03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011


When my husband left the apartment this morning, he was wearing fresh cologne, a dark suit and crisp white shirt without a tie (the tie was rolled up in his pocket for "later"). Every time he wears that suit I ask if it's new. Then he opens the jacket, glances down at the label, tells me the maker and reminds me that I was with him when he bought it last summer. Then he trots out the door. Typically, I am standing in the kitchen when this encounter takes place, feeling a poor sartorial counterpart to the elegant man in the suit. This morning he paused before leaving. "I wish we had more time together," my husband said.

Amazing, I think, especially given that my husband is a man of few words when it comes to emotion. And this said to his wife of 28 years in a white cotton nightgown covered by a long black sweater, hair messy from sleep, wearing yellow rubber gloves as she scrubs pots and pans left soaking from last night's dinner.

"Me, too," I say, and feel the quizzical look on my face. I think that Real Life is hardly like The Donna Reed Show when she bids everyone farewell in the morning - each hair lacquered place, all smiles in full-face make-up and a pressed shirtwaist dress - not to mention a catchy musical theme song playing in the background.

By the time he gets home at night, our roles have reversed: His cologne has worn off, the shirt is wrinkled, the suit has creases, and I am fresh as a daisy. He changes into his oldest jeans and T-shirt. The playing field evens.

Last weekend I bought a silky robe. I think in the "old days" women called it a "dressing gown." Maybe they still do. It was hanging on the 25% off rack at Lord & Taylor plus I had a 20% off coupon. How could I not buy it? It is filmy and white with a sort of peasant sleeve, brushes the ankle, has an empire waist, and it's, well, alluring - something one wears without the yellow rubber gloves and perhaps more on a honeymoon or if one is a "temptress."

When I pulled it from the bag to show my husband he asked, "What's that for?" And then there was that quizzical look again - this time on both of our faces.
"I dunno," I said.

I still haven't worn it. It still has the tags on, and hangs unceremoniously on the back of my bathroom door. So, yes, what's it for?

I recall my mother as she sat at the breakfast table in a matched peignoir set, a thin coat of lipstick already in place, drinking her coffee from a delicate china cup (a faint lipstick stain apparent on the rim), breaking off pieces of toast that she dappled with marmalade. She even wore peignoir sets as she stood at the stove stirring a pot of Cream of Wheat or emptying the dishwasher. How did she manage that elegance in the morning? Was it her essence or those Donna Reed-ish times? Is it possible I never noticed whether or not the peignoir was splattered with something that flew from the stove or stained with a drop of orange jam? Perhaps a combination of "all of the above." Memories of her seep into my consciousness as I strive to embrace all about her - the good, the bad, the ugly - to make her real, feel her alive - with no illusions. I do this deliberately for both her and myself. Try as I might, I simply don't have the panache my mother had when it came to couture - both sleep wear and day wear. Is the robe an homage to her? Clearly, I am more at ease in cotton gowns and baggy pants, although her penchant for high heels has rubbed off on me.

About 15 years ago, my husband bought me a pure silk, lace-trimmed robe for my birthday. I was in the throes of motherhood back then what with children ages 7, 9, and 11. I looked at the lingerie as it lay across the bed, touched the fabric, and jumped back as though bitten, crying out in both frustration and fear, "When will I ever wear this?" Wearing the garment would have felt like a masquerade. He was sullen and disappointed, but returned the robe the following day, and bought me a beige cashmere-blend blanket instead. The blanket still lies on the foot of our bed. I continue to wrap it around myself in winters, in summers when the air conditioning is too cold for me but not my overheated husband, and more than often just for comfort. It's riddled with holes from when our dog was a puppy and flung it around in his teeth and it was the object of a moth attack one summer. Last weekend, when our daughter visited and wasn't feeling well, she rolled the blanket around herself like a cocoon.

We'd been over-toasted one night of our honeymoon at a restaurant in Carmel, California by several couples who discovered we were newly-wed. There is a picture taken the next morning where I am sitting on the edge of the bed looking a lot like a woman with a bad hangover, wearing a sexy nightgown that my mother had bought me for the trip with my husband's ratty green sweater slung over my shoulders. It's our favorite honeymoon picture. Perhaps it was also foreshadowing.

Is it my husband's comment of "what's that for" coupled with my old belief of "when will I ever wear this?" that's the impasse between the new robe and me? Somehow the robe defies the touchstones of our relationship, placing pressure on a marriage based more upon a reliable woman who dons Playtex Living Gloves at dawn and a man who has to check his suit label before he can describe what he's wearing.

We have several weekend trips coming up in the next two months. I'm thinking that the robe is easy to pack and won't crush in my suitcase. I'm also wondering if the hotel room might be cold what with air conditioning and how the robe is not absorbent after a shower. And then I'm thinking, wait a minute, that's not what the robe's for and when am I ever going to wear it. It's becoming an effigy.