The Greatest Dress, Ever!

The Greatest Dress, Ever!

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” ~ Wm. Shakespeare, King Lear

My mother once bought me the greatest dress, ever. I was thirteen. This dress was epic, so epic I even wore it once. Once, and only once – because she demanded that I do so, after complaining time and again that it was hanging in my closet unloved and unworn, a sign (one of many) that I was an ungrateful child. And yes, she regularly quoted that bit of Lear at me, as living with me, to her point of view, was indeed sharper than a serpent’s tooth. So, I did it, I wore the fucking dress – to shut her up, if for no other reason; I finally put on the greatest dress ever. I had tried it on, initially, when she bought it, even though merely eyeballing it told me right away no, and no, and no, no, no, no. I wore it to church, look Queen Lear, under a puffy winter coat I absolutely refused to take off, which worked out okay for me as the cavernous Catholic Church in Margaretville was never heated adequately, and, quite frankly, fuck my mother and her fucking truly horrible piece of shit dress.

Fine. I will admit it was a truly lovely tartan, primarily royal blue and black, shot through with red, orange and green, made from an okay, not great material combo of 70%-30% rayon to cotton. It had a blindingly white Peter Pan collar turned sideways that came to the base of my neck – much too tight a collar, in fact, that had long tails where it met at my right collarbone, one draping down the front of the dress, and one dashingly designed to toss over my back. Matching two and a half inch cuffs, also in white-white-white, ended the long, to the wrist, very tight (too tight) sleeves. A matching tartan belt came with, to cinch the waist, a belt that was less than an inch wide, and about seven feet in length. The dress, depending on whether I moved in it or not (I will explain) came to about three inches below my knees. But, it didn’t ever really come to that length, not because of the belt, precisely, or my burgeoning adolescent curves, but rather because, from the too tight neck to the hem, it was tightly pleated. Ever see a dog in one of those prevention collars, conical plastic bell-like structures? The dress was like that, sort of, only turned around, widest part of the cone facing my feet, and it was pleated. And tartan. It fell from the neck, just below sideways Peter Pan, in narrow pleats, pleats, that sans the belt made me look like an odd Scottish circus tent. If I used the belt and moved – as in walking, the top half would slowly yet inexorably begin to grow, rise, and billow out, giving me an ever-expanding puffy bust, similar to that of my dad’s cousin Harriet, the one who smoked a pipe and could balance a dessert plate on her truly magnificent boobage, which was puffy yet also solid AF. If I didn’t wear the belt, and moved, the bottom billowed out in a way that was equally unflattering, embarrassing, and tent-like, a tent that was not tethered to the ground; perhaps I should’ve added fishing line weights to the hem? That would’ve been nice.

The dress was an abomination, and seemed to typify my mother’s desire to turn me into an entirely undesirable freak, a joke, a punch line, a virginal, Scottish circus tent or trained, grateful serpent. She had and regularly expressed very strong ideas about the professions that were appropriate for women, of which there were three: teaching, nursing, and nun (nun-ing?), which begs the questions, do nuns get paid, and is nun-ing actually a profession? Isn’t it a rather calling, and in case you were wondering, I felt zero call, or instead a call to holler ‘no fucking way, Jose’ with regard to becoming any of those extremely limited options. That dress did have something in common with nuns’ habits, as with the exception of moving or the billowing hemline, it covered me from my neck to below the knee, including my arms to the wrist. My two sisters actually did become, respectively, and respectably, a teacher (my older sister) and a nurse (my younger). Isn’t that fabulous?! As for me – still waiting for that danged call!

Shortly after this dress debacle, my older sister went off to college; she had graduated from high school a year early, and her absence ushered in a very tense period at home. First of all, my mother missed her terribly and was worried sick (her precious, precious baby, in a city, in another state, in unknown territoryProvidence, R.I.!!). Secondly, because I was no substitute, rather a punishment, given that I was ungrateful, difficult, and wholly incapable of carrying on an adult conversation (gossip) over coffee (never tried it, have never had it) after school or on weekends when my dad was at work when mom liked to sit at the kitchen table and drink copious cups of java. Thirdly, because my sister’s out-of-state private art college education was expensive (RISD), including bills for art supplies that arrived monthly, bills that could not be questioned, ever, and my parents were spending their life savings to that point in support of this absolutely essential experience for my older sister. After all, she was going to be the next, American born, Picasso, a fantasy my mother indulged without regard to her eldest child’s actual temperament or personality. My dad locked himself in his den every time one of those art supply bills came in (I peeked, more than once, and was surprised to find that porcini mushrooms and silver bangle bracelets were considered art supplies) after which he would call my sister while I listened from the living room (pretending to read) while she – Picassette! – cajoled and charmed him out of the black depression and financial anxiety that otherwise ruled during his all too few hours at home from work. Good times.

Anyhoo, given I had rejected her dress, that beautiful, tasteful dress, the first one she’d bought me and me alone in forever, hand-me-downs from the great artist on high being the rule, my mother went full-in on refusing to buy me any clothes. I knew my dad was freaking out over costs, so there was no way I felt I could approach him, even if such a thing were conceivable in the first place, which it was not. But, at least my dad’s clothes, his outside stuff mostly, I could occasionally grab, because he kept everything forever, never shopped, and some of it didn’t fit him anymore. Plus, he was cool about my borrowing his clothes, even if it bemused him as to why I would want to do so. If he’d asked, pockets, dad, pockets, plus, you knowall this unsaid, that person, your wife, and y’know. You know, right?! Without my saying it, he knew, telling me to be nice to your mother, be nice. Yes, okay. Sure. Almost forty years later, as he was dying, he would apologize to me for not doing more to protect me from my mother. Good times.

Eventually I used pinking shears to cut the tartan tent dress into squares, which I burned in the burn barrel up above the wood shed. At least, that’s what I think I did. It might be a fantasy of mine, made up at the time, while the dress languished (my little sister didn’t even bother trying it on, it was that awful) unloved, and unworn, in the head-banging closet at the top of the back stairs.

That is the story of the greatest dress ever. One day I hope to recreate its awfulness – because even now, it seems impossible to me that anyone – anyone – would consider that a fully pleated dress, pleated from the neck to the knees, with an off-center Peter Pan collar was in anyway attractive. It might’ve worked, it might have, on a completely skinny, flat chested, no hips eleven-year-old boy or girl who could tie that strip of tartan belt around their waist twice. It didn’t even have pockets, forchrissake!

How We Grew: Vietnam

How We Grew: Vietnam

The Vietnam War was part of the background of my early childhood. Every day the local-ish radio station, WGY in Albany, N.Y. (only ninety miles away!), announced the war dead, and U.S. troop deaths were, without fail, miniscule compared to the number of Viet Cong dead. They were weirdly specific, as well, for example – two-hundred and eighty-nine American dead, three-thousand and seventy-eight Viet Cong. The daily numbers confused and perplexed me, and I asked my teacher at the time, Mrs. Roney, how it was we weren’t winning the war when these numbers told such a different, and unbalanced, story? Surely, we had to be winning? She explained that the Chinese Communists were sending hordes of fighters over the border between China and Vietnam, endless hordes of fighting men (she may have referred to them as little yellow men), to support vile, evil communism. Huh. Okay. Maybe? I imagined actual streams of men running south across the border – but even China couldn’t have an endless supply of young men to fight old men’s wars, could they? 

Photos of the war, and of the My Lai massacre in particular, were on the cover of and inside almost every magazine that came into our home, and the children in the pictures were my peers. That little girl, naked, running, mouth agape, surrounded by carnage: she was my age. How as it possible that we – we, the collective good people of the United States – would allow this to happen, allow the murder, the gassing – or whatever Napalm was, the bombing of families, whoever and wherever they were? How did this happen? What were we fighting about, again? I did a report on Ho Chi Minh for 5th grade Social Studies. I didn’t really see much difference between him and some of our founding fathers, seeking freedom and independence for his people (he also wrote poetry, and spoke five languages), and because my teacher that year was a hippie, he approved, giving me an ‘A’. We weren’t taught the war in school as it was on-going, history in the making; we were merely child witnesses, watching from afar. I do remember being grateful my male classmates, my friends, would not face the draft, conscription ending in 1973 when we were just entering high school, although the war didn’t end until 1975. And while there were returning Vietnam Vets in my community, I didn’t personally know any, or wasn’t aware if I did, until one very angry Veteran started teaching us – and scaring us – in ’73. He’d been a sharpshooter, and four years later he would sexually assault me about a week after I graduated and turned eighteen. 

I now know that the numbers of the dead, ours and the Vietnamese, were faked, deflated and inflated respectively in turn by successive Presidential administrations, administrations who lied to the American people for political gain, for reasons of propaganda, vanity, ego, and arrogance. I watched on TV, our one channel, as Hanoi fell, Vietnamese people clinging to helicopters and boats desperate to escape; I saw pictures and read about ‘The Boat People’, and atrocities committed in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and elsewhere. The world was complicated, I was a kid – not even born when the military complications of Vietnam began. All I wanted to do when the war ended was survive high school and my adolescence, get out and away, while dreaming dreams about a life I wasn’t sure I wanted to lead, because I didn’t know who I was and where I wanted to be, other than not where I was. 

Cecile Pin’s debut novel, Wandering Souls, which I read and loved recently, along with Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and his follow-up novel,The Committed, all examine aspects of the events surrounding the Vietnam War from the perspective of those Vietnamese who lived through and – mostly – survived it. In all four novels, the authors primarily focus on those who emigrated from Vietnam to America, France, or the U.K. It felt necessary and important for me to read these books, because I was ignorant about the lives of the Vietnamese, in the U.S. and elsewhere, including Vietnam, along with the multi-generational impact of the actions of the U.S. and its allies – our allies. Yet – when Ms. Pin writes about the boat people and their painful, circuitous journey, I knew, I’d seen, I remembered the place of lift off, the scenes witnessed or read about as a child, and it felt good to know what happened, even if just to one family, although the novel is broader than that implies, and very powerful. 

Coincidentally, last night’s PBS episode featured a segment about Asian Am. & Pacific Islanders, regarding their often violent and deadly interactions with the police in the U.S. In the segment, I learned there were approximately one million Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong who emigrated to the U.S. as a result of the Vietnam War, a significant amount, worth noting here, I thought. 

The Sympathizer is hilarious, raucous, and shocking; I could not put it down, and like its follow-up The Committed and Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Wandering Souls there are specific, reality-based incidents of what war is, what happens in conflict zones, that are stomach churning, and heart-breaking. One of my several daily meditation mantras is ‘may the whole world know peace and healing’, which I repeat throughout the day, ‘may the whole world know peace and healing, may the whole world know peace and healing’. Often, I add, ‘which world includes me, thank you very much’, because I need reminding, and it calms my heart, and helps to unravel my grudges and anger, and my fear – fear that peace is impossible to achieve, as long as men seek power, and are incapable of giving a shit about the lives of others, including, often, their own citizens, from whom they supposedly derive that power. What’s that saying, ‘how can we have world peace when people can’t even get along with their neighbors?’ Seems about right to me, and, happily, I have a great neighbor, one I am committed to – if not loving, at least liking – tolerating, and consistently treating with kindness and decency, always.

JFK said, ‘World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.’ Sadly, there are more conflicts going on right now, around this blue and green and brown and white planet, than I or anyone else can comprehend. It’s daunting, and so I try to create peace in my tiny corner, not always successfully, but, I try. 

George Carlin, whom I admire and love so much, said in one of his stand-up specials, “The planet is going anywhere. We are.” We are. Unless, unless, unless – we can pull together. Fingers and toes and everything else crossed.