After my grandma was done crying. After she had finished holing up for weeks in her house, the blinds drawn, the house quiet except for when Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was on the tee-vee. After she had Elisabeth Kübler-Rossed her way through her five stages of grief. After she had dried her tears and painted her lipstick on her narrow cancer survivor’s lips. After she had processed the death of my grandfather, but before she had rejoined the living, my mother gave her five frilly pieces of underwear.
My mother was not herself a frilly lingerie wearer. My mom tended to the excessively pragmatic. Her bras tended to the shade known as “flesh,” in the white-privileged times of the late ‘70s, which is when my grandmother was grieving, thus when my mother bestowed upon her those five frilly panties. Lace on my mother’s unmentionables was an afterthought. A bow here. A modest scallop along the thigh there. It was never actually the point.
But in these five furbelows, my mom gave free rein to her frothy imagination. They were, in deference to my grandmother’s Protestant tastes, all shades of ecru, pink, white—no wanton scarlet undies, no black widow’s garb. But they were all unabashedly lacy, intricate spidery wafts of fabric, slithery slivers of sinuous silk; immodest as cappuccino foam, these were undergarments worthy of calling “unmentionables.” My mom let me see them before she rewrapped them in their layers of tissue paper, and I was dumbstruck, at twenty, with inexpressible lust.
I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. Back then, when I was fifteen and shiny with immorality and dew, I didn’t get loss. I’d experienced it, of course, but I hadn’t lived long enough to accumulate that patina of loss that I have at 51. Enough years on this wet blue planet and you’re positively shellacked in loss, one coat over another, dulling your coat like so much floor wax. Back then, when I was fifteen, I didn’t get loss and I didn’t get what a new set of extraordinary unmentionables could do for you.
This summer, a thing happened. I fell in love. I fell very much in love. My heart got cracked wide open like an oyster in a half shell. It was a thing, and it felt real, and it turned out it wasn’t, and then it ended, quite quickly. The last day I saw him, the last day I talked to him, we met in a park, and he told me all the many reasons why he saw fit to break up with me. I was too negative, he said. I didn’t listen to him, he said. I took him for granted, he said. We were sexually incompatible, he said.
I left him that sunny Friday, smiling and pretty. I kissed him on the lips and bid him good-bye. And then, spun, confused, unable to parse the swirling solar flares whisking across my brainpan, I remembered I had a $100 gift certificate to a tony lingerie store not so far away. I walked there, in a daze.
In a daze, I got fitted for a bra, my first fitting in recent memory. I am, it turns out, a 34-E. I bought a bra and matching panties, matching, in a shade somewhere between fire engine red and fuchsia. I also bought five other pairs of panties, all on sale, all gossamer wisps of things, panties ephemeral as a secret and twice as loaded.
Since that Friday in September, I have not stopped shopping for lingerie. I am breathy with the magic of it. It’s a giddy, girly contrivance, these dreamy imaginings of silk, nylon and lace. I have spent altogether too much money on these matching whispery sets (and I’ve way too many in shades of crimson, scarlet, cerise and bubblegum pink). But I love them, love them for their precious glow, their caress under the globes of my breasts, the way they hug my hips. I love them for the potential of showing them to others, lovers or no. I love them for their erotic promise to myself.
Make no mistake: there is great power in the wearing of good unmentionables. I defy any woman (regardless of how she comes by her womanhood) to put on a perfectly fitting bra and matching panties and not feel girded for battle. Lingerie may look like sweet nothings—and the best lingerie does—but if it fits right, it acts like internal Kevlar.
Pierce this, motherfucker. I dare you.
My mom gave my grandma her panties, and slowly, step by step, my grandma rejoined the living. She cut her waist-length hair. She discovered the joy of frozen drinks and the joy of dancing disco. She took lovers, many younger than herself. Piano, piano, as the Italians say, she turned a brighter shade of herself. Just a few years older than I am now, she learned to live better, and to love more, and to fuck often.
Such is the magic of unmentionables. Such is the gospel of a properly fitting bra. Such is the power of panties.