When I was about eight years old my great-grandmother gave me a pink pantsuit that she had lovingly sewn by hand just for me; it was a cotton-synthetic mix, required no ironing, and was precisely the color of a cat’s tongue.
I was in a private elementary school and in some odd twist of religious reasoning, girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school unless they were part of a pantsuit. This meant that in addition to the pants, you had a matching jacket and often a vest as well, the addition of which somehow transformed the pants — in themselves a tool of masculinity and possibly immodesty and the devil — into an honorable part of schoolday attire for a second-grade suburban girl. I was violently opposed to dresses, which I considered highly impractical for dodgeball and kickball, my two favorite activities during recess; pantsuits met school requirements and allowed me to maintain my ferociously defended and regularly challenged position as queen of the asphalt.
My family lived carefully, in those years, on the lower edge of the middle class; paying for a private school for me required sacrifice. Gifts were carefully considered and occasioned a fair amount of celebration, perhaps because of their rarity and thoughtfulness. Interestingly, gifts were also often extravagant. A basketball goal. A Raleigh road bike. A trip to not one, but two movies. I was thrilled at the indication of love that the carefully hand-sewn pink pantsuit represented. I was a cherished great-granddaughter; a child over whom much care had been taken. It wasn’t that I liked pink (I didn’t particularly) or thought I would look attractive (I had never considered such a thing); in my mind and heart the physical outfit itself was minor compared to the rush of gratitude I experienced at being the object of such devotion.
My favorite outfit from the year previous was a three-piece purple paisley corduroy pantsuit (with bell bottoms!) and I’d loved it so well that my mother had taken me to Olan Mills to pose on their white shag carpet for a portrait. I had just outgrown that outfit when the pink pantsuit arrived in a cardboard shirt box with white tissue paper folded around it.
I had no idea, until I got to school, that clothes made by hand (and one could tell!) occupied the absolute lowest rung on the social status ladder. I had not even been aware that there was such a ladder. To this day I’m not sure how it was communicated. Was I sneered at? Were my sleepover invitations declined? Did I get picked last for kickball? Nonetheless, it was communicated, and I silently, shamefully, pushed the pink pantsuit to the back of my closet.
From that point I began to cultivate a carefully edgy “I don’t have to follow the rules if I don’t want to” approach. When with great ceremony I was inducted into the National Honor Society, I horrified my parents and extended family by choosing to wear sloppy overalls and leaving my sneakers unlaced. I wore cowboy boots to our very traditional church on Sundays. I reluctantly purchased one dress for my high-school graduation, and later refused to attend my college or graduate school graduation ceremonies. My wedding dress was a white cotton everyday garment; it was the first dress I saw when I walked into Goldsmith’s on the day I could no longer put off finding something in which to get married.
Mussie, wherever you are, thank you for your unreserved love. I didn’t wear your pantsuit much, but it helped me become the slightly out-of-the-mainstream, fiercely determined, and sometimes relentless woman I am today. Maybe there were days when I took it too far. But you know what? It felt good to be a woman who made my own way. I cherished your gift, and I loved you. You shaped me more than you knew, and I’m glad to be the woman I am.