I was finally freed from my inner conflict between Oprah and L’eggs nude hose when the egg packaging was replaced. With the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey playing in the background, the company announced the news: the days of the L’egg egg were gone. For twenty years the egg had been the L’eggs trademark, but now, in the early nineties, with the turn of the millennium approaching, it was time to think about the future. The new packaging required 38% less material, was printed on recycled paperboard, and was itself recyclable.
With the plastic egg retired, I no longer felt torn—I could live without L’eggs and the new cardboard packaging that looked more like a milk carton than a futuristic nugget of wonder.
And since then, my relationship with pantyhose has been defined by the search for the perfect pair of nylons. Recently I found it. At American Apparel. The only problem with the perfect pair of hose made by American Apparel is that it is made by American Apparel. American Apparel bills itself as a socially responsible company. American Apparel believes in justice for all, and what could be more American that that? Seven sexual-harassment law suits have challenged this progressive reputation over the last several years, with the founder Dov Charney at the center of the accusations. While none of these cases has led to a guilty verdict, American Apparel’s board removed Charney from his office as CEO last year.
The other inescapable problem of the company is that the quality of American Apparel products really is crap. Over the years I have bought a number of different items and amongst all these various American Apparel products, the common thread is unraveling thread. After just a couple of wears my clothes are coming apart at the seam. In the first month after discovering the perfect pair of nylons—American Apparel’s Sheer Luxe Pantyhose—I went through five pairs. The first pair ran as soon as I got them home and attempted to put them on for a Christmas party. I had to stop by the American Apparel store for a second pair on my way to the party. In a strange way, the fragility of the hose endeared me to the product even more. After all, it’s the gossamer quality of pantyhose that makes them so appealing in the first place. Deep down, I liked the idea of nylons so delicate that only a person with particular skill developed over years of dedicated practice could gently and confidently coax the material up the thigh without a single snag. I remembered the ease with which my grandmother did this, the way she unrolled the material at just the right speed as she shuffled her hands up her legs.
So until I find another pair of hose with such as smooth, buttery feel and even, tight knit, I will keep buying Sheer Luxe Pantyhose. Herein lies a problem: American Apparel is not cheap. Each pair of stockings costs twenty-four dollars and new resources from the earth. I cannot, in good conscience, throw away my runned pantyhose. Besides, as American culture moves away from pantyhose in celebration of exposed bare skin, my used pantyhose become relics worth preserving, a little piece of Americana, a slice of life from a past and irretrievable time and place. I sometimes wonder if others feel this way, or maybe it’s a nostalgia that runs just in my family.
Recently, at home for the holidays, I was faced with an unexpected drop in temperature, something colder than what I was used to in south Texas, something I hadn’t planned for in my packing. I only had jeans. My mom suggested I put on a pair of hose under my denim, and when I expressed hesitation—I didn’t want to run a good pair—she pulled out of her drawer a nest of old hose, all different shades of beige and tan, her skin color in summer and winter, even a smoke-hued pair, a relic from a past decade I’m sure. It was a collection of has-beens. I imagined each pair had lost its shape—gaped at the knees, bagged in the seat–maybe lost its sheen, but none had snagged yet. She was saving these. For what, I have no idea. Except, in that moment, that tangle of nylon seemed so full of possibility. The simplicity of their design and construction meant they were, essentially, raw material. With a snip or two, these pantyhose could be so much: sieve for juicing a lemon, tourniquet in an emergency, potpourri pockets for gifts, exercise band, blindfold. Or this, a layer of extra warmth.
My grandmother was moved recently from the six bedroom house she designed and had built in 1950, the home in which she raised her four children. She’d been living there by herself for the last four decades. When she was moved from her hometown of Amarillo, where she was raised as the youngest of thirteen siblings, to an assisted living home in Dallas, she was eighty-eight.
The last few times I visited her in Amarillo, she had already begun to slide down hill. She rarely left the house anymore because to leave the house meant hair done first at the beauty shop, full face made-up, nails painted red, brooch, earrings, and rings on, fuchsia lipstick on. It meant a pink silk scarf. It meant a pantsuit and pumps.
At some point she’d stopped wearing pantyhose. It had been years since she’d put them on herself, but even still, for someone else to help her guide them up her legs became too difficult, too off balance, too risky of a fall. I had never seen my grandmother in pants—not once a single pair of slacks or jeans—until the pantyhose became too much and my aunts began asking my grandmother’s helper to dress her in designer pantsuits they ordered for her from Neiman’s in Dallas.
What are pantyhose anyway, a layer of fake skin? A way to hide the blemishes, dimples, pocks, and scars. A way to keep everything together, under control and tight, a kind of violence we commit on ourselves.
The last time I saw my grandmother was the first time I visited her at her new home. When I signed in at the front desk, the desk attendant told me my grandmother was in the second floor lobby enjoying the music. At the top of the stairs, I saw a sitting room full of elderly residents positioned in chairs to face a man singing Sinatra and playing the piano. I found my grandmother in a wheelchair in the back row. I’m never sure these days if my grandmother knows me or is just really good at pretending she knows everyone. “Come on and sit with me, baby,” she said, and patted her thigh, as if it made sense still for me to sit on her lap, to sit with her in her wheelchair. But she didn’t pay attention to me for long. Quickly her focus shifted back to singing along, to waving her arms up high. She clapped to the beat, tapped her shoe on the metal footrest of her chair.
As I watched my grandmother in her wheelchair next to me, I was struck by her ability to keep the beat, to tap in time, to sing in tune. I had never seen her do any of this before. She had always been so poised, so measured and composed. But this day she moved her body and hands with a carelessness that bespoke freedom. When an elderly man came over to speak to his wife seated next to us, my grandmother introduced herself to him and said, “Come on and sit with me.” She patted her thigh but didn’t wait for an answer. She went back to the music, to closing her eyes, to singing along even if she didn’t know the words. A few minutes later, she introduced herself again to the man. Later I learned he lived on her hall.
Even now, my grandmother looked lovely. Her hair and nails were done and she wore a beautiful St. John pantsuit. Surely her caregiver had reminded my grandmother to put on her lipstick before she’d wheeled her downstairs for the music. That’s one thing she can still do on her own, like breathing—make her lips taut and drag the fuchsia point to all corners of her lips, rub them together, blot. One time when I was in Amarillo a few years earlier, I was loading up my grandmother to take her to the family Christmas party. My grandmother, one of only two remaining siblings of the thirteen, was the family matriarch and to her the family Christmas party was an important and never-missed event. My dad, who was sick and couldn’t go himself, called me just as I was about to help my grandmother out of her TV chair and into the car. “Remind her to put on her lipstick before y’all leave,” he said. It might have seemed odd, maybe even horrible, for him to tell me this, to care whether an eighty-five-year-old woman had her lipstick on, if I hadn’t seen it for what it was—a son’s best effort to maintain his mother’s chosen way of life, to keep up the things that were important to her even when she couldn’t.
When I called my dad later that night to tell him about my visit, I said she seemed happy in her new home. “She was dancing,” I said. “She was singing along and dancing. I’ve never seen her do that before.”
Quickly, without a thought, a knee-jerk reaction to protect his mom, my dad said, “She wasn’t the only one dancing was she?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him she was. It was a kind of loss, we both knew, this freedom.