driving a Mercedes a mere thirty years after the Holocaust. My mother looked at my sister, surprised, and said, “It’s not a German car. It’s a British car. The BMW stands for British Motor Works." “No, Mom,” my sister corrected, “It stands for Bavarian Motor Works. It’s made in Germany.” My mother was stunned silent. That car didn’t last long in her fleet.
At one point my parents had ten of these so-called bargains. “How many people can say they own ten cars?” my mother boasted. But she’d spend 10 times the amount she paid for the shitboxes just to keep them running.
As you would imagine, eventually my parents ran out of room in their driveway to park all their shitboxes so they started parking them on the street, in front of our house and sometimes in front of the neighbors’. There were just too many of them to keep contained. More than once a stranger called the house demanding that my parents take their shitboxes off the street. The cars were just too ugly for the delicate sensibilities of our upper-middle class neighborhood. “Thanks for calling,” my father would genially reply before hanging up. They kept those shitboxes right where they were.
Two weeks ago my mother turned 81 years old. This is especially impressive when you consider that she’s been a smoker all her life. Yes, I know, a doctor who smokes—you can take a second to absorb that. At the height of her habit, she smoked two packs-a-day. But the aging process has been hell. Now she’s only able to manage a single pack-a-day. It’s been hard watching her having to accept that she’s no longer able to do many of the things she used to.
Whenever I remember my childhood, I see my mother with a cigarette in her hand. Always. And always with at least a 1/4 of an inch of ash at the tip. I’ve seen her get it as long as 3/4 of an inch. It was amazing how long she could grow her ash, something of an ash erection, if you will.
I used to worry that she’d get sick from all the smoking but so far nothing. Nada. Zip. She’s one of the healthiest old ladies I know. So I’ve been thinking that since she’s been both a doctor and a smoker for the past 50 years, maybe she knows something we don’t know? Like wouldn’t it be crazy if after all this time we find out that the tobacco companies were right—smoking is the key to longevity!
I think the real lesson of my mother is, if you’re going to smoke, smoke a lot. I mean really commit. Because after a lifetime of smoking, my mother’s body is so toxic even the cancer cells don’t want to live there. There’s no healthy tissue left for cancer to feed on. Cancer would literally starve to death in my mother’s body.
My mother is a doctor. I know, last week I posted a photo of her dinner which consisted of arugula with a side of nicotine. She’s a "smokin' doctor," if you will, and she looks great for her age. . . but we don’t have time to go into that right now.
Growing up with a mother who is a doctor was great because she knew everything there was to know about the body. When I was twelve, I saw commercials on TV for Massengill douche. It was all so vague, talk of "freshness" and "vinegar." I had absolutely no idea what was going on . . .Were they making a salad? So I asked my mother what is douche and did I need it. I remember to this day how passionate she was when she screamed at me:
“Nooooo! You don’t need it!!!” She went on to explain further “Your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven. Don’t put anything in it. It’s supposed to be moist and drippy. If it weren’t moist and drippy you’d have big problems. Just leave it alone!”
Mom, you’ll be happy to know that three decades later, it’s still moist and drippy.