My mom, Judi, died in 2013 from lymphoma. She was 67. In her eulogy, I talked about her well meaning, but occasionally forceful practicality and how it could bump up against my more emotional responses to life.
“Buy a suit” was one of those bits of advice she threw out when I directly asked for her thoughts on what kind of life I should pursue. That phrase came up a few times, at various career and identity crossroads in my 20’s and 30’s.
When I graduated from college with an English Literature degree and a vague concept of careers in publishing and media, Mom took me to Benetton in Pittsburgh, and she bought me a navy blue wool pantsuit. I left shortly afterwards for New York City.
I remember being aware, brand new to it, how the city was a giant theater with actors moving through life in their daily performances. I was struggling to figure out what part I would play. What would I wear in that role? Would I be a television production assistant with a walkie-talkie? Would I work in publishing? Advertising? Radio? Which costume would fit me best?
At 22, I was trying to figure out how to live a creative adjacent life and how that would manifest. Mom wanted to help, but had her own way of working though a puzzle. She could offer her credit card and advice on how to look like the person who was interviewing for a job, but not much more then that. And selfishly, I wanted more.
It used to annoy me that she’d say something so simplistic like “Buy a suit.” I felt frustrated with her inability to understand what I was asking: “I’m afraid of the future. I don’t know how to make things happen. I don’t necessarily know what my strengths are. Can you remind me?”
Now, that she’s gone, of course I get it. Nobody actually knows what they are doing and we all have a limited amount of control. Parents especially, are fudging that confidence. So Mom was trying to teach me to fake it, because that’s what gets you the opportunities: the showing up, feeling good in your suit, and looking people in the eye. The rest is how your treat people, and how you use your perspective and your character to connect with others and learn from them.
My mom was fantastic. She worked as a teacher and reading specialist after marrying my dad at 21 and supporting him while he was in medical school. She stopped working to take care of my sisters and I, and then later, became an advocate for women and children through a local women’s organization. In her mid 50’s, she fulfilled a lifelong dream and went to law school. She worked as a public defender before she got sick.
I see my mom, her friends, and the women of her generation, in Hillary’s suits. Those caftan style jackets, the mandarin collars, those confident jewel tones. I see my mom in Hillary’s incredible steely gaze and in her warmth. In her paradoxes. In her ability to compromise. I see my mom when I watch Hill withstand certain men and their egos and their sexism, and still manage to stay cool.
There have been so many times I’ve wanted Mom’s take on this election. When I voted in the primary, I wore Mom’s raincoat and felt her with me. When I saw Hill accept the nomination in Brooklyn in May, Mom was in the room, giving a fist pump to her pro-feminist/humanist remarks and fabulous white pantsuit. I felt a pang when Hillary hugged her poised and accomplished daughter onstage, proud and beaming in her own navy blue suit.
What you wear is, as RuPaul says, your drag. It’s your stay at home mom drag, your businesswoman drag, or your President of the United States drag.
I’ve given away most of my suits, but I will pull one out next Tuesday in honor of my mom, and I will rock that shit.