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ANOTHER DAY IN THE COUNTRY: Immodestly speaking

© Another Day in the Country

My mother was a very modest woman. As a preacher’s wife, she was very careful about her style of dress — necks high, hems well below the knee, sleeves very important.

She would almost never wear a pair of slacks, which she and my father both deemed “men’s clothing,” except, on the rare occasion that either modesty or absolutely frigid weather called for them and then only under a dress so that no one had to guess her gender.  

Once, when I was a kid, our church group rented a swimming pool for an evening.

Later, one of the elders — who had been seen laughing with a certain lady at the pool, made the mistake of starting an affair with that lady and my mother and father blamed the whole debacle on the swimming pool and swim suits.

Ever after, if Mom got into any water, other than her own bathtub, she was fully clothed. Needless to say, she didn’t spend a lot of time at the pool.

My father’s ideas about modesty meant that when he ran from the bathroom to the bedroom in our one bathroom home, in his underwear, he’d yell, “Nobody look.”

Of course, as a teenager, I rankled under that standard and would mutter under my breath, “We weren’t until you hollered.” 

I was a stickler for adult inconsistencies.

Different cultures have different ideas about bodies and whether or not it is appropriate to see them and in what setting.

Sometimes these ideas baffle our sense of “normal” and are difficult to understand. What is polite, acceptable, and appropriate in one culture can be rude, punishable, and even life threatening, in another. 

The more “global” we become, the wider the range of ideas we are called upon to navigate.

There’s never seemed to be as many cultural restrictions referring specifically to men as there are to women.

Of course, that was often a topic of conversation I instigated in our family. Dad seemed to have no qualms about stripping off his shirt outside when he was working or around the house. He also went swimming, in public, and wore a swimsuit. 

Not Mom!

When we became adults, my sister and I tried to be aware of their concerns and not flaunt our ever-changing tastes and decisions about how we dressed, but it never failed to jolt our parents.

After I was married, I unthinkingly came home in a pair of pedal pushers and Dad was furious — it prompted an actual sermon on the subject of modesty that week, and unbeknownst to me, Mom burnt the offending pants before I had a chance to pack them away.

After Dad died, I kept thinking my mother would change with the times, but she saw no need.

“A pant suit would be warmer in the winter in Kansas,” we casually suggested.

The truth was, I’d already bought her one and had it in the car for her to try on.

“Don’t you girls think you are going to change me,” she said, standing there in her pastel polyester dress, with that certain steely glint in her eye.

My sister rolled her eyes at me with an “I told you so,” gesture, and I returned the pantsuit.

Culturally, I think I’m modest, but my daughter teases, “Your idea of modesty is to run faster.”

Given that, it was still a bit of a jolt when an artist friend asked if I would allow her to take pictures of my body for a sculpture she was planning.

Having her photograph my body was fine, but I wondered what it would be like to see myself reproduced in clay, life-sized. It was to be part of an art show about women over 80.

The piece was supposed to symbolize metamorphosis. She intended to turn me into a Monarch butterfly. She would give me wings!  

“I’ve been waiting for you to be old enough to join the rest of the series,” she joked.

Months later, Michaela called to tell me the sculpture was finished, and actually on exhibition at a gallery in Wichita.

“Come to the opening,” she said. ”I’d love for you to be part of a discussion we’re having.”

I knew that this sculpture would be a symbolic work of art, but it was still my body. I knew that it would not be a “glamour piece.” For one thing, she does her representations without hair!

“Hair is a distraction to the character displayed in the face,” she said.

Which meant all the ravages of time, all the wrinkles and imperfections, all the creases, sags and bags that I hid with glasses and clothes, make-up and hair, were now on display.

Well, it’s another day in the country and no time for extreme modesty at this point.  

“It’s a good thing Mom and Dad are gone,” I said to my sister. “This they would never understand.”

And then, I walked into the gallery.

I’ve looked in the mirror, daily. I’ve scrubbed and inspected every part of my body for decades, but there’s a way that we get used to seeing ourselves and it’s inherently different from how others see us.

There stood an amazing sculpture, a beautiful piece of art, but I didn’t recognize myself.

Last modified Dec. 5, 2019

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