When I was a little kid my parents and I spent a lot of time at Goodwill, since it was one of the only places we could afford to buy clothes from. At one point, my dad used to work there before I was born. My parents were in fashion long before I was born and retired from it, bitterly, long before I even had a brain cell to exclusively dedicated to loving Rei Kawakubo. I didn’t even know they were in fashion by the time I became interested in it because they both wear crocs and jeans purchased at Costco - I only learned they were when a magazine came by our house in high school to do a photoshoot of me, and my mom told the stylist she was once a designer herself. (Now, crocs are apparently cool, so my parents, as ever, are influencers.) You would think they would have told me before. But they had been so adamant about me not entering the industry myself, pushing me towards engineering (I am Asian, after all). Before then, I didn’t realize it was out of personal experience and not just diaspora rearing it’s head into my future. It cleared some things up, though.
It explained why when I dressed ridiculous they never refused me from leaving the house, but they did adjust my styling efforts, and suggested a different pair of tights or blouse. They understood where I was coming from. I am utterly their child and owe myself to their disregarded closets from their former lives. I have stolen countless cashmere sweaters from my mother, more than a few silk dresses, and famously a Chanel tophat I somehow lost in high school after one wear. This fact haunts me to this day, a glamorous condemnation of my lack of care at the time, and it will be on the list of reasons I am surely hellbound when I croak. I’ll finally be able to fistfight Coco Chanel in hell! This is fine and also utterly besides the point.
The point really is that I have been thinking about my parents and the various things I’ve inherited from them a lot. Probably because I haven’t seen them since before COVID, which means this is easily the longest we’ve ever been apart. Small things keep reminding me of them. There’s a neighbor across the way from me, an older couple that spends their mornings watering their plants together, topless, on their fire escape turned garden. The man has snow white hair and a B-cup and freckles in such a volume his skin looks like a gradient of white and freckle-taupe; from where I sit on the roof sometimes it looks like the freckles move when he does. My dad has the same kind of skin damage, the same kind of hair, though his is usually much more unkempt - he prefers a long braid down his hair, which he thoroughly disregards for days at a time until it becomes a demented cloud of wires that must be battled, not brushed. Whenever I’m home I spend an hour arguing with his hair using a paddle brush and fantasize that one day, he will listen to me and use one of the many hair products I have left him in the bathroom. But he is a seventy year old man, and he prefers Pert to Kerastase shampoo. No one is surprised. Besides, he tells me about his childhood when I’m brushing his hair - it’s the only time he ever does. I think they purposefully don’t listen to me about my suggestions because they want me to help them through these beauty processes, because they miss me so much. This is both diabolical and lovely.
I am at the age where I feel the need to fact-check what I know about my parents because the death all around us makes our relationship feel more fragile than before. I miss asking my dad questions that demolish small talk and also my assumptions about their world. The times when I’m brushing his hair - they’re when I get to do that. Get to ask questions about things he’s said in passing, assumptions I made at twelve that were woefully misremembered. This is helpful, this undoing. Understanding my parents as people and not just parents has made it a little easier to maintain boundaries for all of our health and safety during COVID. I can separate the mythologies from my childhood from the fears we all have as adults, and work from that new space. I have learned I am comfortable disappointing them because I’m not beholden to them as much as I was as a kid. That gift - the gift of being proven wrong and also disappointing them - is something I really cherish now. When I was little, trying to prove I could succeed in an industry they both had bitter experiences with was a large part of my motivation to succeed. Now I know it doesn’t matter what I do, as long as I am happy doing it. The disappointment fades over time, and curiosity replaces it. I really cherish that evolution.
Have you been here before? What was it like? What weird things have you misremembered or learned anew?
There’s been a lot of good writing lately on grief, disappointment, the hard questions we ask about our ideals vs our realities. Here is a selection I keep ruminating over:
A House if Not a Home, by Eula Biss, The New Yorker
God is Dead. So is the Office. These People Want to Save Both. The New York Times. Though I do suggest pairing it with this old piece I wrote for Racked, for a less Western perspective on the “trend” of divinity consultants for corporations. Wellness/religious gurus on deck isn’t a new trend, to be honest - it’s just been whitewashed. Chinese companies and even the Chinese military used divinity consultants like mole readers to determine best practices. I think at least that version of it is more truthful about the true goal of the relationship. Divinity guides for productivity aren’t really for the betterment of the employee as a personal gift. It’s to make you a more complacent and productive worker.
And some books I’ve read and appreciated about parents, love, parenthood:
Fierce Attachments: A Memoir, Vivian Gornick (I’ve recommended this before)