The Robe

In a phone conversation with my dad the other day, he casually asked when next I’d be going to Costco. I told him “soon” and he put in an order for an industrial-sized container of baby aspirin and a vat of Benodryl. I told him “will do” and then as the conversation drew to a close, he uttered, quite unexpectedly, the word that nearly caused me to careen into a cement divider on the busy highway I traverse daily: “robe.”

<--break->In my family, no one takes the word “robe” lightly, not in fabric, not in form, not in function. Years have been devoted to the pursuit of the perfect robe in every conceivable retail environment from expensive, high-end merchandisers to big-box discount warehouses.

Robes for my family members have been handmade to complicated specs by various seamstresses, some under arduous conditions and with constraints no sewing machine should have to endure. Needles have launched like missiles from their secure station at the helm of the machine under the rigorous demand and whole sewing machines have exploded under such sartorial diress.

This family has overseen the making of multiple perfect robes, engaged in power shopping for perfect robes, scanned newspaper ads and store aisles for perfect robes.

Let’s back up, shall we? Let me give you a brief synopsis of robe history in my family over the past—well, fifty years that I know of, anyway.  And, in case you are wondering, I couldn’t possibly make this up.

I have resigned myself to the fact that much of the robe phenomenon in my family involves the thrill of the hunt, but a hunt that is on par with, say, the search for the Holy Grail. Early on, I chose to rebel and break the cycle, letting go of the idea that I might ever find a perfect robe.

My best robe?  A starched, white, cotton lab coat bequeathed to me by a college roommate and one that may or may not have once been the property of a large Midwestern research university.  I am now on record as officially admitting that I abandoned wearing robes entirely as an adult, which is especially easy now that clothes resemble pajamas and can be worn grocery shopping or sleep walking.

I think robes meant something more to people in previous eras, much as the old “house coat” or “duster” of my mother’s generation signalled some modicum of status regarding leisure time in addition to its fashion-challenged but effective advocacy of modesty.  Thankfully, that layer of over-garments bit the dust before I reached adulthood.

People once regularly clad themselves in cover-ups as they moved about the house, even among those they resided with. I would point out that the shift away from such apparel represents more than the mere loss of an archaic cultural artifact since I have to remind my teenage son that THIS IS NOT A DORM and therefore full-bore clothing is required.

There are plenty of Christmas morning snapshots from our childhood where we all sported robes.  I had a quilted red one with tiny white flowers that matched my sleeping bag.  One such photo shows my younger sister, wrapped present in hand, puffed up like a hot air balloon in an oversized blue quilted robe (which matched her sleeping bag), her tiny head popping out of the top of the slab of stiff, floor-length material.  Robes and matching sleeping bags strike me as quaintly redundant now that Snuglis have been invented.

My younger brother Mark has perhaps the most famous robe in the family.  His was handcrafted along with three others by my late grandmother, an extraordinary seamstress who assembled these robes for all of the men in the family, most of whom are over 6 foot, from gigantic bath sheets my father had gathered in his retail travels.  Each robe weighed about 20 pounds dry and had a hood, perhaps a nod to my father’s early schooling by Benedictine monks.

Mark’s robe was a deep Kelly green and it became notorious in family lore when he accidentally left it in Paris twenty years ago after he had served as a nanny to a friend’s kids while she taught law classes one summer.  This mishap spawned an international search which required my mother to make a frantic transatlantic phone call to someone she did not know speaking a language she had no training in.

The conversation went something like this, “Bonjour.  Mark’s le verde robe? LE ROBE.  LE ROBE????”  The homeowner haltingly claimed to have no knowledge of said robe and it was thereafter presumed lost in that black hole of robes known as France.

Some years later, Santa brought my brother a dark, forest green robe sewn to the same specs by a professional seamstress.  That year, Santa also brought my sister and I longsleeved nightgowns made of striped broadcloth clearly intended for upholstery use.  I know, I know: it’s the thought that counts.

My husband, on the other hand, having never been much inclined to travel abroad, still has his original handmade towel robe, some 25 years later.  His is chocolate brown and he swears it has medicinal value because he wraps himself in it and parks on the couch whenever he falls ill.

My grandmother did sew at least one robe of her own volition: a soft, lightweight, pale blue robe she gave my son for Christmas when he was two.  She put in a large hem and left ample room to let the sleeves down as he grew.  He wore it for several years and passed it on to his younger sister who wore it for several years as well.  It’s a treasured remembrance of “Gram” and hangs in the closet for them to give their kids someday or simply cherish.

When my older brother was in town last summer to help my parents move, he spent most of his time searching for a new robe to suit my dad’s new abode.  He scoured Macy’s, Dillard’s, and finally found at Marshall’s what he was certain was the ideal robe for my dad to wear as a swim cover-up at his new home: a blue pinstripe Nautica robe of medium weight and perfect length.  My dad did his best to feign happiness at my brother’s gift, but deep down he could not bear to keep a robe that did not meet his true expectations and later asked my sister to return it.

My dad enlists co-conspirators in his efforts to get to stores now that he no longer drives. Even though the bus at his retirement home transports residents to retail stores throughout the metro area nearly daily and he rides to every venue everyday, he is convinced the robe is beyond the ken of the bus trips. He doesn’t know particulars about Internet—you can guess why we think keeping that information at bay is a good thing—so he does this the old-fashioned way: by phone—a landline not a cell.

Finally, his research had yielded a lead.  The planets aligned and a friend was available to shuttle him to the Bed Bath and Beyond where he finally made the purchase he’d been contemplating for months.  Frankly, I deeply feared his going and discovering that the robe of his dreams was less than that, perhaps some shoddily sewn number or one composed of cheap fabric. This I knew would result in yet more searching and discussing and phone calling and vilification of manufacturers and subsequent registering of disgust with declining robe industry standards.

But from what I gather—albeit secondhand— he is gloriously happy with this new, thick, absorbent, white, hotel-quality terrycloth robe and plans to wear it daily to the pool for his hydro-therapy.  But I wouldn’t know for sure because I dare not ask.  There are those times, after all, when ignorance is truly bliss.

Epilogue: I made a general inquiry of my sister about the new robe.  That was my first mistake.  She asked me if I had heard the latest chapter in what I have come to understand is an eternal saga.  I assured her I probably had not.  On a post doctor-visit shopping trek with a friend after Christmas, my dad happened to discover a deep azure blue Ralph Lauren robe heavily discounted at Macy’s and evidently far more beautiful and luxurious than the white one.  This, of course, begs the question: why was he in the robe section of Macy’s?  According to my sister, he bought it for a song and plans to return the white one, which has hung unworn on a hook in his closet as she says, “like a shrine.”




4 thoughts on “The Robe

  1. Hi Mary! Happy New Year!

    I smiled and chuckled through this whole essay…your dad sounds like my father-in-law. I went through something similar last Christmas trying to find a vest for him. He doesn’t like sweater vests, couldn’t be too thick or too thin, had to have a collar, but not too cumbersome. I finally found a fleece-lined wool one from Orvis that I paid an arm and a leg for, but the reward is he hardly ever takes it off. And the biggest reward is he stopped wearing the ratty old quilted flannel one that he had worn for 20 years. Once in a while I hit a homerun.

    • Susan:
      Great to hear from you and Happy New Year to you as well! I’m back in the saddle again until life overwhelms me. Your father-in-law sounds like a hoot!

      I’ve come to believe that the robe is more important as an idea to my father than as an object. My dad is a great thinker and designer (see A Museum of One’s Own: Love Letter to the Nelson) and he just can’t look at anything—a building, road, can opener—and not see alternative versions or how it could be improved. His ideas are truly remarkable and innovative and his re-designs always a vast improvement. The pursuit of the perfect robe really represents to me the intense drive that characterizes that aspect of his inventiveness.

  2. What an enjoyable essay, Mary. I can see why it was featured. I love this line: “In my family, no one takes the word “robe” lightly, not in fabric, not in form, not in function.”

    Who doesn’t have robe issues? Recently I turned against my dark blue towel-type robe and stole Kathy’s cheap but thinner baby blue model, which came from a hospital. I find myself fantasizing sometimes about a red robe like my father’s, almost a smoking jacket. But as your post implies, once I start this search it will become ENDLESS.

  3. Snickers and guffaws!

    I remember the days of dusters and house coats. Our neighbors, Miss Jeanette and Miss Franny, lived across the street from one another. After their husbands left for work, they crossed the street to have coffee with one another. They were always clad in their house coats. The house coat was almost a status symbol.

    Thanks for the laugh and the memories.

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