Monday, March 1, 2010

Maternal Imprinting

Did you ever spend all day at the beach and then close your eyes in the evening and see waves? Or did you ever spend all day driving and go to bed and see the road? How much of the beach or the road can you really make out? And how much is your brain just making you feel it, in its most drowsy and abstract incarnation?

Well, some nights I go to sleep and I see patterns on fabric. One after another. They are always colored, sometimes brightly, and flat. They are not consciously constructed and often, unexpected color combinations present themselves. But its not like I really see these, like a proper hallucination. Its just that on the brink of sleep, I think about these things and my mind wanders like a plotless shimmering dream.

My maternal grandmother worked as a dress maker at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, NY. She came from Algeria, was French and her fabric draping skills were legendary, or so I have been told. Because of this, as a child, my mother was dressed in her Sunday best every day of the week. By the time my mother grew up, married my father and moved out, it was the middle of the 60s. She embraced 60s fashion with a particular grace and restraint. She was not a hippy and her skirts were never too micro. But by today’s standards she would fall on fashion’s flashy side, although she would deny it. She had a gold embroidered dress, a bright bright red bouchlĂ© skirt suit and a long gown with only one shoulder and a gossamer fabric wing fluttering behind her on one side. By the time I was born, she had toned it way down, but I still knew of the fuschia prints that bloomed in her heart. Partly I still knew because the clothes were all neatly relegated to a metal cabinet in our attic which, in spite of my childhood dust allergy, I visited often.

All of this focus on fabric and fit and femininity in the family affects a girl. The tradition of fashion and what was considered right and beautiful was given to me. I have spent years toying with it in varying doses and rejecting it at times when I felt a rebellion of practicality or grittiness swelling. I remember little containers of endless varied buttons and scraps of deeply colored thick laces and trims, and even though they were all reduced to a box or two in the bottom of my mom’s closet, it was impossible not to vividly imagine the garment of their origin.

I have always been fascinated by what makes a favorite color, a favorite. Or what makes someone go into a clothing store and really deeply “ooooooOOO” at something. And I realized that the patterns that I am most intensely drawn to are patterns that look something like, something my mother wore. The colors and combinations I tend towards are attached to memories of her memories.

Although I think about and very much love loud beautiful clothing, I don’t quite have the personality to carry most of it off—that I got from my Dad. You can’t wear a bright orange pea coat and a concerned scowl. And most times I find myself wanting to be discreet or invisible and a red suit unfortunately wont do. Also, I have no sisters and most days the only people around me were my brothers in blue jeans and old sneakers, so that too influenced my sensibilities. I spent 12 years in a plaid school uniform and oh yes, I am training to be a scientist, so there is quite the de-emphasis on clothing. But I live in Manhattan, pulled in many fashion conscious and unconscious directions, there is hope yet.

My grandmother was very sick before she died. She was in her home in Queens, NY in a hospital style bed, with nurses taking care of her every minute. It was the 4th of July, which was her birthday. I was about 14 or so and wearing a red t-shirt and blue and white checkered short-shorts. She reached up from her bed and touched my shorts and she said “seersucker”, with soft approval. This is something that will always be with me.


  1. I love it, Julia. Happy to have inspired you.

  2. I feel like we have had conversations along these lines so often! How did we both end up with such fashion forward grandmothers? I love this post.

    P.S. Your grandmother would have been so proud at the holiday party! You looked fabulous!

  3. Read it three times. I love this story!