Monday, February 22, 2010

THE MAGIC SUIT, circa 1981

I came across this essay I wrote almost thirty years ago. Reading it again brought a distant incident into sharp focus for me (including a visual of bell-bottomed pants).
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“Sherri is a Homecoming Princess, but doesn’t even have a date for the dance!” Pete’s voice had a sense of urgency in it. I turned to look at my fourteen-year-old son. It was too early in the morning to be conversing about anything except eggs, vitamin pills, and the cereal selection. I was spreading mustard on multiple bologna sandwiches, which would shortly be inside three brown bags on their way to high school. Before I could think of a response, he continued. “I’ve been thinking, Mom. Do you think we could buy me a suit so I could take her?”

I was speechless. I wanted to retort, “You’ve gotta be kidding! When you’re growing three inches a year?” but I held my tongue. My female empathy for another woman, too young at fourteen to be in such a predicament, was my dominating response. Homecoming Princesses were elected by their classmates, which almost guaranteed—because of their popularity with voting peers—a date for the event. However, Sherri was a victim of the system: our high school had just switched from a three- to a four-year school that fall. Pete and his classmates had expected to be the top dogs in junior high; instead, they were the guinea pigs for the school board’s decision to meld its freshmen with the other three classes. Now, it seemed, we’d discovered a social pitfall with the new plan.

I knew Pete had no interest in dating as recently as yesterday—nor did any of the boys in the group he palled around with. But here was Sherri, his good friend since sixth grade, in an embarrassing situation, and he was trying to help. I was touched by his compassion.

“Pete,” I said, finding my voice at last, “that’s a wonderful idea. But we cannot buy you a suit . . . they’re incredibly expensive, and nothing we’d buy now would still fit you by spring. And the suit isn’t going to be your only homecoming expense, either—flowers, dance ticket, going out to dinner first. That’s a lot of money for a fourteen-year-old to spend in one evening!” I was thinking “especially since you only have one lawn job a week," but kept quiet.

“I know,” he agreed, “but I just feel so bad she has to go to the dance alone.”

“Who’s going where alone?” asked sixteen year-old Phil as he entered the kitchen. When Pete explained the situation to him, Phil’s comment was both sensible and cynical. “Hey, just go Dutch Treat. It’s stupid to spend all that money for one lousy night.”

I was surprised and pleased to hear my stance about it being too expensive backed-up by one of Pete’s brothers. Normally, they sided with each other in a parent-child disagreement, but Phil had spent almost sixty dollars of his hard-earned money the year before on a Homecoming date he didn’t much care for by day of the dance. The bitter lesson took him months to financially recover from.

Matt, our seventeen year old senior, leapt the two bottom stairs where he landed in the middle of the kitchen and the conversation. “What’s this about Homecoming?” he asked, tossing his book bag over his shoulder and reaching for his lunch bag. Then, as if he suddenly understood what he’d heard, blurted out, “You goin’, Pete?”

“Mom won’t let me buy a suit, but I would if I could.”

“What a bummer,” Matt replied, sounding angry. “I don’t supposed any of your friends’ moms will let them get suits, either.” He glared at me as I momentarily personified all those mothers who—at this very moment—were conspiring to keep their children from having fun.

“It’s because fourteen-year-old boys are growing so fast,” I defended. “A suit is an investment and a poor one at this age.”

“Wait! I have an idea!” interrupted Phil with sudden inspiration. “You can borrow my suit.” Phil was the recipient of a hand-me-down, three-piece suit from a friend of mine whose tall, thin son had outgrown it.

“Don’t be stupid, Phil. Yours isn’t gonna’ fit Pete,” growled Matt as he stuffed his homework papers into his backpack and stormed out of the kitchen. I was briefly grateful that he’d said this, so I didn’t have to the ‘the heavy’ again. He opened the front door, then turned back to Pete. “But . . . if she lets you buy a suit, we can double date.” He slammed the door and was gone.
Pete turned back to look inquisitively at Phil. “Are you serious? If it fits, I could really borrow it?”

“Why not? I’m not planning on needing it!”

“I’ll try it on tonight after football practice,” were Pete’s parting words as he and Phil both scurried out the door.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Pete. You’re not the same size as . . ..” The door slammed again. They were gone. Once the room was quiet, I couldn’t help smiling as I poured a second cup of coffee.

It was so good to see a glimpse of brotherly concern. Usually I saw only the typical array of dishtowel fights, belching contests, or feet engaged in tripping games. I pulled out my checkbook from my purse to look at its balance. Could I somehow eek out an extra expense this month? It was doubtful, but nevertheless I wished I could find a way to buy him whatever he needed to be Sherri’s escort. It was a wonderful idea.

At 6:30 p.m. Pete came bounding through the back door. “I told Sherri that if Phil’s suit fits me, I can take her to the dance. She was really happy.”

“Pete, I told you not to get your hopes up . . . or Sherri’s, for that matter!” I felt irritated at him, knowing my how slim my budget was for extraneous purchases and how he didn’t have more than eight dollars to his name. There was no way I could imagine scrounging enough from my household expenses to advance him the necessary funds needed for this seemingly capricious event.

“Sherri told me her mother would help pay for the evening, if only someone would take her daughter,” he said, as if he were reading my mind. How desperate Sherri’s mom must be feeling, I thought, to have a daughter elected to the Homecoming Court, but without an escort. I would have made the same offer if Sherri had been my daughter. Suddenly I felt selfish, but I couldn’t feel as hopeful as Pete. He was four inches shorter and much stockier than Phil.

Undaunted by my pessimism, Pete ran upstairs to invade Phil’s closet. Minutes later he entered the kitchen. I hadn’t seen him in a suit since he was two years old, and then it was an Eaton style with short pants, a triple hand-me-down down from a cousin and two brothers. But now he was standing in my kitchen—a young man in a three-piece suit that appeared to fit perfectly—looking very grown up and beaming from ear to ear. “It fits, Mom! It fits!”

“So it does . . . and it looks wonderful.” I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I was stunned. Had the suit changed itself upon the hanger in anticipation of this moment?

Within minutes, Pete had made his phone call. He bounded back into the room. “Sherri’s mom will treat us to dinner, so could you maybe just buy her flowers? I have enough money to pay for the dance ticket myself!”

I refrained from hugging him, knowing how he would cringe from such a display of affection. Matt gave him an affectionate punch on the shoulder and reiterated the invitation to double date. Immediately Phil began to give Pete instructions in necktie tying.

Other mothers raised their eyebrows when they heard Pete was going to Homecoming. “Isn’t he too young?” they asked, inferring they were better mothers to limit their sons’ social lives. I just smiled. I wanted to brag about my good-hearted son, but was reluctant to embarrass him. And who would believe me about the suit?

The event was a smashing success, from the modest restaurant Pete and Sherri selected and the nosegay of flowers priced at wholesale by my florist friend who happened to know Sherri’s mom, to the complimentary dance tickets that all Homecoming Court members received. Pete and Sherri opted to let their mothers do the driving—I did one direction, Sherri’s mom did the other—instead of doubling with Matt and his girlfriend. “It’s too expensive to go with them,” I heard Pete tell a friend. With no need to buy dance tickets, Pete’s eight dollars were available for him to be a big-time spender for two rounds of soft drinks.

The whole event had a kind of magic to it, more than just the suit’s changing itself upon the hanger. It was brought about by optimism, compassion and determination—the best kind of magic. No one in our family has ever forgotten it.


Anonymous said...

Yup, that's me. The one that went to Homecoming with Sherri. My mom sent me a copy when she found it. I noticed, as a 41 year old father of two, that if this happened today the expecation would have been to buy a new suit and if we couldn't afford it simply put in on a credit card... Times have changed and so have expectations and entitlements. So nice to look back and actually see a different time. Thanks for bringing it out again. (That was a sweet suit with flair pants and the optional vest with satin back!)


Anonymous said...

what a wonderful gesture/memory! clearly pete's good character isn't just "office showmanship", it's the real thing and comes from growing up in your home, Mrs. Glerum! :-) i've worked with pete for 3+ yrs and we often share similar growing-up stories but this one made me tear up! love your blog,
~christina from the office

Anonymous said...

I remember the suit...Pete wore the optional vest, right?! And, I remember Shari's dress perfectly.
Funny how things stick in your memory and humorous how they come up decades later! ~~Wendy (Shari's BFF :)