Love, Loss, and What I Wore

Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman is an unusual book.

Ilene coordinates her autobiography with her evolving wardrobe. She refashions “Where was I when…?” to “What was I wearing when…?” Beginning in the 1940s with her Brownie uniform, Ilene narrates her tales of love and loss to include education, dating, friendships, marriages, divorce, pregnancies, babies, social events, and shopping sprees. Perhaps, her affinity toward her outfits seems trivial. But no more so than recalling an amazing bistro dinner, a beautifully decorated hotel lobby, a breathtaking landscape, or a haunting movie as a means to recall our defining moments.

So I began to wonder, what’s the overarching theme by which I review my life. Food? I remember a stew in northern Spain, a paella in Barcelona, steak frittes in Paris, escargot in Lyon, crab cakes in San Francisco, ahi tuna in O’ahu and Schweinshaxe in Germany. But these are just food memories not life memories framed through eating. Back to Ilene.

For Ilene, it’s her appearance—hair, shoes, clothes, jewelry, and nails—that frames her experiences. She recalls what she wore during her milestones. Roughly sketched color pictures exaggerate her looks, creating a visual narrative of how she has embraced and weathered her life. Some of the details—like addresses –seem unnecessary, at first. Gradually though, they create an intimacy with this girl’s coming of age and continued self-actualization. Notice how this simple description develops from the mundane to the poignant: “I bought this three-quarter-length long-haired raccoon jacket from Bonwit Teller’s fur department in the Short Hills Mall. I had opened a charge account in my own name after I got a job and it took me a year to pay for the jacket. I was glad I had bought it, though, because after Al and I separated, money became tight.” P. 126. You get the idea. Recalling the outfit, Ilene recalls how she sees and saw herself.

I don’t know why I bought the book. Probably a New York Times endorsement that, once again, had me falling in love with a book I wouldn’t normally select.  I’m thinking of sharing it with my cousin Judy in the future because it may speak to her sense of fashion freedom. But for now, I’m keeping it to remind me that I see who I’ve become through my own frame of remembrances.

For you, what do you ask yourself during nostalgic moments…

What was I reading when…?”

What were the grandchildren doing when…?”

Where was I traveling when…?”

Who won the big game when…?”

Where was I living when…?”

The overarching pattern—food, apparel, travel, reading, etc.–by which we recall our benchmarks speaks not only to our interests, but also, to our identity construction. Does our pattern indicate autonomy more than socialization? Does it favor appeals to pathos, logos, or ethos? Does it reveal pessimism, optimism, determinism, or opportunism? When I picture my life’s major events, what is the frame of my pictures?

My memories are framed by my emotional reactions. Fear, anxiety, surprise, outrage, panic, and grief mingle with tranquility, excitement, appreciation, relief, and wonder. I remember how I felt waiting to see my brother come back from communion with his class only to suddenly realize that he had died the week before. I remember the fears of depression and the elations of mania. I remember the turmoil of my dissertation editing and the satisfaction of my PhD hooding.

I’ve fought all my life against my emotional nature. My father used to call me Sarah Bernhardt, so annoyed he would become over my dramatics. Criticized for being too emotional and too sensitive, I’ve often struggled to modulate my reactions. But if I remember my life through my feelings, am I not defining and living my life on an emotional level—for good or for bad?

How we frame our memories titles our personal self-actualization accounts. Your title might be Love, Loss, and How I Prayed or Love, Loss, and What I Wrote. My autobiographical title will be Love, Loss, and How I Felt.

Anyone interested in illustrating?

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