The Pantsuit

The Pantsuit

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

The Pantsuit

I have seen my kid straggle into the kitchen in the morning with outfits that need only one accessory: an empty gin bottle.
~Erma Bombeck

My mother and I are going down to North Carolina for my niece’s graduation from medical school. A week before the trip, I get a phone call.

“Do you have enough clothes to bring?” my mother asks.

I sigh. “Yes, I’m fine.” I’m sure my mother has packed and repacked her suitcase at least three times by now. The thought of what I am going to pack hasn’t yet crossed my mind. Probably my ten-year-old black pants and my one decent jacket, a gift from my nieces, that almost goes with the pants. A couple of tops. Whatever.

As if she can read my mind, my mother continues. “Are you sure you don’t need any blouses? Maybe a pantsuit?”

My sigh gets longer and louder. I’m surprised she waited this long to bring up the dreaded pantsuit. “I’m fine,” I repeat, feeling the muscles in my jaw tighten. She’s been trying to get me to buy a pantsuit for years. I’ve been resisting just as long.

“Okay,” she says. Then a moment of silence. “Maybe I’ll pack a couple of extra blouses for you, just in case.”

I close my eyes and count to ten. “Better go,” I say, “I think the cats are fighting.” I hang up—gently—and glare at the phone for a moment.

Although I look like my mother, when it comes to style I am definitely a changeling. My mother’s years of tutelage on quality and fashion have fallen on deaf ears. She shops at higher end stores, I shop at thrift stores. Although I smile when she compliments me on one of my “finds,” I don’t admit to buying used clothes. Instead, I airily tell her that I bought it at a local store.

For my mother, the word “pantsuit” is not just matching pants and a jacket. It’s a code word for wearing a presentable outfit, her polite way of telling me my style leaves much to be desired. That my pants are too baggy, my sweaters synthetic, my shoes at best serviceable.

My lack of style has become a family joke, one that I have learned to take advantage of. When I visit my mother, I leave lots of room in my suitcase, knowing I can “shop” in her closet, with her encouragement. She loves bright, oversized prints and florals which I loathe, so I head for the solid jewel-tone blouses, sweaters and turtlenecks. I seldom go home without a few new offerings for my wardrobe, though I make sure to only choose clothes she’s worn for a few years.

“Now that’s what I call shop-at-home service,” I once remarked to her.

I remember her shaking her head, wondering how she failed to drum her love for good clothes into me.

Two days before the trip to North Carolina, I check my clothes, folded, piled and ready to pack. Pants—yes. Almost matching jacket—yes. Shoes—yes. I’ve put on ten pounds, so some of my—that is, my mother’s—nicer tops are tight. I find one of my old, not too threadbare ones and add it to the small pile.

The suitcase is about half full, which is about right.

My mother arrives the next day to spend one night at my house before we fly down together for the graduation in North Carolina. Her suitcase is at least twice the size of mine. I heft it onto the bed in the guest room, not surprised when the mattress sags. Two cats jump onto the bed to watch, a third sits on a nearby chair.

She opens her suitcase and my youngest cat takes that as an invitation to jump in. My mother pushes the cat away, trying to defend her clothes against cat hair.

I pluck some stray cat hairs from my own pants and wait for the reveal.

For a minute, I worry she’ll pull out a bright floral pantsuit for me. Instead, she hands me a black and white print blouse. “I thought you might like this,” she says. Then she adds a short-sleeved black jersey, a three-quarter-sleeve gray top, and a deep red blouse to my pile. “Maybe while we’re down in North Carolina, we can find you a pantsuit.”

I grin. “You never know, Mom. This might be the year of the pantsuit after all.”

~Harriet Cooper

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