“I look fat!” “I don’t wear black.” “Mo-om, she took the one I wanted!” A three-leveled chorus of wailing and teeth-gnashing arose from the swimsuit department of Macy’s, and I crouched in the middle of it all, my hands plastered to my ears.
Nothing strikes terror into a woman’s heart more than the sight of a small curtained room filled with bits of spandex dripping from plastic hangers. Multiply that by four females in one family, ages 12 to 83, and you’re in Sandwich Generation Hell.
A year ago today I was in the ninth circle of said Hell, preparing for a family vacation to Mexico for spring break. It would have been tortuous enough on my own. I gritted my teeth, put my head down and riffled through the racks I had given up finding something that actually looked good; I just wanted something that was remotely less horrifying than the rest. Finally, I located a plain black “slimming” suit. It felt as if it were made of stainless steel. Oh well, who needs to breathe? I also grabbed three tentish cover-ups and vowed to spend most of my vacation wearing them.
Then I turned to my 83-year-old mother. “How’s it going, Mom?” She looked unhappy.
“They don’t have what I want,” she said.
“What do you want, Mom?”
“A two-piece bathing suit with a skirt.” As far as I know, there is no such garment. She has never worn a two-piece suit in her life. I located three dress-like suits with attached skirts, all in slimming black, like mine.
“How about these?”
“I don’t wear black.”
O—kay. I pointed out the five thousand bathing suits hanging on circular racks. She tossed her head at all of them and then said, “I don’t have to go to Mexico. Maybe I’ll just stay home.” My blood pressure was rising.
“Just try these on, pleeeease?” No go. She bought a pink T-shirt instead, and sat down in a huff on a chair near the changing rooms.
Meanwhile my daughters were involved in their own tortuous machinations. They carried about fifty suits into their dressing room and soon enough, a two-part chorus of “I look fat!” floated out from behind the curtain. It was enough to make a mother bawl.
Two hours later I was the only one who’d made a purchase, and everyone was cranky and hungry. We refueled with pretzels from the hot-pretzel store, and then trudged wearily to yet another department store, with yet another giant swimsuit department. Praise the Lord, they had several brightly-covered (albeit, one piece) suits with skirts (although they were black). I tossed my mother into a dressing room with the suits and her eldest granddaughter and said I wouldn’t let them out until she tried them on. Praise Jesus. She tried it on, and she LIKED IT! I hustled her to the cashier and threw down my credit card before she could change her mind. Okay, two down.
Suddenly I heard a sound like cats being mangled. Over by the Ralph Lauren rack hung the single bathing suit, the one out of millions, that both girls knew was the only suit for them. It was white with navy blue stripes and a little zipper going up the front. Kind of sporty, not too fru-fru. Older daughter insisted that younger was “not allowed” to try it on. Tears. Hissing remarks.
I glanced desperately at my watch. Our parking meter had expired so I took the opportunity to flee to the car and phone their father, my head against the steering wheel. “I can’t take it,” I moaned. We strategized for a while and I decided that each of them could try on whichever suit they wanted, and I would buy whichever suit they wanted, and if it happened to be the same suit, it was their problem. Their father said helpfully, “They don’t have to buy any bathing suit at all. They can wear a T-shirt and shorts into the pool.” Right. I’m sure that idea would go over well.
I returned to the bathing suit department (it had now been three and a half hours) to find my younger daughter with reddened eyes curled into a fetal position. I cornered the big one against a rack of macramé bikinis. “Let her try it on!” I threatened. “Or else you are responsible for finding her an alternative.” Older daughter rolled her eyes and thrust the suit at me.
Finally, the little one tried on the coveted striped suit. It hung on her like an old pillowcase. No go. Older daughter was thrilled to win the spandex tug-of-war, but now the younger one needed something else. All three of us held up hangers with little bits of lycra dangling from them. “How about this? How about THIS? This is cute!” But none of them would do.
Finally I did the same thing I had done with my mother. I tossed both daughters into a changing room, positioned my shoulder against the door, and told them they could not come out until the little one tried something on. I passed a suit over the door that we had all tried to tell her was cute. The bigger one literally tore her sister’s clothes off and wrestled the suit onto her body. Voila. It WAS cute. And it fit. And she liked it. Hallelujah!
By now it was dinner time and we’d eaten nothing all day but pretzels, but I was too exhausted and fried to think about cooking. We called their father and told him he was on his own for dinner, and then we went to a nearby soup and salad restaurant. The three of them bubbled like glasses of champagne about how happy they were with their bathing suits and how excited they were to go to Mexico. I thought about my stainless steel bathing suit. Was it too black? Too tight? Too matronly? To hell with it. I just slumped against the wall, my eyes glazed, too tired to speak.