Loehmann’s fitting room was unusually crowded. No matter where I stood in this large mirrored space, once a discount designer paradise, reflections of female flesh surrounded me. Tall and short, firm and flabby, long and lean, all invested in pulling on, yanking off, zipping, and unzipping.
I removed black gabardine pants and a black long-sleeve sweater from the metal rod that extended from the mirrored wall. The pants slid smoothly over my hips. Then I faced the bane of my seventy-one year old body: the teeth of the zipper refusing to rise to the plastic button at the waistband. Sometimes the tag said one size, the label another, so I scurried from the fitting room half dressed to make an exchange, annoyed, but sustained by momentary relief that the fault belonged to the store and not my body. But ticket error is rare.
The sweater, free of spandex, hid the newly formed love handles attached to my mid-section. The ticket stated the designer value at $250. Loehmann’s let me own it for $65. And it was Italian.
I shared the joy with my neighbor. She was wiggling a long, slim-fitting, silvery dress down her well-proportioned body. Three rows of seed pearls framed the edge of the low-cut neckline. She kept yanking at the bodice.
“If my mother saw me in this dress, she’d tell me I’m displaying too much cleavage.”
I’m a psychoanalyst. I did not have to wonder why she cared what her mother thought. She was young, much too young to exchange sleek and sexy for boring and dowdy. It was bit disconcerting that she worried that her mother will admonish her for showing too much cleavage. I wondered how her mother feels observing her daughter’s firm young breasts.
“It looks great on you.”
“Well, my husband will love it.”
For now, if that helped her buy the dress, I was all for her pleasing her man. I did hope she would not always look to him for permission to be alluring, that she would come to see her own allure and never allow it to become fleeting.
“You need to find smashing sandals to match.” She left the room smiling, the silver number flung over her arm.
I fought my way into a pair of DKNY jeans. They bit my fleshy waist. A woman distracted me from my angst.
“Could you please zip me?”
Tall, thin, shapely, and flat-stomached, she towered over everyone in the room. Her dark brown hair was slicked back in a small ponytail with an amber clip. As I moved the zipper upward, I caught a glimpse of her peach lace bra and matching panties. Zipped up, she stood back and admired herself in the mirror, turning her body slightly right and then left. Then back to me.
“What do you think?’
I hesitated. The dress fit her perfectly, but the pattern was another thing, some kind of animal print. I was discreet: “It’s not my taste, but it fits you great.”
She swirled slightly left and right once more before asking to be unzipped. I watched as she removed the dress and walked it to the reject rack. She looked relieved, as if I had just validated her hesitation.
I have always thought of the setting in Loehmann’s as the try-on room as opposed to the fitting room, the mission of women seemed less about fitting clothes than about how we tried on our various selves.
Two of my selves were in a battle. One stood in front of the mirror with a self-image of a young woman who still desired sexy and alluring clothes. Another struggled with the painful reality that the same mirror reflected my aging body as I searched for magic: clothes that fit and still satisfied an exotic or erotic need.
I yearn to see the young girl in the long silvery dress and the statuesque woman wearing a peach bra and matching panties as my mirror image, my doppelganger: a look alike. Freud called it the uncanny reality, a primitive attempt to deny mortality. When the double no longer serves a purpose, it becomes the uncanny omen. These women are no longer doppelgangers for me. I am closer to death than omnipotence.
Sounds, shapes, and images permeated the fitting room. I was not alone with my feelings. Women tried on clothes much too small, much too tight, distressed when zippers refused to zip, buttons barely buttoned, and belts failed to encircle their waists. Some admitted to intentionally buying a size too small with the idea of losing weight, hoping this time they would stick to their diets.
I found comfort in being a voyeur. I wanted to watch women struggle with zippers, trying on too tight dresses, buying for someone else’s body. Then I could feel omnipotent. And be forever young.
But I can’t. Each new birthday brings me closer to that reality. Each bone density test inches me closer to osteoporosis. Recurrent sciatic pain is compromised by my inherited scoliosis. I’m a stone sculptor, but my body tells me to pack up my hammer and chisels for the comfort of clay.
It has been suggested that seeing the face of our deceased mothers in our own mirrors brings us closer to the reality of death. The very thought stirs anxiety. I have a photo of my mother in her early forties. She wears a light-colored suit fitted at the waist with a thin pencil skirt that reaches mid-calf. A light-colored, narrow-brimmed hat with a whimsical spray of wide-holed net hangs halfway down her face. Black high-heeled shoes open on the sides and buckled at her ankles with a narrow strap give emphasis to her slim legs. Her right arm lightly clutches her waist; her left arm hangs loose by her side and holds a cigarette.
That my mother dressed in sexy, alluring clothes seems a distant memory. I see only her deteriorated body. The older she got, the more agonizing was the ritual of witnessing her pained facial expression as she stared into her closet and bemoaned that she had nothing to wear. Her closet, now sparse, had the same feeling of hollowness as a room without furniture. The shelves still contained her hats. A few pairs of worn-out shoes, in their original boxes, sat on the shelves below the hats. Still she filled her closet each year with cedar and mothballs.
“Why do you bother?” I would ask.
Her answer: “It’s important to protect your clothing.”
When she needed something for a special occasion, I was drawn into her desperate plea for me to help her sort through the meager selection of garments. A pale blue and white water-print dress seemed a possibility; loosely fitted to hide the imperfections. She tried it on. Not perfect, but acceptable enough that I could ease my own despair.
“Why don’t you go shopping?” I would ask.
“What’s the point? Nothing looks good on me anyway.”
She was right. My mother claimed the height of five foot five and one-half inches but osteoporosis and scoliosis had reduced her down to five foot three. I would try to convince her to see the miscalculation, but she insisted I was wrong. Her stomach, distorted, showed clearly the wear and tear of two caesareans and abdominal surgeries—having been sliced open and sewn back together again too many times—like the seams of a well-read road map.
At the age I am now, she was hunched over and flabby, and her large breasts, scarred from multiple benign biopsies, had fallen nearly to her thick waist. Her flesh protruded between the end of her sturdy beige bra and the start of the cumbersome girdle that held her Barely There nylon stockings firmly in place. Barely There was the only color she wore. Barely there, somehow a metaphor for the life into which she had seemed to dissolve. Resistant to buy anything new, try anything new, be anything new.
I worked hard not to look like my mother. Obsessed with diet, exercise, yoga—so as never to grow old and see myself as her in the full-length mirror. No girdles for me—I would never allow any part of my body to need harnessing. My bras would remain skimpy, lacey, revealing. Gorgeous belts were my favorite accessories. Then the inevitable happened: menopause. I had no severe symptoms, no scars to cover up, but my body still felt attacked.
Those belts still live in a white plastic garbage bag at the bottom of my clothes closet. Occasionally I peek inside and enjoy a memory of how they enhanced my wardrobe. Every now and then, I dare to try on my favorite one—black elasticized band with the brushed gold triangular buckle studded with black stones encased in bronze that I bought in a Mill Valley boutique on a visit to California. Disaster.
My loss is too powerful to dismiss as trivial. I yearn for my lost estrogen, and despite artificial remedies, counting carbs, and twice-a-week Pilates; my body continues to betray me. “Five feet four and one half inches,” the young nubile technician calmly announces before the appointment with my new doctor. I cringe, aware I have just written five feet six on the intake form. I think of my aged mother who stood firm to five feet five and one half while I enjoyed the sadistic pleasure of towering over her frail body in a relentless quest to make her admit the truth of her shrinking. Now I’m shrinking and I’m scared, scared I will tumble down to her size—terrified my waist will grow into hers.
Recently a woman in the fitting room turned to me and asked, “How does this look on me?” She was wearing a floral dress with small brass buttons fighting to stay within the buttonholes, the waistband pushing against her midriff. I wanted to escape her, all the while entranced by her presence. I sneaked a glance in the mirror, wishing to concentrate on my own mission, but her pleading eyes met mine straight on, eager for my opinion. I offered a pitiful response: “If you like it, that’s all that matters,” but I only responded in such a way as not to hurt her. I turned away, careful to discourage further conversation. I’m aware of my contempt. I hated her for wanting to use me as her mirror. I was also scared she would want to become a mirror for me.
I am not oblivious to my struggle to abandon a body-ideal that keeps me contemptuous of women content to grow old gracefully. The older my mother got, the more she was afflicted with medical conditions that compromised her independence. A benign brain tumor, inoperable, but not life threatening, compromised her hearing and thinking abilities. The most permeating and incapacitating of all––a crippling rheumatoid arthritis haunted her for the last ten years of her life. This painful and debilitating disease would rightfully consume her and, of all her infirmities, bring her nearest to her bodily self-absorption and up the ante of her dependency.
I had weathered most of my mother’s illnesses by cutting myself off from feelings. I went through the motions of brief hospital visits, phone calls through uncomplicated recovery, and when the wound healed, I was free from caring. She could get back to her life and I could get back to mine. Watching her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis in the last five years of her life after my father died was a different story. Unlike the surgeries and other afflictions, she did not heal from rheumatoid arthritis and return to life as usual.
She swallowed mega-doses of aspirin to relieve the pain, and when aspirin lost its effectiveness, she was dosed with cortisone. She experienced serious side effects: weight gain, facial puffiness, easy bruising, and thinning of bones. Whatever remedy she used, relief was short-lived. After temporary remissions, the symptoms flared up again. Pain from stiff and swollen joints bombarded her. Her pain lingered, then grew in intensity. The pain ate at her joints and ate at her life.
I tried to discount that whatever I tried to do to alleviate my mother’s suffering was in vain. Her major complaint was she could not find shoes that allowed her to walk without excruciating pain and still afford her some sense of style. In her younger healthier days, she always wore high heels. Her crippling pain destroyed that joy. I made a diligent search to find her five pairs of shoes, but when I brought them to her, she refused to try on even one pair. The rational side of me understood she was in too much pain to make the effort. The irrational daughter could only pack up the shoes in defeat. I might have had more empathy if I had not been struggling to stay intact while she disintegrated.
Eight months before my mother’s death, she got up from the kitchen table in excruciating pain. She spent the next several weeks in a rehabilitation hospital. She improved, but it became increasingly clear that she was no longer able to live alone. The only option seemed a nursing home.
I wish I could have been one of those daughters who wanted to take her home to live with me. One of those daughters I saw shopping with their mothers in Loehmann’s and admiring each other in the fitting room, or lunching together in restaurants. The very wish still incites sadness. Sadness that I lived on an emotional seesaw—wanting her out of my life and wanting us to have a life.
In the end, my mother made the nursing home decision for me. The rehabilitation hospital transferred her to a regular hospital. Two days later, she suffered respiratory failure while undergoing routine testing. She spent the last months of her life, worn out and frail, attached to a breathing machine. I could only imagine how besieged she was by the pain of her rheumatoid arthritis. She was always stiff in the morning. When she woke, she would immediately take aspirin and lie down. “I just need to thaw,” she would say. Being so inactive had to have intensified her pain, but I’m not sure which one of us was more helpless.
During visits, I watched the small screen monitor above my mother’s bed track her heart rhythm and blood pressure. A flexible plastic tube, inserted through her nose into the trachea and connected to the ventilator, pumped oxygen into her lungs. An intravenous needle taped to her hand dripped nourishment into her body from the glass bottle on a stand by her bedside.
Eventually they performed a tracheotomy, making an opening in her neck and placing a breathing tube into her windpipe. The intent was to give her greater movement. She could get out of bed and sit in a chair. It also allowed her to eat real food, but she was not interested. “Dear, maybe you can get your mother to eat something,” the nurse would say to me. “Usually family members are better at this than we are.” I tried. My mother insisted she had no appetite.
A month into her hospital stay, the nursing staff began making gradual attempts to wean her from the ventilator, but she could only briefly sustain breathing without it. She would not get better, and I could not stop feeling responsible for making her better. After a failed attempt to breathe on her own, my mother lapsed into a coma, betrayed by the only life force she knew––her body. I felt relief.
Is this why I keep the garbage bag of belts at the bottom of my closet? As a shrine of youth, a shrine of denial? Does discarding those belts mean I am discarding a part of me, my old self no longer valid? Am I confusing the joy of fitting into clothes with the joy of fitting into life?
I am not a woman who refuses to look at loss. I appreciate that where I am yet to be can be as fruitful as where I have been. I accept my body in the mirror as a concrete reminder of age. Still, my urge for perfection lingers. I don’t dismiss diet gurus who urge me to count carbohydrates, measure fats, imbibe protein drinks, and view exercise infomercials. I check for signs of aging, contemplate facelifts, dream of a liposucked-waist.
I want to protest. Why must discarding the urge to look younger mean denial of loss, instead of need for renewed pleasure? Is acceptance the solution to denial? Or is it giving up. Can’t moving toward mortality while looking better and feeling better be a good thing? If I want to stay thin, if I opt for the longed-for facelift, the nipped-in waist, does that mean I deny reality? Is it wrong to want to look better if it makes me feel better? I have not lost sight that who and what I am is more than my body. But I want to be a woman who looks fabulous, not one who looks fabulous for her age.
Women are the mirror image for other women, but it is a vital self that draws women with vital selves together. My mother is not my doppelganger. Yet, no longer alive, her ghostly image haunts me as a premonition of what lies ahead. When self-deprecating impulses flood me, I envision her deteriorated body and hear her voice long dimmed by the tracheotomy tube, but her image is not what I see in the mirror. At age seventy-one, my body does not resemble hers. Nor does my attitude about life and living.
I still have days when I want to lash out at my aging image. The other side of omnipotence is the reality of death. But my anxiety lies not in being svelte or flabby, nor is it simply a yearning to remain young. My mother’s image is more deadly than the threat of mortality. It is the threat of being barely there.
Paula Freed is a psychoanalyst, sculptor, memoirist, and playwright. Her clinical work is published in various professional journals. After receiving her MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, her focus moved to memoir. Her essay “Hard as Stone” was published in Blood and Thunder: Musing on the Art of Medicine. Her essay Doppelganger received honorable mention in Room Magazine’s creative nonfiction contest. Freed integrates memoir writing in her work with patients. She is working on a memoir Whatever Comes to Mind, an integration of the creative processes of sculpture, psychoanalysis, and writing to resolve conflict.