ROBES, MY MOTHER AND ME
My mother gave me gifts of sleepwear throughout our lives together. My first memory of such gifts was a Christmas morning when I was perhaps five or six. My brothers and I habitually woke our parents before dawn on Christmas day, and they would oblige us by donning their robes and taking us downstairs to behold our presents, an event we’d been anticipating for weeks. One of my gifts was pajamas and, in high excitement, I ran behind the Christmas tree to change into them. The guilelessness of that act amused my parents, and it became one of those typical tales of cute behavior that parents tell about their children.
My first fascination with robes began with a kimono that my mother brought home from San Francisco’s China town. After World War II ended, general aviation began to gain popularity and my father started taking flying lessons. He decided they should fly by commercial airplane on their first trip to the West Coast in 1947. Despite her apprehension about flying in either large or small planes, Mom agreed. I still have the post card they sent me showing smiling passengers being served by a pretty stewardess.
I missed my parents with the full intensity of my nine-year-old self. Despite the presence of both grandmothers to care for us, I suffered an inexpressible loneliness. I remember trudging to my weekly piano lesson after school while they were gone. I hated that particular solitary walk, especially the home-bound trek in winter when darkness descended on me as I kept to edge of a busy street without sidewalks. That time of my parents’ absence I walked west towards the late afternoon sun and wanted to just keep on going until I found them in California.
Mom’s memento of their trip was a splendid kimono. Made of black silk and lined in saffron orange, a fiery gold and orange embroidered dragon adorned the back. Little silk sandal slippers matched the robe. The ensemble captivated me, especially when Mom let me try it on. I’d pose in front of her long dresser mirror, trying to see from every angle how I looked in the oversized robe. The silk felt light and soft against my skin, and I imagined a time when I’d be old enough to possess such a garment myself.
The spinning of wool, linen, cotton or silk thread and weaving it into cloth was developed during the Bronze Age, around 3,000 B.C. People began to wrap themselves in this woven material, and these first robes replaced the fur and leather hides worn in more primitive times. The Romans developed tunics to wear under their draped robes, and East Indian saris and Asian kimonos reflect that usage. The French word for a woman’s dress is robe. Today priests, monks, ministers and choir members, monarchs, judges, government officials, professors, graduating seniors and other wizards wear robes.
My mother taught me to appreciate the uses of a good robe. Often she didn’t get dressed immediately upon rising, unless she was going out that morning. She enjoyed, in fact coveted, time for a nap in the afternoon. Robes were good for resting before a quick bath, the children came home from school and dinner preparations began. Evenings Mom liked to get out of her clothes, perhaps a bit tight after one of her good dinners. On went the robe again to spend the last hours of the day relaxing with a good book, watching TV or visiting with family.
The robe I took to college was red-quilted cotton patterned with colorful flowers. I’d worked in a women’s clothing store that summer to earn extra money for my college wardrobe and unearthed it in the cluttered store’s basement. It was the kind of cozy utilitarian robe most girls wore in the all-female dormitories of the 1950s. Some girls who came from big cities and had attended eastern boarding schools sported stylish wool robes with satin piping and lounged their sleek bodies in ways I had only seen in fashion magazines. A group picture of my dorm mates taken fall quarter of my freshman year shows us dressed in pajamas and robes and me as the round-cheeked Iowa girl I was then. How innocent I look in my puffy quilt robe compared to those sophisticated girls who wore their robes as naturally as second skin.
I acquired apparel for the boudoir the summer I graduated from college and got married. Mother bought me pink, high-heeled mules to go with a filmy white nightgown and peignoir, trimmed with pink ribbons that my future mother-in-law had given me. Those bedroom slippers were fancier than any I’ve ever owned, before or since. They flattered my legs, as high heels do, which my mother observed didn’t go unnoticed by the young clerk who helped us. But such glamour has never been my style, and that finery languished in my closet for years without being used.
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