Margo had a dressing disorder. Or at least that’s what her grandmother thought. She wore nothing but old, black clothes, too long, bulky – not flattering to her figure at all. Her clothes were covered with holes that she saw Margo cutting with her grandmother’s sewing scissors. Grandma Louise once peeked into Margo’s room and saw her reattaching the edges of her jacket’s holes with safety pins, meticulously working to the loud, thrashing rips and tears in the atmosphere that Margo called music. She stood in the doorway in awe of how assaulting Margo could be in her most peaceful of moments, and how little she could identify with Margo’s ways.
The old woman had once watched a program on television about eating disorders in teenage girls. The experts talked about how girls could turn to food as a way to control their lives, refusing to nourish their bodies because it was the only thing their parents could not make them do. These experts suggested that when parents are too controlling of what a child eats or how much she eats, it could lead to an eating disorder.
Her first reaction to the information was to hold it outside her mind because it had no place to fit. It just would not stay with her, made no sense to a woman who had grown up with the injunction “clean your plate” firmly settled into her, relegated to the level of a commandment, right up there with “don’t hit your sister” and “obey your parents”. To waste food was practically a sin, and to make children eat was a parental obligation. It was the way she was raised and the way she had raised her daughter.
The program finally started to absorb into her mind when she realized that she had not raised her granddaughter the same way. By the time Margo’s mother had left, Louise had been overwhelmed with the prospect of raising a baby. She had forgotten how exhausting they could be, how demanding. She didn’t worry about what Margo ate. She provided food on a regular schedule, and if Margo ate it or didn’t eat it, she still had to do the dishes, wash Margo’s spilled-on clothes. It was too much to force her to eat more and especially to finish it all. She did not have to worry about money the way her parents did or even the way she did raising her own daughter. Her husband had died 15 years ago, leaving her a fully paid-for home and a hefty retirement account. Food was just another bother of baby needs, along with diapers and baths and daily walks.
Her one joy with the baby was to dress her. She bought the frilliest, laciest dresses she could find. She knew all of the places to buy children’s clothing, and she developed a particular affinity to tiny, cute baby shoes with buckles. The diaper-changing area in the baby’s bedroom was always a disheveled, dusty catch-all location where bills were often absent-mindedly stashed and her coffee cup had been placed and spilled more than once. The baby’s dresser and closet, in contrast, were immaculately organized. Drawers were filled with progressive sizes of baby tights and shoes and hats and dresses and jumpers and undershirts and pajamas.
In the closet hung expensive clothes meant for church and special occasions. Margo had worn most of the closet clothes to church, since special occasions were few in their little family. In fact, in times when Louise sat thinking her most honest thoughts, she considered that she may have started going to church again more for the sake of dressing Margo in her shiny, fluffy dresses than for any more spiritual reasons. Dressing Margo had become her religion, the one thing she believed in and knew she could do well. On the day of her daughter’s funeral, the day that Margo officially lost her mother to drug addiction, Louise took comfort in watching her granddaughter walk the tentative and endearing walk of a toddler in her poofy black and dark green velvet dress with matching jacket. She was a model baby with chubby pink cheeks and wispy black curls peeking out from underneath her little velvet hat. Even through tears of losing her daughter, she was filled with hope, some core of strength to see how beautiful her granddaughter was, how well-dressed.
But there came a time when Margo began to resist being dressed. Louise remembered the day when she realized Margo had her own ideas of fashion. She had thrown herself on the ground and screamed until Louise let her go to preschool wearing plaid pants, a tutu and a flowered t-shirt. Louise had finally given in, believing the outfit to be a cute little treat, an occasion to take out her camera, an anomaly, something she would grow out of. But obviously, it had only been the beginning.
And finally the TV program came back to her, and she came to the conclusion that Margo had a dressing disorder and that it was all Grandma’s fault. This had caught her off guard and knocked her down for weeks. She was already constantly under her own attack for raising a drug addict for a daughter, for not knowing how to raise a girl in these crazy times and, she suspected, in general.
But then she saw a TV commercial. A boy was shown getting ready to go out. The music playing was similar to what Margo enjoyed, but less grating. And his hair was pulled up into foot-high spikes, while Margo was content to dye her hair black and blow-dry it straight. The boy had metal rings through his nose and ears, and Louise thanked God that so far Margo’s ears were the only parts of her body (that she knew of) that had been pierced, although she had punctured those with a vengeance – so many holes, Louise had lost count.
As the boy in the commercial pulled on dilapidated, ripped clothes of an esthetic similar to Margo’s, Louise was just beginning to wonder what in the world this commercial was advertising when the boy’s Mom came into the picture.
Louise could not have predicted this woman’s reaction. She assumed that this mother would give a lecture to this boy, make him go upstairs and change into something more modest. She assumed it so strongly that no other alternative even seemed possible, was not something she considered at all in the split second she had to predict what was going to happen.
The Mom smiled at her boy – a real and loving smile – and asked him where he was going, whether or not he had left the number, and reminded him to be home at 11. Louise’s shock paralyzed her as the moral of the story explained itself on her 27-inch screen: “Parents. The anti-drug.”
She cried more than she had for a long time. The last time she had cried had been the winter before when she slipped on the sidewalk outside and broke her hip. Margo had called 911, visited her in the hospital every day. It had been the one break in their unspoken hostility between each other, the tension that neither one acknowledged. The one time since Margo had been in preschool when they had been grandmother and granddaughter without resentment or pain, when their mutual need for each other had been a gift taken for granted instead of a burden. Louise thought of that time and formed a question in her mind.
“Margo!” she called, competing with the rhythmic noise banging through her closed bedroom door. Of course Margo didn’t hear her, so Louise slowly walked up the stairs, something she did every day for exercise anyway. She knocked loudly on the door and heard the music go down to a level still too loud for her own ears, but more tolerable.
“Yeah?” said the girl who peaked out but left her body behind the door as if it were a shield. Beyond the girl’s charcoal-colored hair and gum-chewing mouth, Louise noticed, or rather remembered, that Margo’s eyes were a clear and beautiful green. Her grandpa’s eyes – the eye’s of Louise’s late husband. She had forgotten how lovely they were, shiny and clear – she had stopped looking at them because of the pain they inflicted on her.
“What?” asked Margo smacking and chewing gum that wafted a watermelon smell.
“Margo. I was thinking about last winter when I broke my hip. Do you remember that?”
“Yeah…” she replied as if looking for some accusation hidden beneath, the question.
“I was just wondering – or thinking…. When I came back home, the sidewalks were all cleared off. Who did that?”
She paused, still wary. “I did.”
“You did? But the sidewalks had so much ice on them. How did you get it off?”
“I put salt on it.”
“You did? Where did you get the salt?”
“I bought it at the hardware store.”
“You did? With what?”
“Money! I used my allowance from the month before. Look Louise, I have some very important homework.” Louise saw the sarcasm, the strange ironic glance that confused her and hurt her. “So could we get to the point of this conversation?”
The old woman paused, concentrating on those green eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I wanted to say thank you.”
The gum-chewing stopped and Margo changed slightly, as if noticing the tremble in her grandmother’s lip and the slightly leaning stance her grandmother stood in ever since her hip surgery. It was as if for a split second a part of her realized that there were things she noticed about her grandmother that Louise herself could not see. And some of those things were okay.
Margo laughed a little and rolled her eyes. Louise loved that laugh. “You’re welcome,” she said.
They stood there for a few more seconds, and Louise nodded and turned back to the staircase. “Well, I better go fix supper.”
“What is it?” called Margo.
“Spaghetti and fake meat sauce.”
“That’s about the only way I know how to get you your protein now that you’re a vegetarian.”
Louise looked up to see Margo start smacking her gum again. “They make vegetarian pizza, you know.”
The exchange had been pleasant. Louise felt happy to be making spaghetti and a salad. And she thanked God that Margo’s disorder so far was one that would not cause her to get skinny to the point of dying, was a cover-up of a kind more healthy than that. She was more sensible than that. Louise prayed this was true as she put a pot of water on the stove to boil.