This thing of ours.
Daughter twirled in her new skirt and I planned. This would be her church outfit for fall, maybe even her Christmas picture outfit. We’d use her brown buckle shoes, white knee-highs, the white ruffled shirt she already had, and over the top would be a classic Fair Isle yoke, three-button sweater. I’d have to buy the sweater, but that would be easy; it’s a classic sweater, everyone makes them, and there were enough colors in the skirt that I could choose whichever Fair Isle was the easiest and—dare I say?—cheapest. I could see the ensemble so clearly that for a moment it wasn’t August and nearly a hundred degrees; I nearly suggested to Daughter that we make cocoa.
I started with the obvious stores; Talbots, Lands End, LL Bean. Talbots had two forms of argyle sweater, but no Fair Isle. No worries, I thought, I’ve got nothing but time, patience, and a long supply of preppy stores. LL Bean had no Fair Isle, but did have several sweaters outstandingly suitable for tailgate parties, maple-syrup gathering, and living in a John Cheever short story. They did have a rather handsome fisherman’s sweater, which would have looked cute with the kilt, but I eschewed it on the grounds that Daughter would declare it “A boy’s sweater” and would have worn it only if allowed to balance out its egregious masculinity with pink plastic mules and hair extensions. Land’s End hurt me; they had something which was very nearly a Fair Isle sweater, and something they called a Fair Isle, which wasn’t, and had the pattern in the wrong place. It was as if the designers at Land’s End thought “We’re all so bored with the standards, let’s take our customers out of their comfort zone.”
I don’t know how to tell you this, designers of Land’s End children’s clothing, but you’re working for Land’s End. I know some of your friends got jobs at Calvin Klein or Alexander McQueen, but you are working for a company dedicated to the fashion-phobic. We shoppers of Land’s End like our clothing the way we like our cuisine; clear, unfussy, capable of being recognized at a distance and described in less than five words. I didn’t want a post-modern interpretation of the classic, I wanted the original goods. A reinterpreted Fair Isle is nothing more than Cary Grant in a wife-beater and manpris.
I sulked. The kilt hung in Daughter’s closet, a woolen, pleated reminder of my failings.
I was complaining to another mother at camp pick-up, and she nodded knowingly. “Yeah, I’ve had that experience,” she said as children swarmed around us, a feral tribe bedecked in poster paint, mud and lunch. “Last year, I decided Rebecca had to have a toggle coat with a furry lining. Just a nice, classic toggle coat, like you’ve seen your entire life. A Paddington coat. It became a thing.”
Daughter stood next to me, grubby and happy. I looked at her hands, which were empty. “Sweetie, are you missing anything?” She thought and shook her head no. “Let me give you a hint,” I suggested, “Swimsuit, towel, lunch-box, thermos, any art projects you made today and your other shoe.” Daughter dashed back into camp, and I continued our conversation.
“Did you ever find the coat?” I asked nervously, suddenly totally convinced that if her story hadn’t ended well, it boded badly for my great hunt. She said blandly,“Oh, sure…eventually.” This was an “Eventually” as in “…eventually, nuclear waste stops being so darn toxic and you can plant vegetables in it safely.” I was given no assurance this sweater would come to me easily.
But that’s the thing about A Thing; you don’t just buy it, you earn it. The nature of A Thing is that it must be deceptively simple; a toggle coat, a Fair Isle sweater. In the case of another friend of mine, a striped shirt of a particular width of stripe and shade of blue. You’re not asking for a brief glimpse beyond the veil between life and death, you’re asking for a pair of red corduroy pants. You’ve seen them before, you know you’ve seen them before; you just need to find them.
This leads to the darker side of searching for A Thing; nothing less than the original Thing will do. They can’t be brick-red corduroy pants, they must be the cherry-red which will pick up the minor color in the sweater you got on sale last season (Side note: A sale item frequently precedes and then figures into the need for A Thing. I have no idea why this is). The stripe must be just the right width and the blue a perfect royal blue. Just because the pursuer doesn’t own it doesn’t mean they don’t know exactly what it looks like.
The Thing is usually clothing, but not always; in the early seventies, my mother knew her living room needed a leaf-green couch. She knew this through an entire year of shopping, her desire for it and her belief in its existence not even slightly diminished by every furniture store’s insistence that she was asking for the furnishings equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster:
SALESPERSON: Can I help you?
QUINN’S MOTHER: Yes, I’m looking for a leaf-green couch.
(Salesperson stares at her in shock.)
SALESPERSON: That doesn’t exist.
QM: Well, can you look in the fabric sample books?
SALESPERSON: I don’t have to, I can tell you. No one has ever made a leaf-green couch in the history of the world. In fact, until now, no one has ever used the phrase “Leaf-green couch”.
QM: Humor me. Let’s look through the fabric sample books anyway.
SALESPERSON: Sure, I’ll bring out the sample book from the whole Fictional Furniture line!
She got her couch…eventually, as my friend found her Paddington coat…eventually. I think the Thing ultimately gets tired of the chase and allows itself to get caught. In the meanwhile, while my mother hunted, I had a spacious and nearly-empty living room in which to ride my tricycle.
Two years later, when she was on a hunt for another obscure object of desire, my mother noticed there was at least one leaf-green couch at every furniture store in the city. Had she managed to convince the manufacturers that there was this unmet need for leaf-green couches, this army of consumers storming the gates, screaming for blood and light-green sofas? Once again, a female member of my family has made noise all out of proportion to her size.
As of today, I have looked at no fewer than thirty-five websites in search of the sweater. I have found exactly two classic Fair Isle sweaters. One is from Ralph Lauren and it’s got an “RL” monogram the size of a coaster on the front of it. If Daughter is wearing something with “RL” on it, it will be because her initial are RL, which they are not. At Ralph’s prices, I’m not advertising for him as well. The other is from Best and Company and costs ninety-eight dollars. The only way Daughter gets a ninety-eight dollar sweater is if she lives in a display case and signs a notarized document promising not to grow.
I have preppy moms investigating for me in the South and the Northeast; two areas I suspect are more likely to produce classic children’s clothing than Los Angeles, the place which gave the world formal hot pants. I have a search flag for “Fair Isle sweaters” on EBay, otherwise known as The Mall of Buyer’s Remorse. So far, all EBay has taught me is that “Fair Isle” is a concept used freely and understood rarely by sellers. I grow cranky, but my standards do not waver. I see this thing. It is a three-button, Fair Isle-yoked sweater. It doesn’t involve sequins or hoods; it isn’t backless. It’s timeless and it’s pretty and someone has to be making it. Eventually, I will find it.
And when I do, think of how great she’ll look in it at her high-school graduation.