It is a brilliantly sunny spring morning, the magnolia trees are in full pink bloom, and I am standing in a friend’s kitchen with a number of other mothers, all drinking coffee and nattering, when I am approached by a beautiful and exquisitely-dressed woman whom I know only slightly.
”Excuse me,” she says, gesturing demurely to my torso, “I don’t know how you feel about wearing other people’s clothes, so I hope you won’t be offended by what I’m about to say–”
She pauses, and, seeing it coming, I think rapturously: “Offended? Are you kidding? Why, I’d be overjoyed!”
“–but do you need any more maternity clothes? Because I have a closet full of them, and I thought you might–”
It is with difficulty that I restrain myself from flinging my arms around her perfectly groomed person and yelling with excitement.
“Offended?” I say demurely, if a little quickly, “Are you kidding? Why, why–I’d be overjoyed.”
She beams with relief. “It’s just, you never know.” For it’s true that some women are immensely prickly about accepting hand-me-downs, as though it casts into question their ability to clothe themselves. It’s also perilous for the slim to volunteer clothes to the slightly less slim, who may recoil as if insulted from a size 4 or 6 dress, depending. But as most women who have ever gone through a pregnancy know, there is no prenatal pleasure quite so intense as opening a bag of free garments. It is a delight I suspect few men could ever enjoy. After all, women go to the bathroom together at restaurants, they exchange gruesome gynecological details with total strangers in doctors’ waiting rooms, and, crucially, they love to shop together. Unlike, I think it is fair to say, men.
My husband and I were once out to lunch with our friends David and Danielle, and she and I decided to pop together to a nearby shoe shop afterwards. It transpired that our husbands were each in need of a new shirt, and that there just happened to be a decent place to buy shirts just down the road.
“Perfect!” Danielle said happily, with a smile around the table and a little clap of her hands. “You two men can go together!”
The reaction was instantaneous. Both husbands instinctively recoiled as if a drag queen had jumped on their laps–the suggestion was, to borrow from Chandler, about as popular as a tarantula on a slice of angel food. “No,” they blurted at the same moment. “The idea,” murmured my husband, highly amused, while David was laughing, “Um, it’s not… really done.”
This incident convinces me that married men possess a common understanding that, a) shopping together is distinctly unmanly, and b) it would be utterly creepy for a man to offer, say, his paternity wardrobe to another expectant father.
“I can bring you the clothes today, if you like,” my elegant acquaintance is saying. “Why don’t you wait for me in the parking lot when you fetch the children and I’ll bring as much as I can.”
“That is so kind of you,” I say calmly, while inwardly yipping, “As much as I can? Oh boy!”
Five hours later the brilliantly sunny day–Washington’s first proper spring day since last year–has turned sweltering. Phoebe and Violet and I arrive at school to fetch the Bigs.
Paris saunters out, swinging his backpack, but Molly arrives at the car in a rush. Her face is alight, and there’s roguish gleam in her eye that was definitely not there this morning.
“Mummy-O,” she gasps, running up to me, “I did something so daring today! But–well, I’m not sure what you’ll think about it.”
“Daring is good,” I say enthusiastically, aware that she, like so many over-scrutinized first-borns, has learned to avoid risk in the hopes of avoiding criticism. “Within reason,” I can’t help adding.”
She brushes back a strand of hair. “Ok, listen to this. At the end of class today, Miss Mackenzie made an announcement.” Molly adopts the teacher’s tone of voice and continues, “I’m going to go around the room and I want each of you to tell me a fact about Pope John Paul II.”
“What a good idea. I hope you–”
“Wait,” Molly says excitedly. “At that point, Sarah leaned over and whispered to me, did the pope come from Holland. I said no, from Poland. So then the teacher went around the room, and, you wouldn’t have believed it, Mummy, every child except Sarah said, “He was nice,” and “He was good,” and, “He loved children.” And I was looking around, thinking, wow, this is the best you guys can do?”
“What did Sarah say?”
Molly laughs. “She said, ‘He was Polish.’”
“So what did you say? I hope you–”
“The teacher came to me last, and I said–” Molly straightens her arms in front of her, as one silencing a vast audience–”I said, ‘The Soviet Union hired an assassin to shoot the pope because of the pope encouraged the people of Eastern Europe to rise up against Communism!’ “And Miss Mackenzie’s mouth dropped open, and everyone’s head snapped around and they all looked at me.”
I whistle, impressed. For the newly self-conscious ten-year-old, as you may remember, being looked at by everybody holds a special terror. Also the children are very careful around Miss Mackenzie; no one wants to earn her displeasure.
Molly chuckles nervously, the way you do when you catch yourself after almost falling down the stairs. “After I said it there was this really long pause, and I was so scared, but finally she nodded, and said–here Molly changes her voice again–”Yes, children, the pope did play a role in undermining Communism.”
“Well done, Mollikins!” I beam, clapping her on the shoulder. She smiles broadly, clearly still amazed by her own audacity.
“Can we go now,” Paris complains, tugging on my arm. “It’s too hot.” His face is scarlet; his hair is damp with sweat, and for some reason he is covered with thick streaks of dirt.
“Sweetheart, how do you get so dirty?” I ask rhetorically, as innumerable mothers have asked innumerable sons since the flood. Briefly I wonder if it is possible to get him into the fourth-floor bathtub without him actually touching any surface in the house.
“I’m made for it,” he remarks with an amiable shrug. “Now can we go?” Inside the car, the little girls have unstrapped and are climbing around in the heaps of toys and socks and, I am sorry to say, candy wrappers still left from our nine-hour drive to Canada over the Easter break.
“Not yet,” I tell him. “I’m waiting for someone to bring me–”
A horn honks cheerily from across the parking lot, and I look up to see my friend waving from behind the wheel of a gleaming SUV. She drives up beside us, gets out, and opens the trunk–
Oh! Did I say trunk? No, it is far more than that. It is a miracle of maternity materiel, a profusion for the pregnant, an Aladdin’s Cave for the abdominally advanced, a–a cornucopia for the convex!
Piles of silk dresses, trousers, cardigans, cottons sweaters, jeans, a summer-weight wool suit (no, two!) t-shirts, swimsuits, a swimsuit cover-up, and all my size!
“My… my goodness,” I stammer, “This is… wonderful! Thank you so much!”
“Oh,” she says kindly, with a deprecating wave, “You are doing me the favor. I spent way too much money, the last time, and it’s all just been hanging there, going out of fashion.”
Now, dear Reader, I don’t want you to get the idea that I am some sort of frumpy troglodyte, or to think that I have not, from time to time, in my way, stepped out in some style, but the prospect of going through the next heavy, hot months in almost-fashionable, new-to-me maternity clothes–rather than eking out a bearable appearance from my own few large-waisted things, or, almost as bad, spending actual money for better ones–is so intoxicating that, at that moment, I feel almost physically unwell.
“Bye for now,” beams my benefactress. “I know I have a few more things upstairs. I’ll get them to you in a few days.”
“Gosh,” I manage, with some semblance of sang froid, “that would be terrific.”
It strikes me, as I load piles of gorgeous fabrics onto the laps of my uncomplaining children for the drive home, that this is the closest I have ever been to winning the lottery. How, you ask, does it feel? It’s not $52 million paid out in annual installments, but, well, it’s close.