The year before I married, my fiancé’s Alabama grandmother, whose name was Ruby Violet, decided that she was going to sew me a bathing suit. And not just any bathing suit, but a bikini. Having only ever worn modest tank suits before, I worried about this potential bikini, but I didn’t see how I could refuse it without hurting Grandma Ruby’s feelings. Still, I told myself, any garment made by my future grandmother-in-law would probably be o.k.
The late 60s and early 70s were the heyday of home sewing, and I knew women who made their own wedding dresses and even their husbands’ sports jackets. Grandma Ruby bought a Butterick pattern, found a yard of white fabric with green polka dots in her fabric stash, and set to work at her dining room table.
I was visiting one afternoon when she looked up from her sewing machine and said, “I’ve almost finished your bathing suit. I want you to try it on.” “What, now? Here, you mean?” I asked, glancing nervously around the dining room. A year before the wedding seemed awfully early to be undressing in front of people, but I obediently slipped off my shoes, detached my fishnet stockings from my garter belt (it was 1967), and got into the green polka-dot bikini as speedily as I could manage.
To say that it felt strange to stand half naked in a dining room in the middle of the afternoon in front of Ed’s grandmother was to put it mildly. I shivered as a magnolia-scented breeze came in through the open window and swept over my pale and defenseless middle. The bikini bottom fit me well, but the top, as I saw in the mirror above the sideboard, did not. The dart at the side of the right cup was crooked and gave my breasts a mortifying lopsided appearance. But I had been taught to accept gifts graciously, so I held my tongue.
Then Ruby Violet said, “Honey, you look so fine, I want Eddie to see you!” I couldn’t believe my ears. Had they seen me in that bikini, both my Catalan grandmothers would have rushed to cover me with towels. Yet here was this perfectly respectable American lady summoning her own grandson, my future husband, to gaze at me in my near-nakedness. When he walked into the room it was all I could do to keep my hands from flying into the ancient Venus-covering-her-nakedness posture. “Now doesn’t she look fine?” Grandma Rube drawled. “Turn around, honey. Let him see you from the back.” He mumbled something appreciative and, bless his heart, left the room.
I was too bothered by that imperfect right cup to wear the bikini in public. But one sunny morning that spring, at my parents’, I decided to put on the bikini and work on my pre-honeymoon tan in the backyard. When I went back inside, my father passed me in the hall. “That,” he said, gesturing in the direction of the bikini, “is very ugly.” He used the Catalan word lleig (pronounced yetch), so I knew that he meant it in the moral, not the aesthetic sense, beauty and goodness supposedly being one.
I didn’t respond, but that was the first time that I saw my father as not just my father, fount of authority and arbiter of good and evil, but as a fellow human. A year or two earlier, his comment would have thrown me into a tailspin of shame (it’s immoral to wear a bikini!) and rebelliousness (but I want to wear a bikini!). This time, however, I said to myself “He doesn’t really think that I look bad in the bikini. He actually thinks I look too good.” And the realization that my father was simply a human male momentarily disconcerted by his daughter’s nubile attributes made me feel a new adult empathy towards him, even as I told myself that I could wear any bikini I chose, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Ed and I were married that August. On our honeymoon in Jamaica we both wore white bathing suits (mine a two-piece), bought for us as a wedding present by Ruby Violet. When we returned, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer and died six months later. And so it happened that the bikini incident remained the only memory I have of him as a fellow grownup with foibles that I could understand, and for which I could both love and forgive him.