Like so many of her time, my mother took to her sewing machine back in the 1960s and made herself a towel dress. Looking back, it boggles the mind why this fad took, though it was thrifty.
For those unfamiliar with this dress, you take two bath towels, sew them end to end, leaving a neck hole. Then you flip that towel poncho over, and sew up the sides, leaving arm holes.
My Mom's starred in one of my worst and best memories of childhood.
It was white, with a lime and avocado floral pattern. It even had the fringy tassles. As was the custom of the day, she actually wore it around town.
One day, shopping at Alpha Beta in Whittier, my Mom managed to topple a bottle of grape juice, which crashed and splattered red all over her. She somehow slipped in the pool. Big Mop Guy answered the call—clean up aisle 4!--as my sister and I froze, mortified.
My Mom laughed nervously, hilariously, and told the manager, "Lucky I wore my towel dress!"
Then, she wrung out the rump of her dress onto the linoleum and dripped on down the aisle. She looked like she'd been stabbed in the back.
This easily topped the list of Ways My Mom Embarrassed Me.
There were, of course, others.
The day when, fresh from learning to drive her ’63 stick shift Bug, she went over the parking curb at Bob's Big Boy and almost flattened a carhop. The night she searched an hour for her old Corvair at South Coast Plaza and an officer arrived as she cried with exasperation—on the trunk of her car.
The towel dress incident, due to the spectacle of breaking glass and appearance of blood spatters, held the biggest potential for a story with legs at nearby Meadow Green Elementary, from which a classmate might arrive any moment.
My New York-born friend Catherine never saw a towel dress, "although my Mom did wear caftans," she said. We agreed: both were just one door down from a housecoat, which is the most confused garment next to a skort.
We were talking long distance as Mother’s Day loomed. I told Catherine about how the holiday has become bittersweet, one of gratitude for my son yet longing for my mother to share him with. I shared the towel dress caper to lighten things up.
Instead, she found something profound in the story, something I now understand to be why I trot out this tale over the years.
"I see her as a Mom struggling to look after her two girls in the store, and handling an awkward moment with humor and aplomb," Catherine said. "I see a Mom who just taught her kids how to handle things. It makes me understand how she got through so much, with a kind of grace.”
Resilient, she was. She'd grown up in Nevada happy but poor, the eldest of five kids in the high desert town of Caliente, where her Dad was the butcher. Her mother fell in love with a man named Stormy, and Stormy moved them to California. While the adults went to jobs, my Mom effectively parented her four siblings until, at 19, she married my Dad.
She worked at a waste company to put him through USC. When my Dad’s white-collar promotion took us to Chicago, she had two small kids and was deeply lonely. As the wife of a traveling salesman always somewhere else, my Mom had an 8 year old boy, an 18-month-old daughter and soon, a newborn, in thigh deep snow and no car.
Not that many years later, she was making her own towel dresses, after my Dad was transferred back to the dry warm air where her orchids and roses and brood flourished.
By age 38, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five years later, it was found in the lining of her lung, and the next five years of treatments often left her reduced to chain-smoking Salems in a robe.
Hospitalized a lot, she often parented me by phone, walking me through how to grill a flank steak, or entertain my Dad's international sales guests. She listened to all my sob sister melodramas from 20 miles away.
The month of my high school graduation, she and my Dad and grandma went on the trip of her dreams, to Hawaii, where she wore an orange scarf over her bare head, and smiled gauntly for the camera. At 80 pounds, a towel dress would’ve hung off her.
The next month, on my brother's birthday, she died.
A few weeks later, I needed to cook a pot roast, and picked up the phone. I dialed the operator. I told her that my Mom had often talked me through making dinner, and now here I was solo. She actually stayed on the phone until the meat had browned in my Mom’s avocado green electric frying pan.
I train my memory on her legendary laugh that compelled you to join her, helped keep her grip, and the stories like the towel dress lark that she told on herself.
And so this Mother’s Day, over pancakes served on my Mom’s chipped rose China, we will celebrate all of the mothers in our lives, and add new towel dress tales as we commit them.
My son has already witnessed the scene I caused when I accidentally kicked off my clog and broke the soccer machine at Chuck E. Cheese. The tradition lives on.
A similar version of this essay ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2009, but the link is broken.