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My mother is fond of saying she’s tired of doing things “the hard way”.  She usually says this as she’s about to take us out to dinner or purchase something disposable instead of reusable.  It’s as if her whole life she’s been needlessly complicating things and she’s ready to sit back, relax, and call a gardener.  Well, she’s only half right.

Maybe she has been doing things the hard way, but there’s no stopping her now.  Yesterday, for example, she and my father drove up to his brother’s house in a suburb of Boston to pick up my sister’s former vehicle, a 1990-ish Honda Del Sol.  It’s been sitting in my uncle’s garage since my sister realized the downfall of her teenage fantasy that she wouldn’t have to schlep anybody around if she had a convertible with no back seat; she now has to regularly schlep people around for her job as a case worker.  So her little car went to my uncle’s garage.  He never drove much – just to pick up groceries an cat litter, and doesn’t seem to drive anymore, so his garage was just waiting for a car my family had no use for, but couldn’t part with.  Last week, my parents stopped by my uncle’s house and checked on the car.  My dad thought its clutch was shot, and figured that if the disuse had done it harm, it might be time to sell the little car.  Mom called the insurance company, and found out that for about “a dollar a day,” they could add it to their policy.  They have no need for the Del Sol.  Mom already has 2 useless cars taking up space in their garage: a 1973 MGB, and my brother’s former car, a 1989 Honda Prelude.  My brother ditched his car when he became Metro and Urban, and discovered the MBTA.   So if they need a convertible, they’re covered.  And if they need ridiculous sound systems that eat up trunk space and make the car impossible to ride in (the amp takes up frivolous space where seat padding might have once been), they’re covered.  Why not bring home another useless car?

That strikes me as doing things “the hard way” – perseverating on keeping, insuring, and maintaining cars they have no use for, rather than selling them, banking $2K for each, and reclaiming garage space. 

While I try to eschew their kind of craziness and logically flawed stratagems, I also find myself undertaking ventures that, while noble in theory, end up needlessly complicating everyday tasks. 

Am I Handy?  Is Mr. Apron?  Then why do we attempt home improvement tasks, only to get frustrated with each other and dissatisfied with the results?  Though we successfully (with my father’s initiative and guidance) installed cork flooring in the kitchen, I see the flaws we left behind, and the unfinished trim we have yet to install.  We are not professionals, yet we undertake jobs better suited for guys named Bob or Frank wearing paint-stained coveralls. 

It’s not just grunt work I try to do myself.  It’s also crafts.  There’s a new spirit of DIY that is infiltrating the Interwebs and my generation.  It’s an amalgam of a new Arts & Crafts movement (a turn of the last century movement which sought to rebel against mass produced industrial labor) and a “recessionista” frugality brought on by the current economic woes.  Though I myself haven’t started doing any crafting specifically because the stock market tanked and unemployment exploded, it’s finally considered au courant to be thrifty.  People are embracing my mentality at last.  If only this had happened when I was in middle school, I might have stood a chance at being cool (Who am I kidding?  It would have taken a continental shift for me to be cool back then.). 

On craftster.org, a website and online community dedicated to do-it-yourself crafts and inspiration, you can often read posts beginning like this: “Well, I saw it in a store, and I thought, I could make that myself!”  So we go home and do it, often cheaper, often with higher quality materials, and often customized in a way that isn’t available commercially. 

But sometimes it’s not quite the same, because we don’t have access to commercial grommet machines or industrial sewing machines, or the right kind of stretch lace.  We’re not electricians, yet we insist on wiring light fixtures.  We’re not apprenticed wood-workers, yet we convince ourselves we can build shelves and cabinets.  We’re not pastry chefs, yet we try our hand at profiteroles and custards, and bacon-flavored Jell-O.  We try fondant and upholstering and tailoring and book-binding and silver-smithing, all in the name of craft and the DIY spirit. 

Where did this come from?  Where did the drive to turn our craft rooms into mini-factories originate?  Why aren’t we still tatting doilies for the dining room table and making needlepoint canvas tissue box covers with clever sayings by Jesus? 

For me, personally, the DIY spirit has many origins.  From a young age, I saw my mother sewing.  I saw she could make clothing unavailable in stores.  I loved the yearly birthday suits she would make me in my childhood, and it was only natural I learned to sew.  Both sets of my grandparents struggled through the Depression, and while it affected each of them in different ways, I believe I did not escape uninfluenced.  From my father’s parents, I inherited that noble value of home maintenance and being Handy.  My grandfather was a notorious skin flint, who would go miles out of his way to avoid the nickel toll on the Massachusetts Turnpike.  Their house was furnished simply, and there was nothing frivolous to be found.  My father, too, is cheap.  He’s an embarrassingly bad tipper at restaurants, and never met a project he couldn’t get into, from shelves to desks to bookcases to coat racks.  He’s not so much into details, having ADD, but he generally does good work (the bookcase he built me for my 8th birthday to house my paperbacks now hangs sturdily in our living room and hides our DVDs.).  He never cleans up the sawdust, but he’s definitely competent.  My mother’s parents, having survived the Depression, started collecting “valuables”: clocks, National Geographics, pianos, shoes, stuffed animals, dolls, you name it.  While I’m sure they had unearthed many unbelievable garage sale finds in their lifetimes, the result now is my attitude that I’ll make myself find a use for the extraneous crap in my life.  Mailing envelopes are reused until they disintegrate, take-out Tupperware finds myriad new lives storing food, sewing supplies, and seedlings.  While I’m not a hoarder, I do try to see a new life in many things others would throw away.

Now that we’re done blaming my family and the 1930s economy, we can address the difficulty with my insistence on doing things myself.  If I want to paint the bedroom, reupholster the dining room chairs, make new window coverings, wire a pendant lamp out of a colander, and sew new baby gifts for all my pregnant friends, it’s going to take longer than just going to the store, hiring an interior decorator, or calling a handyman.  With the glut of cheap products from China, it might end up actually costing more; it certainly costs more in my time and energy.  When I’m done, non-professional upholsterer/electrician/seamstress that I am, I see only the inevitable flaws that result from my hack-job.  Even if I am a fairly competent human, with the skills necessary to measure, design, and create, I have to balance the control I gain when I do something myself, with the predictable short comings that result from my inexperience or lack of expertise.   More than that, I’m realizing I have to balance my desire to have complete control over my home furnishings with my desire to have my home completely furnished.  If I wait for myself to conceive, create, and finish projects, it will be a long time till we can finally have a house-warming party.  Which of course I would insist on catering myself.

As soon as I unwrapped 2009’s birthday suit, I recalled the one from year’s past that was stumping me last week when I wrote the Birthday Suit post. 

I recalled it, because, as I opened this year’s, I had a flashback.  I had a flashback because it was made of the exact same fabric.  We’re not talking wool crepe, or red chenille, or even a similar plaid.  Exact same.  Teal print with chairs emblazoned on it.  Arm chairs and Eames chairs, chaises and footstools, high chairs and wing chairs.  And I don’t think she remembered the repeat.  She just thought it was so clever!

Again.

I’ll have to dig up a picture of this beauty.  It’s a dress — pattern is pretty nice, actually — with a notched neckline.  My ample bust just fits in the bodice, pushing the notched part out, so the corners turn down, exposing cleavage.  And there’s a jacket.  It’s bolero/cropped length, with puffed elbow sleeves pleated to a buttoned cuff.  The tailoring was very nice; Mom always tries harder for gifts.  She finished the inside seams and put in a zipper beautifully.  I told her as much; it was the only honest(ly nice) thing I could think to say as I picked up the phone to tell her I had opened it. 

Ironically, we were watching Project Runway during the opening of the birthday suit.  We waited till a commercial break, then tore into the gift and groaned.  Oh, the print.  It can’t be so bad.  And it wouldn’t be, except for the fact that the entire dress and jacket combo (a “suit,” mom calls it) was made out of this fabric.  I could tolerate the skirt being that fabric, or the jacket, or the bodice, or the totebag (yes, it came in a matching totebag), but not all of it.  It looks like a clown costume or pajamas.  As we dejectedly turned back to Project Runway, I thought of what Tim Gunn would say:

“Oh, I don’t know.  That fabric is coming on a bit strong.”

“Well, if you’re determined to use that print, make it work.”

“Hmm, you’ve got a long way to go if you want to make it to Bryant Park.  Work, work, work!”

And then there’s Heidi:

“In fashion one day you are in, and the next, you are out.  I don’ t think this was ever in.  You are out.”

Since it did fit, I threw a green sweater over the top, buttoned it all the way up so it only looked like a chair-print skirt, and wore it to work on Friday.  Because I am a good and dutiful daughter.  Because I am grateful and I am trying to see the potential in this outfit.  Because it is the right thing to do.

Now that I’m feeling better, I’m able to look forward to my birthday this week!  My birthday is October 9th.  Though it put me in the younger end of all my classes, I have always enjoyed most aspects of having an October birthday.  As I walked Finley today, we felt the warm sun counteracting the crispiness of the fall air.  We crunched through the first leaves to fall.  Mums and late roses are still in bloom, being gradually replaced by harvest-related items.  The supermarkets are full of root vegetables in those classic autumnal colors.  Pomegranates are in.  Clementines are coming.  And I can finally make pumpkin bread again without the strange looks that accompany the presentation of my favorite quick bread in March. 

It’s finally cool enough to snuggle under blankets at night, yet still warm enough not to need a jacket during the warm parts of the day.  Corduroy is coming, flannel is coming, wool is coming.  My jacket collection will soon be aired, and the novelty of coats means I’m not yet tired of bundling up.  I relish it after a hot summer of running between air-conditioned oases and suffering in endless heat all day long.  Fall is finally here.

Which always means my birthday, in this part of the world.  The only part about my birthday that’s not easy is that, moving around a lot when I was a child, I had never quite made new friends by that point in the school year, and my birthday celebrations were a little lackluster.  New schools and October birthdays were hard.  Ninth grade, freshman year of college, grad school even.  Now, thank goodness, Mr. Apron and I are free to enjoy our own celebration of my birthday.  If I’m lucky, my sister is able to join us, and my mother has come out in years past, too. 

This year, my sister has “fall break” (aka Columbus Day = 3-day weekend, if you can call that a “break”) to coincide with my birthday weekend, so she’ll be joining the festivities.  Mr. Apron has been making secret plans and sharing them with my sister over e-mail, buying secret gifts and squirreling them away, and generally being very sly.  I love it.  He does all the planning, and I just get excited.  One year, he whisked me off to Hartford, Connecticut and we got engaged on the porch of Mark Twain’s house.  Another year he bundled me off on an early morning hike.  Another time he kidnapped me to Brooklyn where we went to an indie flea market.  He knows what I like and takes great pleasure in carrying out these secret missions. 

Another tradition that goes with my birthday is the annual Birthday Suit.  Of course, my first birthday suit is the one I was born in, but each year my mother sews me a “public” birthday suit.  When I was younger, I took great delight in dressing up on the day of my birthday and wearing my new outfit  to school.  It helped carry that special birthday feeling all day long, through fractions and the scientific method and gym class.  Unfortunately, in recent years, the Birthday Suit has become less of a sure thing.  My mother has had 2 spectacular busts in recent years, and I try not to put too much stock in this year’s. 

Last year wasn’t so awful, truly, but it was quite a production.  Mom procured a refrigerator box, out of which she cut a life-size Me, and then dressed Me in my Birthday Suit.  I think there were pants that didn’t quite fit (always with receipts from TJ Maxx), but the top.  Oh, the top.  She thinks I’m still a size 4 with the same breasts I had in 9th grade.  This was a wrap-top in a yellow fabric replete with cars, palm trees, and general “surfer beach bum” theme.  Would I pick it out on my own?  Probably not.  But would I wear it in her presence to be polite?  If I could close it.  Wrap tops are tricky for us well-endowed ladies, due to excess cleavage.  This one didn’t even close around my buxomness.  Oh, I’ll alter it, I assured her as she beamed at the cleverness of the presentation.  It’s sitting in a box on the top shelf of my crafting area marked “UFOs”: UnFinished Objects, where it shall remain until the guilt mounts.  Or something.  That was 2008. 

In 2007, trying to stack the deck, I requested a specific pattern — a popular Asian-inspired style of dress — and she supplied the colorful rayon print.  That was a resounding success.  People ask me about it every time I wear it, and I wear it often.

The Birthday Suit of 2006 was a moderate success — a bias-cut skirt made of pink Cabbage Patch Kids fabric.  It’s very cute, even in a size 4, though the colors in the ‘Kids yarn hair have been a bit difficult to match to a top.  I have worn it several times. 

It was 2005’s Birthday Suit which I recoil in terror from.  This is the Birthday Suit I dread will come back to haunt me every year as I open the box.  I was a preschool assistant teacher from 2003 until 2006, when I went back to school to get my Master’s in Speech Pathology.  I think as long as people hear the word “teacher” they start thinking of tacky apple-themed gifts.  Whiel others had given me notecards, buttons, and desk accessories, I had thus far eschewed the ubiquitous tote bag, and I had hoped my mother was immune.  Alas; fall is also the time for apple-, school bus-, and chalkboard-theme fabrics.  I received overalls covered in those bastions of teacher themed objects: a white background with chalkboards, apples, ABCs, rulers, and school buses.  And if elasticized pants are a sin to wear in the under 65 crowd, then overalls with EZ-access zippers are, too.  I could not pretend to like those, or even to make plans for alteration into a toilet seat cover or drawer liners.  While I have held onto many items of clothing for sentimental reasons (including last year’s wrap-top, my winter coat from age 3, and the first pair of pants I ever modified into bell bottoms), I could not even pretend to attach anything but tackiness-induced trauma to those overalls. 

Maybe they’re in some Salvation Army store, being snapped up and appreciated by a teacher who likes that sort of thing.  I wish her all the best.

Mom has been excitedly talking on the phone with me the last week, teasing me with non-hints about this year’s Birthday Suit.  I can bet it’s going to be colorful.  All I know from her “hints” is that it has animals on it.  Now I’m dreading leopard and zebra prints or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  She mailed it today.  It will likely arrive Wednesday.  As a dutiful daughter, I will give myself some hope for a repeat of 2007’s dress, or the one from 2003, which if I remember correctly, was patchwork wrap pants.  Those I only had to hem myself. 

I love the tradition.  I love the fact that my mother has crafted a new outfit for me to feel special in each year since I was born, when she “crafted” me.  I love that she’s able to show her love that handmade way, instead of with a trip to the mall.  I enjoy and look forward to the tradition each year, even as I fear the product of her imagination.  Sometimes she knows me, she gets me, she nails the outfit.  Other times she’s so far off, it’s like the gifts of Barbie clothes my aunt used to send me for Hanukkah, to the house where no Barbie doll had ever lived. 

I guess it’s a metaphor for our relationship.  As I continue to grow up, she still knows the foundation of Me, the ideas I have and colors I like and values that I hold.  She may not have kept up with some of my interests and abilities, but at least she knows not to make me a Barbie jumper.  I hope.