On my mind this month: bathrobes and mothers; the idea of “there” as a memory of a now-lost home; how home is re-imagined in the disparate land- and peoplescapes inhabited by confused young people in the work of Mary Karr, Banana Yoshimoto and Tommy Orange (is there some fruit magic happening?).
Is there anything more American than a long black LL Bean men’s bathrobe, made to resemble a vintage football jersey, fashioned out of heavy sweatshirt-type material and lined in lumberjack red and black plaid flannel? I was so pleased when it arrived. It’s still quite chilly in April in Maine, and I decided to treat myself to the equivalent of a wolfskin blanket to make it easier to lurch out of bed in the mornings. So what if it’s almost summer- it will be patiently waiting for me as fall approaches.
Then I noticed the label: LL Bean. Made in Vietnam. And I flashed back to those despairing days when American society was torn apart, absolutely consumed with debating the legitimacy of American involvement in the war in Vietnam. The tragic aftermath of Agent Orange poisoning of landscapes, birth defects of Vietnamese babies, the PTSD of our own neglected and often reviled veterans….all in the past. Or is it?
And who are our staunch post-WWII allies now? The Japanese and the Germans, defending democratic ideals. After so many millions of Russians died to defeat our common enemy Hitler, can it be that the Russians are our most reviled enemy? (Or Putin, anyway; I really don’t blame the Russian people.) Please someone, explain it all to me.
In a very twisted way, that LL Bean label gives me hope of a future peaceful settlement and the end of the terrible tragedy that is the conflict in Ukraine. But not soon enough…
And so we readers turn to literature for respite, or at least for small doses of truth-telling. Reading Banana Yoshimoto’s Dead-End Stories is a bit like “forest bathing”- again and again, her young people come to small, quiet epiphanies. Her style is gentle and direct; her protagonists are self-reflective and always seem to acquire wisdom as they slowly recover from broken love affairs or memories of physical abuse by mentally unstable parents.
“When my grandma died, though, it made me realize something.
At the funeral, middle-aged men whom Grandma had fed and counseled when they were young men turned up in black suits and told stories about times they brought their dates for meals at the restaurant, or how she comforted them with fried prawns when their girlfriends broke up with them. For the first time, I saw the difference we made by being there for people over the years, in the background of their lives.”
Moving on to Tommy Orange’s There There was quite a shock to my system, but I cannot praise it highly enough. It’s a necessary book. Watching YouTube interviews with the author only confirmed my impression of immense integrity and talent. His mission is to inspire a different vision of how life might be for Indigenous urban youth by first faithfully describing their present-day lives. And, using his native Oakland as his starting point, he reminds us that Gertrude Stein’s oft-quoted comment about her own Oakland birthplace—“There’s no there, there” actually refers to the experience of going back later in life and finding everything changed. You can’t go home again. For Tommy Orange, the phrase refers to the whole of America. On this continent, there’s no there, there—the white man has essentially destroyed almost all traces of what constituted home to an estimated 60 million people. How does one live with this reality? How does one reclaim “home” ? By speaking truthfully about the past. And the present. Definitely, by telling the truth about the present.
Reading Mary Karr (Liar’s Club, Cherry) is not like going “forest-bathing.” It’s more like being forced to spend time in a slightly downscale amusement park, riding every attraction (even the unsafe-looking ones) the day before the park goes out of business, eating too many hot dogs and too much cotton candy, having a fabulous time in spite of being terrified, and emerging proudly to text your friends, “I did it!” My admiration for her honesty and level of craft is off the charts. In her, a specific kind of contemporary American woman- and girlhood has found its needed bard (bardess?) and I look forward to her next book about her older sister, as Karr spins the pain of her experiences into gold.
And here, in honor of the April 26th birthday of my mother Mary-Madeleine Lanphier (which we always celebrated in New York City with a recklessly extravagant purchase of lilacs at the corner flower stall), is another reflection on bathrobes.
The Lane Bryant shop on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village was right near one of our favorite bookstores, the Marlboro Books outlet that sometimes had marked down copies of Pogo books. After we emerged victorious with our latest trophy, my father and I often lingered at the windows of the ladies’ shop, which seemed to feature clothing that was made for no particular purpose or time of day that I could ever figure out. Except for the bathrobes. Those were no-brainers. They were meant for Sunday morning brunch, my mother’s favorite meal.
One December I worked up the courage to ask my long-divorced father if he would buy one for my mother, his ex-wife, to replace the ratty pink chenille one that was like a reproach to me every time I saw it. I could not in good conscience hope for anything new in my own life while she continued to don the grayish garment that bore the evidence of many a late-evening cigarette. He and I knew that the time was long past when they needed—or wanted—to exchange presents, but I desperately wanted her to have it. The garment of choice was navy blue quilted satin, with red piping on the tailored lapels, and a double-breasted set of buttons covered in red satin. It looked like something Ava Gardner would wear on the terrace of a Manhattan penthouse, sipping champagne, while Frankie crooned to her. And my dark-haired mother could carry it off.
Miracle of miracles, my father agreed to buy it. The saleswoman wrapped it in yards of white tissue paper, and I managed to smuggle it undetected into the two-room apartment on Perry Street where I lived most of the week with my mother. Just like a kid on a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, I hid it under my bed and started counting the days until the twenty-fifth. It was almost like being a family again.
On my eighth Christmas Eve, I could hardly close my eyes. I tossed and turned all night, imagining a hundred different variations of delight on my mother’s astounded face when she opened our gift.
In the morning, my father came by, ostensibly to take me out to lunch. It was then that I brought the package out. As she glanced at the now glaringly enormous box, uneasily trying to unknot the bow without cutting the glossy green ribbon (so it could be saved for next year), I became fearful. It was too big a present. She could never match it. But it was too late.
She opened it and gasped. The navy satin gleamed like a million bucks. Her right hand clenched instinctively at the opening of the old pinkish-gray robe. She looked up at us. A deep blush was spreading up from her neck, past her high cheekbones to the roots of her thick brown hair. She was as pretty as a movie star, and she now she had the wardrobe. But she had an odd look on her face.
“Is this one really so awful? Why didn’t anybody tell me?” She seemed to be shivering, but it wasn’t cold at all in our apartment.
And I didn’t know if my father and I had done a bad thing or a good thing. Why wasn’t life simple and kooky, like the mix-ups on I Love Lucy? Where everybody hugged at the end? Really, that’s how it should be.
Photos supplied by the author.