Play Dates

Skirt Magazine, May, 2004

Once a year my sister and I meet for a play date. Well, why not? When we were kids, we played together all the time. We shouldn’t have to give it up just because we’re grown-ups. When we were little our favorite game was Make Believe. We had dozens of versions of this, loosely based on whatever Disney movie was popular at the time and whatever relics from my mother’s wardrobe we were allowed to maul. Now that we’re both mature adults, our play dates are….actually, they’re not all that different.

Of course, the venue has changed considerably. We don’t live in the same house any more. We barely live on the same continent. I’m a northern California gal and she’s in southern Florida, so the first task is to find a playground. We’ve met in Portland, Ashland, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans. Wherever we meet, though, the game we play is always the same: Make Believe, with a healthy dollop of Dress-Up.

Ashland was an excellent place to play Make Believe because, apart from our evening visits to the theater, where we watched other people at play, we stopped in at the Shakespeare Festival Wardrobe Exhibit. The lure here was the mirrored room that contained racks and trunks of assorted costumes from past productions. For a small fee, anyone could go in and play Dress Up with the Festival cast-offs. My sister and I had a grand time donning costumes and posing for snapshots as Lady MacBeth or Portia or Juliet. And the beautifully crafted costumes sure beat the heck out of the frayed shawls and half-slips that we used to prance around in as kids.

Of course, we don’t need real costumes to play Dress Up. Anything that can be found in even a modest shopping district will do. In Chicago we exhausted ourselves running back and forth between Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Field to try on little black dresses, envisioning ourselves as Audrey Hepburn no matter what the mirrors reflected. San Francisco jaunts invariably included a stop at the Macy’s make up counter for a new look before dinner and the theater, although I could never convince my true blonde sister to spring for eyebrows. In New Orleans we found a delightful little boutique with retro gowns, all red sequins, white silk and gold lamé, that were perfect for Make Believe and totally impractical for anything else. We had a grand time there, and only tore ourselves away because we had to catch a paddle wheeler.

That’s right, paddle wheeler. The Make Believe game isn’t just about clothes. It’s about imagination and adventure, so our Mississippi cruise, and the daydreams about “Showboat” and Tom Sawyer that it inspired, fit right in. To tell you the truth, everything about New Orleans struck me as more Make Believe than real. Play acting seemed to be a way of life there, from the sax player on the street outside our hotel to the Vampire Lestat look-alike we eavesdropped on in a coffee bar one morning. My sister and I had a hard time keeping up with the flamboyant locals, but we gave it our best shot.
In the evenings we always dress way up. I am, without a doubt, more glamorous when I go out with my sister than I ever am when I go out with my husband. In fact, I take clothes with me on those play dates that my husband has never even seen, like the gold brocade bustier I’ve worn exactly once, to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar in the French Quarter. We spent three hours there one evening, (I had to drag my sister away), singing around the piano bar and pretending that we were torch singers, my sister in her black diva gown and me in my bustier and black skirt. I suppose it’s entirely possible that my husband would appreciate that little bustier, but he couldn’t possibly top my sister’s reaction when I pulled it out of my suitcase. “Where did you find that?” she demanded. “I want one!” Blatant envy: the purest form of sisterly praise.

Envy, however, is a two way street. My sister owns a gloriously elegant, hand-woven chenille shawl, its lush colors – navy blue, violet, deep green and black – blending into each other and glimmering like a peacock’s breast. I coveted it the moment I laid eyes on it and, with little sister largesse, she lets me wear it at least once each trip. In return I let her choose one of my wraps, something silky and pretty, but nothing that comes close to that shawl. I definitely get the best of that swap.

We swap other things, too. In between the shopping and the theater there are long bouts of storytelling: remembering the past, catching up with the present and dreaming about the future. We’ve shared hopes and fears and tears on our play dates, with more soul searching than we ever did as kids because, with five decades behind us, we’ve both got so much more soul to consider.

So, where will our next adventure take us? To the biggest playground we’ve tackled yet: New York City. My sister has put together a treasure map that will lead us from Ellis Island to the Upper East Side, from Chelsea to the Village and back up to Central Park. And whether the real New York measures up to the make believe one we’ve created in our heads out of old movies, novels and episodes of “Sex and the City” doesn’t really matter. We’re bound to have a fabulous time because all of Manhattan will be our playground and, to spin Shakespeare just a little, “the play’s the thing.”

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