62. Dressed to Impress

62. Dressed to Impress

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

Dressed to Impress

What a strange power there is in clothing.

~Isaac Bashevis Singer

My future mother-in-law. She was a tough nut, all right. My mother could only repeat, “Thank goodness, there’s only one of her,” whenever my fiancé Phil’s mother, Helga, was mentioned. As a result of her “commanding” personality, Helga’s niece called her aunt “The General” when she was safely out of earshot. And when my godmother met Helga at Phil’s and my engagement party, she leaned toward me, kissed me on the cheek, and whispered into my ear, “Good luck with that one.”

In the years leading up to Phil’s and my engagement, his mother made her assessment of my appearance perfectly clear: my nails were too long and too brightly polished; my heels were too high; my jeans were too tight. Once, despite having no training as a beautician, she even offered to cut my hair, commenting, “Why don’t you let me fix that style up for you?”

So when I learned that Phil’s father, my future father-in-law, was to be honored at a party hosted by his genealogy club, I had my share of concerns. As outgoing president, he, my future mother-in-law, and the balance of their family, including me, would be seated at the head table on a raised dais for all to see. This was to be my first introduction to my father-in-law’s friends and associates. Certainly, I wanted to look my best. More than that, however, I wanted to avoid any further criticism at the hands of Helga. So I embarked on a citywide search for the perfect outfit.

For weeks, I made my way through malls, badgered boutique owners, and ransacked racks of evening wear in search of the appropriate garment. Finally, my insecurities brought me home with not one, but two possibilities. The night of the party, as I readied for the big event, I held up the two outfits for Phil to inspect: one, a fashionable silk suit with a black skirt complemented by a simple white jacket; the other, a form-fitting little black number accented by a floral scarf.

“Which one?” I asked. Phil chose the suit.

I must admit that Phil’s choice surprised me. Of the two, the suit was more no-nonsense, while the little black dress with its bright scarf was more frivolous, sexy even. I would have thought Phil would have preferred for me to wear that one. However, I accepted his advice willingly. Certainly, he was a better barometer of his mother’s likes and dislikes than I was. Still, as I stood before the mirror adjusting my jacket, my lungs tightened and my stomach rumbled.

“Well,” I thought, “if Helga has anything to say about the way I look tonight, I’ll just tell her that her son chose my outfit.”

Bolstered by my false confidence, I walked tall out of the house and into Phil’s car. Yet as we drove toward the venue, my anxiety only worsened. I twisted my hands and made the annoying throat-clearing sound I always made when I was nervous. Recognizing my tension, Phil quickly put me at ease with a good-natured impersonation of his mother’s heavily accented speech. “I vill cut your hair und you vill like it,” he said, reminding me of one of his mother’s more over-thetop comments.

By the time we reached the parking lot, Phil and I had both succumbed to a bad case of the giggles. As we approached the building, though, I quickly sobered. After a deep, cleansing breath, I entered through the ballroom’s elegant glass double doors. Then, from way across the room, my mother-in-law and I spotted each other. Even at several paces, I could see her jaw drop. When she regained her composure, I watched as she turned to her husband, pointed toward me, and howled out, “She’s wearing the same dress as me!”

With shaking knees, I approached her. “We’re wearing the same dress,” she repeated. I stood there, speechless, the air sucked from my lungs by the sight of my fashion-twin. Then she lifted her hand above her head and brought it down on my shoulder.

“That’s all right,” she said. “At least people will see we have good taste in common.”

Silently, I prayed that good taste was the only thing people would think we had in common. Yet, as my fiancé sat at the dais flanked by two women wearing identical outfits that night, I realized that my mother-in-law and I had something else in common: we both loved her son very much. And that one fact, and that fact alone, has kept my mother-in-law and me at peaceful odds for well over twenty years.


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