Give me another life and I’ll say all the right things at the right moments.
We’re at my mother’s Dutch suburban row house, my childhood home since I was nine and my parents divorced. I dislike being there. In her house I feel inhibited, chained to my timid former self.
It’s after dinner, wine almost finished, and my mother notices that the cuffs of my husband’s sweater are fraying. She touches the wool.
“Oh! See that? What a pity. That always happens, doesn’t it? You buy something nice and it falls apart. Oh, well. Time to go shopping for a new one.”
My husband and I exchange looks. Let it go, his eyes urge. He knows how my frank opposition can spoil the air. But I must.
“We don’t think about clothes like you do, Mama. Fraying at the cuffs doesn’t bother us. To be honest, I think it’s a waste to discard a perfectly fine sweater for something so trivial.”
“And,” my husband says, trying to add a light note, “it’s very chic. Many designers give their clothes a distressed look. Fraying like this comes at no extra charge.” He laughs.
My mother, probably challenging his sense of fashion, wrinkles her brow. “You can’t wear a sweater like that.”
“Yet somehow, I am.”
“It’s not proper. People will think you’re poor.”
I breathe in and out. Soon, the conversation moves on to more urgent subjects, such as the unexpected, belated, and much deserved popularity of James Salter’s prose in recent Dutch translations.
The next morning, while saying goodbye in the hallway, my well-meaning mother offers my husband a brand new sweater she bought as a gift for someone whose birthday is months away. He smiles yet I feel his unease. It’s the same unease I’ve felt many times before.
Stop correcting him, I want to tell my mother. But how to say it without correcting her?
My husband takes the sweater from her waiting hands and I think, Don’t do it. Don’t let her win. Accepting that sweater means agreeing with someone whose opinion you don’t share. She says it’s improper to have fraying cuffs, but you happen to like that sweater. Stand up for it! The wool is soft. The color is great. I love that fraying thing and you in it. The sweater has kept you warm on many occasions and has become an intimate part of our life. My mother is only afraid that your fraying sweater will make people think badly of you. (And by proxy ruin her good standing—your fraying sweater, one big disgrace to my family!) Well, let people think what they want. You’re an odd one in the bunch, anyway. Always have been, always will be. And I’m grateful for that. Your sweater doesn’t have to lie for us, doesn’t have to mask who you are. In fact, I think you wear this sweater to stand out. The fraying is intentional—imagine that. You’re not afraid of your singularity. You display your quirks with ease. So, please, give that new sweater back to my mother. Acknowledge her generosity, but kindly refuse it. Tell her she’s read you wrong. You’re not poor or improper. If your fraying cuffs communicate anything, it’s that you don’t follow the stupid laws of convention. Tell her to give that new sweater to a homeless person who will appreciate its pure value: the wool’s warmth. Tell her you will hold on to your fraying possessions, your minority opinions, your appreciation of whatever is perceived to be odd. The fact that your fraying sweater has the power to offend my mother only proves that you should keep wearing it. Rebellious souls make our world a better place. Tell her.
We’re still in the hallway. My husband is holding the new sweater, smiling. He’s an American after all, obliging on command. My mother, too, is smiling. Excellent social skills, both of them. But I can’t smile. I’m too disgusted by all of us.
“Sorry, Mama. I don’t like the color.”
It’s not a lie. Red is harsh. The new sweater switches hands again from his to hers and is put away in the closet. No big deal.
At home—weeks, months, years later—I still think about my mother’s gift and regret not speaking up. No matter how I try to minimize the non-event, the new sweater proves to be a very big deal.
Photo by andres musta