At some point this spring I need to put the pink fleece housecoat away.
Do you use the term housecoat? I do, although I have been known to shift between that word and robe. Bathrobe, I suppose is the more specific term, as robe on its own feels too formal. It calls to mind graduations and courthouses, lawyers and judges. Robes of honour. Housecoat is, to me, the more serviceable kind of term, a coat you wear over your house clothes, or your night clothes. It makes sense.
I have friends who use the term dressing gown, too, and while I know what they mean, (they literally mean a housecoat) the dressing gown image always makes me think of old Hollywood. Women in satin, lace, and velvet and men in tapestry or brocade.
I guess it’s all a matter of where you live, where you grew up, and who you grew up with. My dressing gown friends have predominantly English lineage, while those who prefer the term bathrobe are more staunchly Canadian or American.
Housecoat falls somewhere in between, perhaps, and since that is the term I grew up with, that is the term I will use throughout.
At any rate, whatever you call it, at some point I need to put it away for the season.
The housecoat is made of heavy fleece. Two patch pockets, inner ties—also fleece—and a belt of, you guessed it, fleece. It reaches nearly to my ankles and I always think of how my mother said they’d expected more from me. In the height department, that is. In every other way I was fine, I guess. Just shorter than expected. She blamed my dad’s side.
The housecoat is pink. Not a colour I typically wear, but it is one that suits me, suits my complexion. When John and I were planning our wedding I had insisted I wanted an ivory dress, feeling that was much more sophisticated than white, the result of watching too many Edwardian dramas on PBS growing up, perhaps. There was a lot of ivory in Brideshead Revisited if I recall. Truth be told I really wanted to get married in a red dress, but there are things you sometimes will sacrifice for the greater good and less drama. At least I do. Or rather did. In 1995. My mother tsk-tsked at my choice of ivory, insisting that I should wear white. And, to prove it to me, she took me to “Get My Colours Done” which was a real thing in the 1990s, in case you’ve heard this phrase before and wondered what in the actual hell that meant. Indulge me while I elaborate.
These “Colours” places were rampant. I think they started out as home parties (like Tupperware and Aloette) and eventually moved to brick and mortar shops in malls and sometimes in hair salons or spas. It worked kind of like this: you would go to one of these places and sit in front of a well-lit mirror. Ideally (again, it was more than 25 years ago, memory may not serve) you went without makeup so your actual skin tone would be truly visible, and a woman would drape various coloured scarves around your neck and hold them up to your face. She would then tell you what “season” you are (seriously!) and what colours you should be wearing to reflect that season.
When my mother and I went, she informed the woman draping the scarves that I had chosen ivory as my wedding dress colour and the two of them had a good laugh. Then she placed an ivory scarf under my chin and remarked something along the lines of “Look how sallow!” When she held up the white one, I had to agree it did look better.
I probably still have the little wallet of colour swatches that was part of the fee for the scarf draping. You were supposed to carry it in your purse as a reference for when you’re shopping for clothes and accessories. There were guidelines for jewelry as well! And frames for glasses! The place I went to also had a line of makeup that you could be guaranteed would be perfect for people of your season. I remember being skeptical, but I did buy a lipstick that I wore every single day—including my wedding day—and I think I cried when I went back to the mall and the place was gone. RIP shade #495, we hardly knew ye. I don’t think these places exist anymore, although maybe they do, but they certainly fall into the deep, deep archives of my brain known as “Now That’s What I Call The 90s!”
And because you’re probably dying to know, I am a winter.
But the pink housecoat. I put it away every year around this time and it’s always hard. But eventually I will be wearing it and find myself sweating in the early spring warmth, the early spring damp. Between that and an ill-timed (are there well-timed?) hot flash, I begin to resent the pink fleece housecoat, and so I put it in the laundry. But once it’s washed and fluffed, I hesitate. I let it hang on its hook for a few days. And then, ultimately I pack it away.
I bought the pink fleece housecoat for my mother the year before she died. When I’d asked her what she would like for Christmas she told me she needed a new housecoat. Practical to a fault. So I delivered, but I made sure it was pretty. Serviceable, yes. Warm. With pockets (for tissues, her reading glasses, the lemon drops she liked to have on hand) but also with a lovely stylized rose print stamped into the fleece, and the perfect shade of pink. Not too pale, not too dark. It’s the pink of winter cheeks, of peonies. And yes, of roses. It brought out the blue of her eyes, the roses in her cheeks. It fit her perfectly, too—not too long, not too short. It was truly the perfect housecoat for winter. She loved it.
When she died my brother and his wife were living with her. They’d moved in when she first got sick to help with the dog and the cats, and they were still living there when she died. We began to make plans to sell the house, and at one point, after meeting with a realtor, they started to stage the house, which apparently means strip all of the love and comfort and personality out of a house, rendering it less of a home, more of a model home, but I digress. On the day I arrived to go through my mother’s clothes and things, they pointed me toward the garage.
In a kind of daze, I opened boxes labelled “Clothes” or “Shoes” and while I tried to go through everything, it felt wrong. Shouldn’t her things have been in her bedroom? In the wardrobe where it all belonged? The dresser drawers where she lovingly tucked lavender sachets and which she lined with flowered paper? The garage was hot (it was July) and dark, and it really was all just wrong, just absolutely wrong.
On my more charitable days, I like to believe they were trying to help. Perhaps they thought it would be too emotional for me to be in her bedroom with all the memories as well as the clothes. Perhaps having everything in one place would help. Perhaps.
On other days, even twelve years later, I rage about being denied the experience of holding each item, of remembering where it had come from, when I had last seen her wearing it. In my mind on those days I accuse them of, in their haste to sell, willfully ruining this final comfort, this last chance to feel the house as it was with her in it.
In the end, all the clothes from her wardrobe, her dresser that had been boxed and stashed in the garage were donated. The items hanging in a closet in my old bedroom, I found, had been spared. Included was a wool cape, a gorgeous linen wrap dress, and a pink fleece housecoat. I gathered those remaining things in my arms and I ran.
The house eventually sold and a lot of the furniture and things came to us, to our already cluttered attic. I had taken the cape, the dress, the housecoat and hung them in the attic closet and forgot about them.
A couple of years ago we started purging things from the attic. Donating things like my dad’s golf clubs, our kids’ old skates, and putting furniture we were never going to need or use out at the curb for neighbours to take. We were exceptionally popular for a time. Eventually I threw open the doors of the closet to see what else could be donated.
The beautiful cape was still there, but on me it looked like a BBQ cover. The linen dress was not my size or style at all, but the pink housecoat beckoned. It was stale after nine years hanging in a dark closet under the eaves, but it washed up beautifully and one evening I went up to change into my pajamas, and threw the housecoat on over top.
“Nice housecoat,” my younger son said. “You look like Nana.”
I wore it this morning as I drank my tea and worked on the New York Times Spelling Bee, my morning ritual. But the familiar warmth crept through me, and I know I probably only have another week or so with my pink housecoat before it will have to be replaced with something lighter, something less bulky. And that’s ok. Because come October, when the mornings are chilly, and before we put the furnace on, the pink housecoat and I will be reunited. And I’ll do what I do every time I put it on: I’ll pull the lapels together under my chin and say to the mirror, “You were right, white was the right choice. And this is the perfect pink for us, too.”
Love this post. I refer to them as ‘dressing gowns’ because that’s how I grew up. I too had my colours done, way back when, and turned out to be a ‘Winter’ which left me very disappointed because I desperately wanted to be an “autumn”. I had that same swatch, now long gone, and yes I wore ivory at my wedding, just to be different. I suppose it should have been white. I did go through my mother’s closet at her retirement lodge after her death. I laid out all her clothes on the bed, one by one. I’m sorry you were denied that.
Thanks so much, Pearl. It felt good to finally write out my feelings about missing out on the sorting of my mum’s clothes. Thank you for sharing your experiences—and for reading!
I loved this post so much — thank you so much for sharing it with the world — and I am so sorry that you were not able to grieve the way you needed to.
After I lost my mum in high school, I wore one of her flannel nightgowns until it was in tatters. I washed it carefully and still have tucked away in a chest. Someday when I’m brave enough, I’ll pull it out and add it to a quilt. 🙂
Oh, that is beautiful and heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing that lovely story. And thank you so much for reading.