Hanging in my closet as I write this, carefully protected from dust and moth by plastic bags, are:
1. One pair of navy blue silk Armani palazzo pants, never worn since I bought them on sale at Neiman Marcus in 2000 even though I have several long-sleeved white silk blouses, also unworn and in plastic bags, purchased especially to wear with the pants if I were ever to wear the pants;
2. One pale greige Armani summer suit with elegant but difficult front closure, bought on sale at the Newbury Street Armani store in Boston in 2001 and worn twice to client Board of Directors meetings while I still practiced law. One daughter-in-law now suggests jacket could still be worn over sleeveless black dress in late spring and early fall, but perhaps doesn’t realize that sleeveless dresses are not (or should not be) for eighty-two year-old mothers-in-law, who in any event no longer attend events where Armani jackets wouldn’t look out of place;
3. A St. John sequined knit jacket (color: peach), with matching knit short skirt, long skirt, and floor-length pants (skirts and pants without sequins), purchased reluctantly at Neiman Marcus to wear as mother of groom on two separate occasions in the summer of 2003 — short skirt in June for younger son’s wedding, long skirt early in September for older son’s wedding. Pants never worn. Skirts worn only once each. Price: $2500 (plus tax) in 2003 dollars for whole kit and caboodle. Too expensive to give away/donate/throw away. Too good for every day.
There’s more, of course. And I haven’t even begun with the unworn shoes, unused handbags, leather gloves, three large silk scarves still in their lovely Hermes orange boxes, and even never-worn hats in my possession. But here’s a good place to stop and consider “too good for every day.”
This expression, and the conduct it purports to justify, came from my parents in my youth. They had both gone a long time with hardly any possessions at all. In their youth, they had with great difficulty escaped war, revolution, inflation and penury only to arrive in a new land where at first they had to scramble to earn even enough to eat and rent a room. It took quite a while before sales at the seductive department stores in New York that lined Fifth Avenue from 34th Street to 59th Street were within their reach.
Accordingly, they always said of their own new clothes and shoes, especially if “expensive,” that they were too good to wear every day. Such purchases were taken out of their boxes, tried on once more at home to make sure there had been no mistake, and then carefully put away, with their tags still hanging, in protective plastic bags. The tags and bags made the “good” clothes hard just to slip off their hangers and put on, even if it was a special occasion. “Good” shoes also had to be extracted from their bags, and the shoe trees removed, before wearing. Better, and easier, to wear the same old comfortable things all the time. That way you wouldn’t spoil the “good” ones.
Their philosophy could not be applied so rigorously to purchases for me while I was a child because I was always outgrowing my clothes; if everything new had been saved for “good,” I would have had nothing to wear. That said, one dress and one pair of shoes were always designated as not for every day.
It did apply, however, to dishes and flatware and tableware. After I grew up and my mother took a job at an upscale department store in Los Angeles where she enjoyed an employee discount, she acquired a whole set of fragile Noritake china for twelve. It had a dainty silver-edged rim of delicate pale blue flowers and was nearly translucent when held up to the light. But it was perhaps only once or twice used on an actual table, when a guest my parents considered sufficiently important came to dinner. Moreover, the Noritake took up too much room, and might be exposed to too much knocking about, on the kitchen shelves. It therefore needed a fine china cabinet of its own, which was duly purchased for a very good price at an estate sale in a wealthy suburb and placed against the wall in the dining alcove. Once in the cabinet, God forbid the Noritake be actually taken out, eaten on and have to be washed. A piece might break in the sink — and then it wouldn’t be a complete set, to be admired through the glass doors of the china cabinet.
Need I add there was eventually a silver-plated Revere flatware service for twelve in its own velvet-lined mahogany box, to be used with the Noritake if the Noritake were ever used? (Sterling was forever beyond my mother’s reach. Not that she wouldn’t have reached if she could.) And there were odd bits of crystal glassware, from which my parents seldom drank. (Never a whole matching set, alas!) There was also a shelf in the linen cabinet for fine linen tablecloths, with matching linen napkins. And napkin rings. The tablecloths came in various sizes, for variously sized tables, all but one of which my parents never owned. Thank goodness my mother did not go in for cut glass, a mania in which my second mother-in-law overindulged.
[I once also had a sister-in-law, acquired through late marriage to a former brother-in-law, who not only put plastic covers on her “good” upholstered furniture, but also plastic covers on the allegedly “antique” wood tables and cabinets in the living room. I know she was saving everything from cigarette burns and circles made by wet whiskey glasses. But saving it all for what? For whom?]
I understand now that all this saving was like saving money in the bank. It was to have for a rainy day. It was because “we may never again be able to afford another like it.” Some of that is likely what keeps the Armanis and St. Johns and Ferragamo shoes, and virgin Hermes scarves and Longchamps handbags safely in my possession — although I almost certainly will never again have any occasion or opportunity to flash such finery. For a very long time in my life I had absolutely no discretionary money at all, and then during a relatively brief period of lawyering (after paying off all debt) I did have the money to buy these very nice things, and now I don’t and never will again.
“Wear them, use them!” says Bill. I know he’s right — at least about the shoes and scarves and handbags. (Armani at Whole Foods or walking along the Delaware-Raritan canal might be a bit much.) So what if I can’t replace them when they wear out? I’m wearing out too, although I hate to admit it. I might wear out before the shoes and bags.
That’s what happened to my parents. When my mother died, I found two double-wide closets full of nearly unworn clothing that was too good for every day. Hanger after hanger of immaculately preserved black and navy and grey coats and dresses the Duchess of Windsor would not have turned up her nose at. Half a dozen pair of Italian pumps made of beautiful glove leather, much too small for me and ten years out of style. Bags, scarves, kid leather gloves in eight neutral colors, fine hemstitched batiste handkerchiefs, some embroidered by hand with her monogram: “M.”
I kept three of the handbags (one was a Mark Cross), some of the scarves, the gloves (although I never wear gloves until it’s too cold to wear my mother’s unlined ones), her few pieces of real jewelry (one of which I had given her) — and also one red sweater that must have been much too big for her but did fit me, because it had kept a faint trace of the fragrance she favored. All the rest I had to give away to the nursing aides who worked at the assisted-living facility where she spent her last weeks. What else could I do with it?
A daughter-in-law accepted the box of Revere silverplate. I don’t think she’s ever used it though. Maybe it’s too good for every day? The linen and napkin rings I donated to the Vietnam Vets. Neither daughter-in-law wanted the Noritake. I don’t either; it’s not what I would have chosen if I had to choose a china pattern. But there it is, taking up space in my kitchen cabinet. Sometimes I even use it, usually when we have more than two or three other people for dinner — because I myself have no “good” dishes. It’s so clearly not my style that when I do set it on the table, I have to keep myself from explaining that it’s my mother’s. Unfortunately, so far there’s been no breakage; it’s still a complete set.
I’m also working on wearing the Hermes scarves and carrying the Longchamps handbags more often. Really I am. The Armanis and St. Johns? Habits of mind are hard to break. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about them tomorrow.