The Smock by Betty J. Cotter

The Smock | Betty J. Cotter

My mother’s maternity top has had at least three lives – maybe four, as I am wearing it now: a loose cotton smock covered in a gaudy pattern of blue roses and daisies. For a while I thought it was homemade; it has no tag and some hand stitching in the seams. My mother could sew, although she hated to; in fact, she won a Necchi sewing machine in one of the many jingles contests she loved to enter. But just the other day I found the top on page eighty-seven of the Sears Roebuck Spring & Summer Catalog. “Look pretty while you’re waiting,” Sears advises above the model, who has paired the shirt with blue pedal pushers.

My sister would have known the smock wasn’t hand-sewn. But Andi has been dead for four years, and when we pulled the shirt out of a trunk after my mother died, I did not think to ask. Because Andi was not examining the needlework or waxing nostalgic over the pattern. “I remember that shirt,” she said, “because she slapped me right across the face one day when she was wearing it.”

This would have been 1959. I was there only in utero, but when I picture the scene the camera of my eyes hovers just behind Andi. I imagine the blur of blue flowers, my mother’s enraged face, and her right hand striking with rapier speed. The vision is as real as a memory. But that is all: I don’t recall why my mother slapped her (Had she spilled something? Made a smart remark?), but after all the child is not responsible for the parent’s anger. My mother was nearly forty years old, unexpectedly pregnant, probably hot, hormonal, and irritated at something that had nothing to do with her eight-year-old daughter.

In the 1950s, only pregnant women and painters wore smocks. In fact, although the style would become fashionable twenty years later, no definition in the dictionary explains this article of clothing or women’s relationship to it. The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon smoc (Middle English smok), meaning a loose dress or chemise, or “an overgarment of washable material” – a sort of workman’s apron. The 1977 Webster’s New Collegiate labeled the chemise definition archaic, but made no note of the smock’s evolution that decade into a fashion trend. Even in the 1998 edition, its principal dictionary denotation was as a cover-up for workers. The shirt’s identity as maternity clothing or Baby Boomer styling went unremarked; dictionaries were still written primarily by men.

Sometime in the 1970s, I discovered the loose shirt in my mother’s drawer and asked if I could wear it. Smocks were in. On Simplicity patterns and in the pages of Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines, models like Barbara Minty and Colleen Corby wore them loose or tucked into jeans. Andi and I combed through our FBS (French Boot Shop) catalog, from a retailer in New Rochelle that sold trendy clothing for modern women. Here the term “smock” became a catch-all for peasant blouses, India-print shirts, and short tunics. There was the “dude smock,” the “absolute smock,” the “gauze smock,” the “scarf smock.” The descriptions paid homage to the shirts’ origins: “The easy going smock is really a Mexican’s work shirt with a mandarin collar, front pocket”; another was “made from real peasant scarves in prints of the provinces.” Were there actual Mexican workers or peasants behind these creations? In 1975, no one cared. The models flaunted these shirts in third-world countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, giving them a certain native cachet. I wanted to live like the women of FBS, who summered in exotic locales and carried sisal bags with flowers poking out of the top, who played tennis and strode down cobblestone streets, whose tall, lean bodies had never been pregnant and surely never would be.

What happened between my mother’s maternity smock and the tops of the 1970s? For one thing: Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1966 movie The Sandpiper, she plays a bohemian artist living on the coast of Big Sur in California whose wild young son is sent to a conservative private school run by a British headmaster (Richard Burton). It doesn’t take long for the buttoned-up Dr. Edward Hewitt to fall for the free-living Laura Reynolds, and the best parts of the campy movie consist of location shots of Taylor painting on the beach, dressed in, you guessed it, floaty artist’s smocks over tight pants. By the time Laura and the minister sneak away for a picnic in an isolated cove, she has shed everything but that smock, her legs emerging provocatively as she entwines herself around him.

But in 1975, I did not question how a garment that had once served as maternity clothing became a fashion statement. Why would women want to wear smocks if they weren’t pregnant? I had no answer for this at fifteen, and I put on my mother’s blue-flowered maternity top hoping my friends would not make the connection. I had no intention of getting pregnant, then or ever.

My mother never slapped me. She did pop me on the bottom once, when I was older than Andi, maybe ten, because I was teasing her about her middle name. Hope. What kind of a name was that? Hopie, Hopie, I heckled. She was infuriated. The smack did not hurt, not really, but her rage was incomprehensible. Why so sensitive? She would have these sudden fits, dissolving into tears, threatening to go to bed or never do our laundry again. Menopause, we blamed. Always there was some female condition responsible for her anger. But did pregnancy really make her slap Andi? Were hormones behind her fury about her middle name? My mother was angry. I suppose she had plenty of reasons to be, but she would have denied all of them. She did not like to admit my arrival was unplanned. She dismissed the resulting end of her teaching career with a shake of the head; she wasn’t healthy enough to continue, that was all. Women of her generation wore smocks to cover up their condition, and my mother was a master of subterfuge. One never really knew the full story. It was true she had hemorrhaged badly after I was born, and the pregnancy left her with some unpleasant physical issues, but it’s also true that she petitioned for a year’s leave of absence and the School Committee denied her appeal. Only then did she cash in her retirement fund and stop working. So, which was it? Was she relieved to stay home and be a full-time mother? Or was she papering over the truth, that she would have preferred I hadn’t been born at all?

My mother quit teaching school as soon as her pregnancy showed. It was considered unseemly for visibly pregnant women to be out in public, as though young children might be corrupted by the sight of them, as though the condition were contagious. It was only a few years before my birth that the wildly popular TV show I Love Lucy was enjoined from using the word “pregnant” on TV. Lucille Ball, as Lucy Ricardo, dressed for TV much as she did in real life: in stretchy pants and balloon-like maternity smocks. The tops were so expansive that you never saw the belly lurking beneath; that was by design. A woman who was pregnant was the subject of lame jokes about pickle cravings and mood swings. Pregnancy was a temporary and charming spell not to be broken by the actual word or a real belly bulge. It was a state of euphemism: “Look pretty while you’re waiting.”

As it happened, I was named after another pregnant woman on TV. “Betty Jean” was a character on the CBS soap opera The Edge of Night, whose husband was having an affair. One night he brought her ice cream to make up for an argument, but he left it on the counter to melt. At least, that is how my sister remembers it; in the plot lines of 1959, Betty Jean and her husband Jack are indeed estranged, but they already have a child, Bud. Andi may have been recalling an earlier episode: She would have seen enough of them in her preschool years, when she lived with my grandmother during the week. In any case, you might wonder why my mother would name a child after an unhappily married woman. The answer is she didn’t – my grandmother, who was devoted to her “stories” as she called the soap operas, picked out “Betty Jean.” My mother wanted to name me Caroline. She probably changed the spelling to “Jeanne” to give it a little pizzazz.

My mother’s pregnancy was more The Edge of Night than I Love Lucy. She would have been wondering how they were going to fit a third child into their two-bedroom house (the answer: a crib in the kitchen), how they were going to get by on my father’s meager earnings as a sawmill operator, and what it would be like to take care of a child full time. My grandmother, her mother-in-law, had raised Andi and Mary Jane while my mother taught school; they only came home on weekends.

So, I can’t really blame her for that slap. It was a momentary fissure in her composure, a cry for help even. My mother was overwhelmed. I know how she felt. One evening, one of the many nights when my husband was working and I had three children seven and under to corral, I lost my temper. It may have happened twice, although I only remember once: I slapped my eldest across the face.

During my three pregnancies, from 1989 to 1995, maternity clothing was still loose and camouflaging. It was unheard of to wear tight knit shirts that clung to one’s belly like plastic wrap on a bowling ball, as women do today. I started out in polyester pantsuits until they became too tight, and graduated to loose dresses and jumpers. By the last weeks of each pregnancy, hardly anything fit. I remember one summer when, as the birth of my second child approached, only one sundress accommodated my girth. Somehow I did not think to borrow my mother’s smock as I had in the ’70s.

Like my mother, I was working full time. But all these years later, the choice she made – to leave her children in someone else’s care from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon – shocked me. We cobbled together babysitting between my aunt, a day care center, and my husband’s split shift. I wanted my children to sleep in their own beds at night. I wanted to see them, cook them supper, bathe them, play with them. We had a routine, and most of the time it worked out fine. But some nights it was all too much: the boys running amok, refusing to settle down, my baby girl disinterested in sleep. I snapped. The slap, sudden like a thunderclap, stopped the commotion. The sad thing is it worked.

Years later, I confessed to my eldest that I still felt guilt for striking him. He just laughed. Unlike my sister, he had no memory of being hit at all.

The smock was the only maternity clothing that my mother saved. She did not intend to have more children. Why did she keep it? Did she, too, imagine wearing it while writing? The only other clothing she stowed away was her college sweatshirt. Not even her blue wedding suit survives, but the smock and sweatshirt were folded carefully in a drawer, along with our snowsuits and my father’s Army uniform. She never wore either one again, but they must have represented something to her: She had graduated from college. She had borne three daughters.

I think of my mother in that hot kitchen, unable to bear one more trial of motherhood, smacking my sister in a rage. I don’t know if she felt deep shame later, as I did for slapping my son, or whether she even recalled the incident that had embittered Andi. She liked to hide behind forgetting, and cited Andi’s memory as though it were a character flaw: “Oh, your sister. She doesn’t forget a thing.” When I appropriated the smock as a teenager, I was innocent of its history. What did my mother think about her youngest parading around in it? I wonder now if women in the 1970s donned smocks precisely because they could: freed by the birth control pill and the women’s liberation movement to control their fertility, they transformed a maternity shirt from a garment of camouflage to one of allure. It seemed only fitting when my daughter, another generation, took an interest in it. Enchanted by its bright blue flowers, she made the smock into 21st-century chic by adding a leather belt.

Today I see my mother’s smock as something sacred. Whether you are painting a picture or making a baby, the smock is a sign you have something gestating. I put it on now to write. Although it is weighted by its history – by the lives of my mother, my teenage self, my sister, my daughter – it feels light and loose; not confining, but not tent-like either. It was well made. After sixty-two years, the smock has held up – its colors a little faded but its stitching tight, its lines true. And I suppose mothers are like that. We are not perfect. We are stretched and stressed by the demands placed on us, and sometimes we snap in ways that are unforgivable. I wear the smock to remind myself that if I judge my mother, I must judge myself. That if I empathize with my sister, I must not forget to atone for my son, even if he did not hold onto the memory. The smock, that garment that was supposed to hide so much, continues to reveal: our humanity, our creativity, our potential. Its story also is a cautionary tale. It reminds me how quickly we can turn from loving to cruel. But it also carries with it the possibility of forgiveness. Like the smock, my mother was more than maternal; she was a teacher, a writer, and a flawed human being doing the best she could. And the smock, like my mother, has transcended its maternity function into a garment for the ages.

About the Author:

Betty J. Cotter is the author of the novels Roberta’s Woods (Five Star, 2008) and The Winters (which earned her a Fiction Fellowship from the R.I. State Council on the Arts). The first chapter of her novel Moonshine Swamp was selected for the premiere issue of Novel Slices (2020) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A Rhode Island resident, she holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.