“Hang on!” I yell from upstairs, even though my family is ready to leave, and in the car, which is packed for the airport and behind schedule. “I just have to change my shirt real quick.”
Even my daughters, who are more astute than their father and brothers in these matters, will detect no appreciable difference in my outfit when I return. The white blouse I will be wearing will look exactly the same to them as the white blouse in which I took the stairs two at a time, trying to hurry; they will shake their heads at me if I try to explain. Only I will understand the vast improvement. Only I will know the difference.
Only I will understand why it is worth it to flip, at this late hour, through the entire section of my closet where a number of white cotton blouses “hang together”, not in the way the kids mean it, but in the literal sense, which is to say on hangers, together. Only I am suddenly aware that the one I am wearing is completely inappropriate for travel, because it is more fitted, and while it looks flattering under my jacket, it doesn’t breathe well. This combination of fit and fabric is making me “hot”, and not in the way that the kids mean it, but in the literal sense, which is to say damp and a little crazy. I always forget that this particular white blouse grabs weirdly, and demands to be tugged; this will grow intolerable on the airplane. I need my “good” white blouse, the one I currently like the best.
I slide the hangers one by one, searching for the perfect match. This one has buttoned pockets that are kind of cute but show through oddly under a thin sweater. Swipe left. The cut of this one might be a little old-ladyish though the covered placket can highlight a nice necklace. Swipe. This one is a great fit and the shirttails cover my butt kindly, but I am 5 years and 10 lbs past possibly tucking it in and it will be too long under the jacket. Next. Despite the cute rollable sleeves, this one is a little small; I should probably give it away. Swipe. I make a note to look for a blouse that has fabric more like this one but a fit like this other. And then I find it. This is the one I am looking for. I smooth down the new blouse before I replace my jacket, pleased with the change. And then, staring back at me in the mirror, I see her: a middle-aged person sailing a sea of similar shirts, none of which she can reasonably tuck in. I realize suddenly that I have arrived in the season of a woman’s life that can only be described in my memoirs as the White Blouse years.
It’s been years since I thought about it, the ironing basket that sat next to the dryer while I was growing up, a sea of clean, crumpled 100% cotton made up of my mother’s blouses. They were all white. They smelled wonderfully of bleach, and would, when she was done ironing our school uniforms and church clothes, smell also of spray starch, applied liberally enough to pop a collar, to hold a crease. To form the foundation of both an outfit and, in fact, a wardrobe.
I remember how ridiculous it seemed; why in God’s name were there so many? And weren’t they all the same? Sometimes my mom would ask if I’d seen her “good” white blouse—no, not that one, the other one—while I stared at her with incredulity. And then, to my adolescent amazement and disdain, she would notice a white blouse in the store, ooohing lovingly at the feel of its sleeve, adjusting the collar with the same tenderness that she fiddled with ours. She would admire for a moment as if falling in love, and then begin narrating their life together: wouldn’t it be pretty in summer, over shorts and a t-shirt or as a swimsuit coverup, crisply pressed in autumn with her jeans. Why was she even looking for another white blouse? I would wonder. I thought she had lost her mind,
And yet, I find myself now, admiring the catalogs and windows of stores that cater to my demographic, where a funky necklace on bright white blouse looks exactly like the easy-breezy vibe I’m after, where the particular specs of a collar beg for jacket lapel. Where the oversized boyfriend nature of a blouse suggests a trip to the beach as a casual coverup. “Now, that is a beautiful blouse,” I find myself saying aloud to no one in particular while strolling through stores or paging through catalogs. I am always looking for another.
It was more than 20 years ago when one Fourth of July, my sister borrowed our mom’s “good” white blouse, the one she, at that time, liked the best. Somewhere in the summer merriment, the white blouse was lost; it was very disappointing for everyone. But the passage of time after loss can bring forgiveness, and an appreciation of beauty and goodness in abstentia which, though possibly magnified, is surely comforting. Bring this event up to my mother today, all these years later, and her voice will take on the sort of reverent, dreamy tone you might use to describe your grandmother, or your childhood home. “The one that got lost?” she will ask sadly, before adding, with a decisive combination of affection and authority, “Now that was a beautiful blouse.”
Finally, I understand the difference.