The Red Underwear

We move through our time on this earth doing a million and ten things, with a thousand and one goals, and tens of hundreds of to-do lists. But in our minds are bigger thoughts: I want to turn my kids into good people, I want to leave the world a little better than I found it, I want to touch someone’s life. And often – in the cosmic humor that surrounds us – we raise amazing people, make things better, touch people in amazing ways but don’t know, or never see.

Sarah is one of my oldest and best friends. Kay, her mom, has cancer. A really bad kind. A hope-with-all-your-might-for-the-best-while-the-practical-part-of-your-brain-that-you-hate-makes-the-inevetable-plan kind.

And while holding Sarah close while she cries in anger and fear, I have thought about her mom whom I have known since I was sixteen, and it’s simply incomprehensible to me to have a world without her in it.

My adolescence was…poor. Poor is a word, so let’s use it. I don’t care to discuss it much  now, because through forces both positive and negative, that is not my life any more and I am grateful. And I feel that dwelling on it diminishes the sincerity of my gratitude. But in this case it is relevant, so I must mention it. My adolescence was poor and I spent a fair amount of energy coordinating escapes. And once I had my driver’s license and a vehicle, escape I did. Often. Often to Sarah’s.

And although I did not talk much about my motivations for finding an elsewhere, it was evident that that was what I was doing. I was there a lot, and I often stayed longer than planned. Thinking back on it, I know now that there is no way Sarah’s parents could have extended the generosity it took to tolerate an extra teenager in their bathroom and refrigerator as often as they did without an awareness of why I was there.

It was time to leave for college. Sarah, who was a year behind me in school, did her best to be excited for me while clearly dreading the day when I would pack up my car and drive away. So both in my efforts to find a safe haven and to spend as much time with Sarah as I could before the final launch, I was at their house with an utterly predictable regularity.

The weekend before I was scheduled to leave, lounging on Sarah’s couch while reading a book, Kay announced she had a going away present for me. In her hands was a small white box tied with a ribbon. I was startled, and touched, and took the box and untied the bow.

Inside the box, wrapped in tissue, were three pairs of outrageously red undies. I looked up at Kay who said simply, “No woman should go off to college without red underwear.”

I stared at the bold, saucy underthings and suddenly… I was worldly. I was sophisticated. I was ready, in as complete a way as I was capable of as an eighteen-year-old, for whatever the world might throw at me. And that, obviously, is what Kay really wanted to me to have.

I think so often these days about the time I spent safe at Kay’s house and of how many things about that time shaped the me that is here now.

From Kay I learned that food tastes better when served from heavy, earthenware bowls than it ever will from dainty, delicate, china.

I learned that dancing with abandon is infinitely more joyous than dancing with style.

I learned that bread is really only a delivery mechanism for real, creamy butter.

And I learned that the me that is true and unfiltered will always be more interesting and more lovable than the one I put on on purpose.

I have told the story of the red underwear many times since it happened, and many more times in recent months as people in my life have been made aware of what’s happening with Kay. But it only occurred to me recently that maybe Kay didn’t know the story from my point of view. Or that she didn’t know how precious the comfort of her home was to me as a lonely teen-ager. And I don’t want this to be one of those moments that gets lost in the universe’s odd design where someone might never know how deeply they touched a life. I want her to know.

I want her to know that way back in the 80’s, her gift of a safe, warm house helped make my present livable, and that her gift of racy lingerie helped make my future attainable.

If you don’t have any red knickers in your lingerie drawer right now, go get some. If there’s a woman in your life who needs some bolstering, go buy her some. Every woman needs red underwear. Because there’s not much we can’t face if we’re properly armored in a pair of audacious, scarlet undies.

I wrote this earlier this year, to make sure Kay got to read it, which she did. But Kay let go of her tether to this earth on October 8th 2010, safe in the loving circle of her daughters and granddaughter.

The only specific task that Sarah asked of me was to go to Victoria’s Secret and select a pair of outrageous red underwear for Kay to wear into the afterlife, which I was honored to do.  I love you, Kay. My world is better because you were in it.

Edited to add: If you’d like to see 200 people, 100 kazoos, and a sing-a-long celebration of Kay’s life, you are welcome to watch this video. And yes, that’s me.

84 comments

  1. WOW. im in tears. I’m so terribly sorry for your loss, but it sounds like you and Kay and Sarah were all very lucky to have each other.

    and I’m going on my lunch break to buy red undies for my friend who needs them. I’m going to mail them to her with this post printed out, if that’s ok. ;-)

  2. Wow. So glad you were able to share this with her. And I’m so sorry for your loss. As lame and generic as that sounds, I completely understand what it is to have “adopted parents” from outside sources. And I know the impact they can have on you. Speaking of, I should go give mine a call to say hi, just because.

    Life is short and full of surprises. Not always good ones.

  3. A beautiful tribute Lori. So glad you had a Kay in your life. It makes me want to be a Kay for my own kids and for others that might need it. Without knowing her, this one story will be one I remember forever. Her legacy of wisdom and kindness will be carried forward. Red panties will always catch my eye and remind me, as I walk by the lingerie section.
    So sorry for your and Kay’s family’s loss.
    Blessings,
    Dana

  4. This is beautiful Lori.

    Those surrogate moms who comfort and care and buy the red underwear are a rare and special breed of woman.

    Thank you for sharing your surrogate mom with us.

  5. ::sniffle:: That was beautiful. And inspiring. It sounds like Kay was a wonderful woman and you were blessed to have her in your life. I’m sorry for your loss but very glad you were able to express this to her.

  6. sniff…that was truly lovely and I’m welling up as I write this, it was a touching tribute but also, some of your words struck a chord with me, because I had a similar story. I too had a Kay, her name was Jeannine, and she was the closest thing I ever had to a true mother. She taught me a lot and I always think of her. I’m so sorry for your loss and your friend’s but I’m glad you were lucky enough to have her and your friend Sarah in your life. It’s how I feel about my Jeannine. Every day she was here, was a blessed day, and even now, she’s with me in my soul.

  7. I think you are blessed to have someone so special in your life. Through your words, I can see how important Kay and Sarah are to you.

    I love the story of the red underwear. I especially love that you went to Victoria’s secret for Kay.

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

  8. I have a feeling you made a difference in their lives as well. If the adult you have become is any indicator of the teenager you were, you would have been easy to invite in.

    *If you don’t stop making me cry, I’m going to stop unsubscribe. (ok, not really) Much love to you, Lori.

  9. Lori – I am so sorry for the loss of Kay. She sounds amazing and I’m glad for your relationship with her in all the ways you’ve written.

    I do not own red underwear. I never have. I’m sure, when I left for college, I would’ve felt completely unworthy of something like that.

    But now? I’m going to the mall later today, and I will stop at Victoria’s Secret and I will get myself the silkiest, raciest pair I can find.

    And I will raise a toast to Kay.

  10. The best thing about this?

    She knew how much you meant to her.
    You had the chance to tell her personally.

    From someone who (once) waited until too late… that’s awesome.

    Sorry for your loss.

  11. Oh Lori, I am so touched by this. So, so sorry for your loss but what a story. It probably comes full circle for you now that you are a mom yourself, to know what she was giving you back then from quite a different perspective.

    I had a friend who spent many, many hours raiding our fridge, hanging on our couch, and just being a part of our somewhat functional family. My mom just knew that was what she needed. I didn’t get it at the time, just thought it was fun having her around.

    I love the fact that she heard your story from your point of view. That was a gift you gave HER.

  12. Lori, so sorry for your loss, and for Sarah’s loss too.

    How wonderful that you were able to let Kay know what her kindnesses taught you….and now us.

    (I’m not a big fan of red, so I shall seek out some kind of wild animal print….and think red thoughts in honor of Kay.)

    xo

  13. That was beautiful. I’m so happy you had her in your life and that she had a chance to realize what her acceptance and love meant to you.

    There lives, in my heart, a similar woman who took my hand after I left my parents 900 miles away and taught me how to use power tools, make Amish friendship bread and not get screwed by the mechanic. She was a second mother to me, opening her home whenever I was between roommates. And I lost her to cancer.

    While I don’t know exactly how you feel, I do understand the pain of losing someone so dear and of trying to help a good friend through the loss.

    My friend and I used Jose Cuervo to get through that first awful day.

    My heart goes out to you and your family. And I’m going to buy red underwear in honor of a woman who touched the world in such a poignant way.

  14. What a beautiful tribute! and a really awesome story. I’m so glad that you were able to share your gratitude with her and that she knew what a special person she was to you.

    Truly a touching story, thank you for sharing.

  15. {{hugs}}

    ^^This is a very touching story, and you have once again inspired me! I plan to purchase a nice pair of red undies for all the women in my life.

    <3

  16. I have a couple pair of red undies sitting in my dresser. I’ll be sure and put them on when I feel like I need to have a pick-me up.

    I’ve had several wonderful women “raise” me, and I hope I can be just as good as role models as they were. They gave me lots of treasured, warm memories of my childhood and I look upon these women as real moms to me.

    Thank you for this piece, for reminding us all of the women who may not necessarily be our true mothers, but who are… nevertheless.

  17. I have the chills and tears. I’m sorry for your loss. And your best friend’s family is in my thoughts (and prayers — if you’re into those things).

    PS. Of course, I already have the red underwear. But I didn’t know that I had the adolescents in common with you as well.

  18. You, my friend, have a serious knack for writing. Amazing. AM-AYZING writing.

    I’m sorry for your loss– I’m sorry to her family, too. She seems like one awesome woman. Hell, she sounds like the woman I always said I wanted to be.

  19. Oh, Lori, I’m so sorry to hear that. What a beautiful post. It gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. What a gift that you were able to bless Kay and Sarah with your writing in this difficult time. Hugs.

  20. What a beautiful & touching tribute for someone who clearly was a phenomenal woman.
    I have several pair of racy, red panties that I will never wear without a slight smile on face.

    I truly am sorry for you & your friends loss, but thankful that you had each other in your lives until now.

  21. So sorry for your loss. What a wonderful story. I bet she absolutely adored reading this. Sending her a pair for her journey is perfect. I, too, was always at my friend’s house and a third daughter. It is like you have a second mom. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Lori, crying right now. She sounds wonderful. Thank goodness for such generous people. My friends and I had a house we went to. It contained the only happily married parents of our group. The world would have been and would be a much worse place without them around. And I can tell from your story that holds true for Kay as well.

  23. I had a Kay in my life. My home life growing up while filled with love was abusive and disfunctional. My Kay was named Joanne (pronounced Joan) and it is her fault I did not get pregnant or run away. She kept me sane, she was my safe haven and my home away from home. To this day, she sends me emails reminding me how much she loves me. She has been there for me through some extremely tough times when my parents just weren’t capable of being there. Oh, how I love her. I don’t think she will ever understand.

  24. I was too emotional to post yesterday. Then I saw your post today and thought that I should really try and post how this story made me feel…but I am crying again. Is it possible to sound like a blubbering idiot while typing? I lost my stepmom to cancer in September. She was such a huge gift to me after so many (MANY!) years with an awful stepmother that not only didn’t like me, but told my 6 year old self that she didn’t have enough love in her heart for me. When she came into my life she brought peace to my family. She taught us how to slow down and enjoy sunsets, how to say no if we really wanted to, and most importantly she show ME how to trust again. She showed me that I was deserving of love and respect…that it wasn’t something that I had to earn from her- I just had it and it was the most genuine thing ever.

    It is amazing life altering to have been touched by a kind heart like this. It sounds like you understand that more than anyone.

  25. I am crying, but I will make it through this comment no matter what.

    I grew up in sexual abuse. The thing about this story that hits me square in the eyes, is that saucy red underwear. Something that I would never purchase for myself.

    I started wearing white. Plain, white cotton when I was seven years old and my abuser commented on my cute, little girl, patterned underwear. Once I realized that colored underwear made me a target for further abuse from that man, and other family members, I saw that white underwear as a protection. Even though it never protected me. And even after he was long dead, and those other family members long gone from my life, and was grown and healing…..I still bought plain, white cotton underwear.

    Sometimes I would look longingly at the pretty colors and think about buying them, but it seemed an insurmountable thing. That colored underwear. That cuteness that was clearly for someone else, and not for me. Something so beautiful and feminine that I continue to deny myself based on an experience from childhood that never should have happened.

    A few years ago I branched out. I gathered up every ounce of courage within me and marched myself into Victoria’s Secret and bought colored underwear. It sat in my drawer for a long time before I got up the courage to wear it, but I finally did….And the world didn’t explode. I even looked cute in it.

    Everytime I put on a pair of colored underwear, I see it as a small victory.

    I have yet to buy red. Red has been a color that still daunted me. In honor of your Kay, a woman who offered you safety and an escape. A woman who touched your soul and gave you courage…..I am going to go red. I am going to break through that last underwear stronghold that my childhood has been holding onto.

    Much love to you and to Sarah and all of Kay’s family. I am so sorry for your loss.

  26. Kay was an amazing lady and you were so blessed to have crossed paths with her. I am so sorry for yours and Sarah’s loss…but also happy that you are sending her on the next phase of her journey as equipped as she should be.

    Fantastic.

  27. Lori, you have my deepest sympathies for your loss. So does Sarah. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. My heart goes out.

    This is so beautiful. You are lucky that you had the ability to let her know what she meant to you. And lucky to have her.

    I’m sure she would say that she was lucky to have you.

    You are an amazing friend, surrogate daughter and woman.

    What an incredibly touching tribute.

    *going to get some red underwear asap*

  28. Oh, you.

    I am all tears now.

    I know that you know I have about a million words to spill into this comment box.

    I know you know that.

    Instead I will just spill my tears.

    Ugh.

    I love you so very much.

  29. I am sorry for the loss of Kay in her family’s life, a family that surely includes you. But I’m fairly certain that Kay is as happy with your going-away present to her as you were with hers.

  30. What an absolutely stunning legacy, made more poignant and perfect for you having shared it with us, a larger and wider tossed family, but a kind of family nonetheless.

    My heart aches for your loss, for the needless loss of a good soul.

    But Kay was right, there’s very little one can’t face wearing saucy red knickers.

    Thank you, Lori, and bless you.

  31. While shopping at Victoria’s Secret with me, a friend pulled out a particularly racy bra and exclaimed, “It’s red!” it was inside joke between the two of us for years. Other friends always wanted to know what we were referring to. We never told.

  32. So lovely. I have goosebumps.

    And it makes me so grateful – SO grateful – for the internet and for people like Kay to get to continue to pass on this kind of loving kindness in a way that knows no bounds.

    We were all touched by this story, which started with her care and generosity. And, no doubt, we’re all going to go out and make a new, touching memory for other people (and us) to pass on.

    It all starts with one little thing. One good thing.

    It all starts with red underwear.

  33. I can just picture Kay, dancing into the golden gates in those red undies.

    What a beautiful story, and I’m happy to know that you were able to share with her. So so so many times words go unsaid and regrets are held. Please have no regrets.

    Peace to you and your “kay” family.

    I’m buying red unmentionables for A. First chance I get.

  34. I am so sorry for you, and sorry for Sarah. And for her sisters. Kay, clearly, was someone very rare and very special. What a blessing she was in your life!

    My college roommate, who passed away when we were 27, was my red underwear guru. She taught me what it looked like to let loose, to enjoy life’s simplest (and often bizarre) pleasures. This post reminded me of her, and I thank you for that.

    Beautiful post, Lori.

  35. Pingback: The gift of red
  36. That was beautiful, amazing, and touching. How lucky you were to have a family like that i your life at such a hard time. How lucky you were to be able to tell her how much she meant to you before she passed on. Red underwear will be on my ind for many reasons now.

  37. Oh I’m so sorry for your loss; it’s like losing a parent (I’ve experienced) or favorite aunt. However, I’m so happy for you that you had a “Kay” in your life especially when you needed her. If you had half the sense of humor as you have now, I can only imagine all that you brought to her life. It’s also wonderful to hear how you and Sarah have each other. I’ve known my best friend since 3rd grade (almost 40 years ago) and her mom’s name is Kay too.

  38. Oh, that was beautiful. I can’t stop crying.

    Bless you, Kay. I hope you screeched into the afterlife, red knickers and all, with the same gusto it seems you had for life.

    Thanks for writing this. Brilliant post.

  39. As one who had one or two Kay’s in my life, fortunately, thank you for the reminder that I need to acknowledge them for their presence in my life.

  40. I am sitting in an airport crying over this post. I hope you found the most amazing and daring red panties ever! What a wonderful blessing to have a woman like that in your life. I can only hope that I do not turn a blind eye on any child in need of a “home” – I’ll be sure to remind myself of your story as my children bring their friends over. Thank you for sharing a piece of your heart.

  41. Read the blog. Great story. It reminder me of a story from h/s: Homecoming dance and what it means when your date tells you she’s buying black lace undies. I’m not going to go into details here, but maybe one day I’ll blog about it.

  42. I remember when I read your story about Kay for the first time. Today, it touched me in the same way again.
    I am so sorry for your loss, Lori, and for Sarah, too.
    The red underwear is exactly the answer I’ve been looking for a good friend of mine.

  43. A beautiful story about a beautiful woman. How lucky you are to have had that time with her, even if it seems it was cut short. Thank you for sharing.

    I may just go buy some red undies for my own mother, who’s currently fighting her own battle against cancer.

  44. I, too, had an adolescence much like yours and I, too, had a home, like Sarah’s, to go to. And it, too, made all the difference to know that no matter what was happening in my own home there was another home that loved and welcomed me, even though they didn’t have to but, simply, because they wanted to. And, really, that is the greatest love of all. Not bourne out of blood but out of love. Pure and simple. I am so sorry the world has lost such a wonderful woman. Because I completely understand the impact she has made. And because I am so very grateful for my own Kay… I am also so very, very grateful for yours. The impact she made is great. She did right by her daughters, including the one she didn’t give birth to.

    xoox

  45. wow.

    it seems really unfair that i am now in mourning for a woman i never even knew existed until a few minutes ago when i wandered over here as a total stranger.

    if i were likely to be wearing any undies not long johns tomorrow, they would be red.

  46. Visiting from The Bloggess. This touched me deeply, not in part because I had a “Kay” in my life who taught me lessons I remember still – and will remember always – even though she’s left this earthly sphere as well.

    Anyway, I felt moved to say thank you for posting this. It’s beautiful.

  47. This made me tear up.
    I read this at just the right time.

    Last Tuesday, my friends’ dad died of cancer. My dad has always been a “deadbeat dad”, and this man unofficially adopted me in early middle school. He’s always provided a positive male figure in my life that I really needed. They had my picture up next to those of their sons on the fridge, and he always made sure to come ask me how and what I was doing.

    So when I say that I’m sorry for your loss and I know what you’re going through, I truely do.

  48. A beautiful and lyrical tribute. I will never look at red underwear in the same way again. Kay reminds me of my mom who has been gone for fourteen years although she is beside me everyday! Thank you.

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