Good Underwear

My mother had a thing about underwear. She worried constantly about the state of the panties my sister and I wore. “What if you’re struck by a bus and you have to go to the hospital?” she’d say. “What will they think of you when they undress you?”

Now I was not a dirty child. I never would have worn dirty underwear. I liked things neat and tidy. I wasn’t into holes in my clothes. So I never quite understood why she thought this was such a danger. As far as I can remember, I never wore panties that a kid had to be ashamed of.

I imagine this phobia went back to her own childhood, in the early years of the 20th Century, when cleaning clothes was a true chore and people didn’t have a lot of extras in their dresser drawers. Hell, people often didn’t even have dressers.

And her young married years as the wife of an Iowa preacher who was paid in produce, not dollars, during the height of the depression. Nice, unpatched underclothes must have been something to dream of.

Since we lived in suburban New Jersey in my childhood, I wasn’t clear about how we were in danger from any buses either. There were a few floating around but certainly not a lot. And they were hardly renegade but driven by nice guys who kept to a schedule. I was the only kid I knew who took actually one.

Once a week, I would get on a public bus after school and ride it for an hour or so to where my mom worked – two towns over in a bookstore. Back then most bookstores were independent; no chains. I rode over, chatting the entire time with the driver, and was never imperiled by any bus coming close to running me over.

The year before, I attended a school in split session (I went afternoons), and had to spend one morning a week at Mom’s bookstore, where I read the books for children and gave very serious reviews. Around 11 a.m. I was allowed to go to the local diner and get lunch, all by myself. Every week I ordered a burger and a root beer, and felt very grown up. Then on Mom’s lunch hour, she’d drive me to school. Apparently once a week the boss needed her all day and that’s why I got to discover the pleasure of public transportation and the joys of eating out by myself.

As I grew older, Mother’s obsession with the state of my underwear continued. She always gave my sister and me what she called “good panties” for Christmas every year until the year before she died.

When I hit my 30s it began to feel somewhat odd to be getting “good panties” from my mom. Especially since they were her idea of what I should be wearing (let’s just say conservative) and not mine.

I started photographing them on one of my poodles – I always included photos as part of my thank you note because I could not figure out how otherwise to acknowledge the gift and yet convey the perhaps enough was enough. Tag, the miniature white poodle, who loved having her picture taken, was invariably my model. I did that into my 40s, at which point I gave up and just thanked Mom for them along with all the other odd gifts I received.

I  also sort of resented what the gift implied which was I couldn’t be trusted to get myself good panties. What did she think I was buying, I would ask myself. And then I’d try to see this as an attempt to give me something indulgent. But I could never quite get there.

I never knew what to do with these panties as I grew older. I mean, I have always given strange clothing gifts to the various charities who ask for clothes. But I wasn’t certain whether underwear was an appropriate donation. Somehow I felt maybe not. So normally I stuffed them in the bottom drawer of my dresser. And sometimes I took them along on trips to throw away as I traveled, thus reducing the weight of my suitcase by a couple ounces. Although this made me feel guilty somehow. As if I were wasting Mom’s money. Although Mom was the one wasting her money, I would say to myself, by giving me something I really didn’t want.

When Mom died, I thought about how the saga of the “good underwear” was now over. I wondered if I would miss the annual present, which was so weighted with my attempts to try to understand what drove her to do this, my guilt for not appreciating them, my irritation for what I felt the gift implied. (“Pam can’t even get herself good panties.”). I netted out that I would miss my Mom; and I would feel bad that on this, as with so many, MANY things, we never could seem to reach a compromise or even communicate clearly; that she was always angry with my responses, and I was always alarmed by the depth of her anger. Over time I began to wish, again and again, that we just could have sat down and talked things over and reached an understanding of each other’s point of view. And I would now like to hear about her early childhood in Chicago, where public transportation was a hazard and being poor meant dreaming about clean beautiful panties someday in the future.