The Hidden Pleasures of a Good Housecoat
by Cindy Price
I fight authority, authority always wins.
– John Mellencamp
To borrow from Tolstoy, all good mothers are more or less alike. My mother is no exception — having spent a life ensuring her kids got their three squares, presenting a soft shoulder to cry on, and forgiving her children’s sins with relative ease. Save murder, she once amended. Even saints have their boundaries.
In the more specific case of my mother, however, most of these acts were accomplished in a housecoat. Not to be confused with a robe, which might be belted or terrycloth, the housecoat is a loose cotton frock with a smooth front. It is sometimes called a Muumuu, though never by my mother. Muumuu’s, apparently, are for people who have let themselves go.
Even in the throes of raising four children, the woman was no slouch. Her housecoat changed as often as the seasons: the bright floral patterns of summer giving way to autumnal reds, a soft, nubby maroon one appearing near Christmas. And yet despite these changes in fabric and color, the powerful role of the housecoat never wavered. Each one, thrown on after a long day at the office, meant the same thing: time to relax.
As a child, I used to stare at her transfixed as she lay on her back, her arm crooked over her eyes. She seemed uncharacteristically vulnerable in those moments – and I never wanted to venture too far until she was back on her feet.
In no time, she would be — zipping around the house, straightening up and putting out dinner. Now, I saw early on, the frock had another purpose —you could move at a fast clip and get it dirty.
As a teenager, I too liked to move at a furious pace, though never for something as mundane as housework. That kid likes to burn the candles at both ends, my father grumbled as I passed. My mother wasn’t delusional enough to suggest I try a housecoat during those salty years — but I think my parents hoped, having settled into suburbia early on themselves, that I’d start laying roots after college.
Naturally, I did the opposite — moving straight from my small southern college town to New York City. I was so green when I got here I thought Broadway in Astoria was the legendary avenue, and I chose to combat my fear by cranking up my social life to fever pitch.
That first holiday I returned home, she floated the idea. Honey, why don’t you put on a housecoat and relax.
I rolled my eyes theatrically. I don’t want to relax. I don’t want to slip into some housecoat and flip on the tube every night. I want to go out and experience things.
She waved me off with a laugh, but I knew she’d be back. And sure enough, as my twenties turned into my thirties and I fell into something akin to a marriage (and then later, an actual marriage), the subject of the housecoat reappeared every so often.
Do you want to borrow a housecoat while you’re here? she cooed at me a few months after I got married, as I stood in my childhood bedroom feeling oddly overgrown, like Alice down the rabbit hole.
I looked at her. Something was off – her voice was foreign in its politeness. Was she treating me like a guest? Oh god, I had crossed some finish line into adulthood in her mind. I was married. I was starting to settle.
Now, suddenly, the housecoat became an even more urgent thing to avoid. Now I was dangerously close to becoming complacent — as though the second I donned one, my life force would begin to plummet like Marty McFly at the end of “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future.
And then, around this time, something strange happened. Like two trains passing in the night, my mother — tireless pusher of the housecoat — began to feel a similar fear. Apparently my grandmother, approaching 95, was wearing hers too much.
She sits around in her housecoat all day long, she informed me in a hushed voice by phone. I knew this voice by heart — it was the one reserved for women who had stopped dying their hair (she’s all gray, honey) or dared to leave the house without makeup (not even rouge).
And so, the same woman who couldn’t wait to get me into a housecoat began to wage a battle to get my grandmother out of hers. Well, she announced drily when I picked up the phone one afternoon, you’ll be happy to know that your grandmother is now wearing her housecoat to Sunday dinner.
In the South, I knew, this was unthinkable. Maybe you should just let her, Mom, I said gently. She’s getting older.
My mother paused. I know, honey, but she’s not dead yet.
In the end, my grandmother, more willful than my mom, won out, spending the last year of her life wearing nothing but her housecoat. My mom, bless her optimistic heart, salved her unease with this by buying her increasingly decorative housecoats.
When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, she was laid to rest in a gorgeous green suit my mom picked out. I have a feeling she would have preferred her housecoat.
A few months later, my parents visited New York. My mom brought her newest housecoat, but I noticed this one was different: short, turquoise, a bit flirtier than the others. I complimented her on it, and she offered to leave it for me.
I resisted out of habit, but something had changed. I was older, softer, expecting my first baby. Spying a window, she left it hanging on my bathroom door.
I didn’t have the strength to fight and frankly, I could use something to kick around in now that I was spending nights at home. Just in between the shower and the real clothes, I promised myself. Besides, it was really cute and had pockets. How useful was that?
Cindy Price has written for The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Weekly, Hemispheres and The New Leader. Her food and travel writing has appeared in three New York Times anthologies and the American Michelin guides, and she has taught classes for The New York Times Knowledge Network, Mediabistro and Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Born, raised and educated in the South, she now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with her husband and two sons. Follow her on Twitter @cindyeprice.