When writer Elissa Altman’s latest book, Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing, comes out on August 6, I’m going to need you to run, not walk, to get your copy. Not only is her writing sublime, but the way in which she reveals, with such honesty, what her relationship with her sometimes very difficult mother was like, will literally bring you to your knees. You can’t imagine how honored, thrilled and awed we are that she has written us an essay of our very own, and we’re even more floored that we get to bring it to you here. Sit back and enjoy.
My mother keeps everything: My childhood snow boots, Sassoon bell bottom jeans from her days as a newly divorced woman of the Seventies, Sonia Rykiel sweaters that last saw the light of day when Reagan was in office. I could never understand my former model mother's relentless obsession with holding on to beloved items of clothing long after they were destined for the donation pile. But an afternoon Marie Kondo-ing her closets yielded not only a dust-covered, pint-sized mariachi suit bought for me in Mexico when I was seven, it revealed my long-forgotten, much-loved agnes b. jacket, and the truth about why we cling so very hard to pieces of our past.
— Elissa Altman
THE FAMILY FASHION
I come to fashion genetically. My father — so diminutive that the Navy gave him a special dispensation to be a fighter pilot in World War Two, requiring that he fly over the Pacific with wooden blocks strapped to his rudder pedals so that his feet could reach them — dressed me in tiny tweed Hacking jackets from the time I was six years old, although my life did not involve horses. My mother, a languid, tall model and former television singer who (family myth holds) did not know she was pregnant with me for six months until she couldn’t remove her garnet cocktail ring, took a more practical approach: when I was not yet three, she outfitted me for the cooler weather in a stiff, unlined wool mohair coat the color of raspberry. It buttoned up the back like a small strait jacket, and I walked around in it with my arms out in front of me, Frankenstein-style.
“You screamed every time I took it out of the closet,” my mother says when I ask her about it. “You were always in such a bad mood.”
“Well what were you thinking, to put a child in something so uncomfortable?”
“It was a French fencing coat —” she says. “And it was gorgeous.”
“We weren’t French,” I say, “and I didn’t fence. I could barely walk.”
“So what?” she says. “You’re missing the point.”
We’re standing in her Manhattan apartment den, where I lived for two years after college in the mid-1980s on a leopard-print Jennifer Convertible pull-out sofa with a metal bar that ran underneath the middle of the mattress. On this particular afternoon, we’re Marie Kondo-ing the closet to make room. My mother opens the door and my 1980 high school turntable falls out along with two pair of skis, several wooden tennis racquets, The Life Cycle Library, and a tiny black and white Mexican Mariachi suit along with its matching velvet sombrero, purchased for me by my parents on a trip to Tijuana in 1970 when I was seven.
“Well we can’t get rid of that,” my mother says, folding her arms when I pick the dusty outfit off the floor.
“The last time I wore it Nixon was president,” I tell her. “Please.”
“You looked adorable in it. None of the other kids had one —”
“There were not a lot of seven year old Jewish Mariachis in Queens, Mom —”
She pouts and takes it out of my hands, blows the dust off it, and hangs it back up. She strokes it like a small puppy.
I remind her of the French fencing coat that I hated.
She reminds me: that’s not the point.
My mother, now eighty-three, taxonomizes her life by the contents of her closets: the Morgane LeFay wraps that my late stepfather, a furrier, gave to her in the Eighties. A size two leather safari jacket I bought for her sixtieth birthday the year my stepfather died, and that she tried to give to me even though my body is all Dolly Parton and hers, Kate Moss. There are the white, lace-front cotton duck hiphuggers with the snakeskin fly that marked the end of her marriage to my father, in 1978. A heavy, black leather pebble-grained peacoat she bought for me after I survived a near-fatal bicycle accident when I was eight: a picture taken of me in a local park with our English Sheepdog, Heathcliff, shows me wearing it with a white fake-fur helmet hat, which makes me look exactly like the dog, who is standing next to me.
“You were both so adorable,” she says, when I find the photo buried in a sheaf of papers stuffed into the back of the closet. “When we had to give him away, it was the beginning of the end.”
And she was right: it was. A one hundred pound herding dog in a two bedroom city apartment is never a good idea, and when my mother said enough, Heathcliff moved to a farm in New Jersey. My parents’ marriage went south shortly thereafter, and my father, previously known for his love of English tweeds, began wearing the highly-flammable triple-weave polyester Sears leisure suits that my mother hated, as if to beg a conflagration; she asked him to move out. Her own wardrobe began to reflect her new life as an independent woman of the Seventies, and was packed with Huk-a-Poo blouses and Sassoon jeans. She went back to work as a showroom model and married her boss a few years later. While they were dating, I was left to my own more conservative sartorial devices, which meant Levi 501s, white Lacoste polo shirts from the boy’s department at Lord & Taylor, piles of striped French boatneck sailor shirts that I was certain made me look like Jean Seberg but in fact made my shorter, bustier self appear even shorter and bustier. There was the Schott motorcycle jacket I bought at an Army-Navy on Bleecker Street in the West Village in 1985 with my first paycheck. A floor-length trench coat that came from a vintage shop in Boston. A waxed cotton hunting jacket lined in wool houndstooth from The Scotch House in London. I wore it once, and never went hunting.
“I can’t get rid of them,” my mother says in the den, surrounded by our past. “They’re us.”
We’re us, I say. Not the things we once wore.
But my mother clings fast to the costumes of our lives, in the way she clings to the scents: near-empty bottles of Halston, Charlie, and Norell stand on a lucite shelf in her bathroom above the toilet tank. When I ask, she simply shakes her head No. She is immovable. I lose the battle for space, for air. For our future,
Before I leave that afternoon, I rifle through the hallway closet just off the kitchen. Hanging off a hook in the back is a tiny red plaid umbrella, given to me by a neighbor when I was four, after I had my tonsils out.
Forget it — it stays, my mother says, cutting me off. But you can take these —
She pushes aside an assortment of heavily shoulder-padded fur-lined coats from the Nineties, and pulls out my three ancient woolen sleepaway camp blankets draped in old dry cleaning plastic. And then she hands me a short black leather jacket, and I gasp: double-breasted, snug, its sleeves are lined in a rich green paisley silk. I remembered once putting something in the breast pocket: a red ticket stub from a Lou Reed concert is still there, faded to gray.
“I’ve been looking for this forever —” I say. And I have. The leather is drying out, but still supple; the lining still bears the unmistakable scent of the musk perfume I wore thirty years ago. The jacket had been a gift from her.
One day in the late Eighties, my mother had come down to Dean and Deluca where I was working, to take me out to lunch. She arrived at 121 Prince Street — the store’s original location — early enough to drag me across the street to agnes b. She fell in love with the jacket, and insisted I try it on. I was a size four at the time, and it fit me perfectly.
Happy Birthday, darling, she said, although my twenty-sixth birthday was months away. It cost a small fortune. It was my first serious wardrobe piece with an important label.
Unlike the agonizing French fencing strait-jacket of my youth, I loved it and wore it everywhere: all over New York, on work trips to France, England, and Italy, where it split a shoulder seam at the Enoteca in Montalcino, and in Connecticut where I live now. It grew tighter with the passage of time, and eventually I gave it to my still-tiny mother, who slipped it on one afternoon when I came to visit her in the city. She spun on her heel the way she used to do in the showroom; the jacket fit her perfectly. She hung it in her hallway closet and promptly forgot about it. Until now.
“Can I bring it home?” I say. “I’ve thought about it for years.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in this kind of thing — “
She was right; I didn’t.
But I finally understood. It was the past.
My past; our past.
And although I have long outgrown it — I would have to drop twenty pounds to comfortably wear it — it remains a talisman, a harbinger of hope and promise, an emblem of who my mother and I once were when fashion was everything, and we had years still ahead of us to enjoy it together.
Elissa Altman is the author of the memoirs Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing; Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw; Poor Man's Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking, and the James Beard Award-winning blog of the same name. Her work has appeared everywhere from O: The Oprah Magazine and the Washington Postto the Wall Street Journal and beyond. She lives in Connecticut.