Nothing brings aging home like a parental birthday. I wrote this as I was high above Illinois returning to Washington, DC from celebrating my mother’s 85th birthday in Oregon. As birthdays go, it was a very low key affair – a visit to an old friend that my mother and I hadn’t seen in four years, some shopping, a dinner out at a favorite restaurant, a drive in the country. What was lovely and touching and difficult was to see how much less flexible my mother has become, and how much she both needed and appreciated my accommodation of her changing needs.
One of my personal phobias is discussing underwear with my parents and family. It’s an odd phobia, because I’m neither embarrassed by my body nor am I particularly sensitive to other people’s bodies. But should my mother ask me if I need new underwear, I go into a tizzy: I don’t want my mother to know that my current preferred underwear are Champion C9 briefs and boxer briefs sold only at Target. And I also don’t want to know what kind of underwear she’s wearing – it just feels a little tawdry and unseemly. (Sort of like the infamous Bill Clinton “boxers or briefs” questions, only more so.)
But I had to confront the phobia head on. Mom wanted to buy some new brassieres, and so off we went to Nordstrom, a store known for a dedication to customer service and attention. I dropped my mother off in Women’s Foundations (translated from retail: brassieres, girdles, panties, and hosiery) and wandered off to do my own shopping. She’d asked for 20 minutes, and I obliged her, having in that time bought four “work” dress shirts and two “fancy” dress shirts. My mother was beating a retreat from the dressing room with a chastened looking young sales woman. I asked the sales woman if she’d had any luck and my mother loudly exclaimed, “they don’t have anything for me here.” When I questioned the sales woman, she pointed out a couple of bras that my mother had rejected because they “were too bulky”. Now, while I have great admiration for my mother, slinky bras and underwear were never observed, even tangentially in our house. Apparently the shop girl misunderstood “easy to get in and out of” for “skimpy”, imagining that my mother meant to go to “TRL Cancun” or “Grannies Gone Wild” and rip off her bra and show her tatas.
So it took a fair amount of interrogatory to find out what the issue really was: the bras that my mother had been shown had multiple clasps which made it extremely difficult for my mother, whose arthritic digits more resemble knotty wood than fingers, to either fasten or undo. And while I am sure that Nordstrom’s stock did include far more selection that my mother had seen, and which certainly would have had something appropriate for her (as the dowagers of Portland all shop at Nordstrom) we bade our age-challenged shop girl farewell, and decamped for Macy’s.
Following a brief stab at shoe shopping (Mom has cut back her shoe habit from Imelda Marcos levels to a couple of pair a year, as her feet no longer welcome Salvatore Ferragamo and Kate Spade flats and pumps she prefers) we wandered into Macy’s women’s underwear. There’s always a frission about being a man in a women’s underwear section: it’s the straight world equivalent of a man or a transsexual crashing the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The Women’s Underwear department is supposed to be a safe and empowering place for women. My Y chromosome, penis, and testicles clearly violated that, never mind that I haven’t had sex with a woman in 14 years. I was glared at by a number of women, including one of the sales staff.
Luckily, I was able to recruit an attentive and sensitive woman who helped Mom find two bras (both age appropriate and easy to get in and out of), a girdle, and panties. She was sensitive to my mother’s needs, and was able to adapt to a challenging customer. The world did not end for me, nor did I feel the need for any kind of brain bleach (associated with the bra and panty purchase).
My mother was satisfied with her purchases, I survived unscathed, and I learned a valuable lesson about how to actualize accommodation. For Mom, it means ensuring that the script she has for her encounters with people is closely followed, and a minimum amount of improvisation takes place. She wants what she wants, and at 85, she deserves getting it as she wants it.
And I can live with that.