The clothes were smashed together, compressed like prom roses in a scrapbook, faded and musty. Slacks, blouses, jackets, sweaters, and skirts crammed two tiers of rods. Hangars bowed from the years of weight. There was something guileless in the arrangement.
My sisters and I gathered in the room to dismantle the still life.
There were also two dressers and a chest at the foot of the bed. All filled with clothes my mother had once worn or never worn or worn nearly to ruin. All of these spaces we would empty.
My mother had spent her last years in sweat pants and sweatshirts, rotating among a few sets of each. The clothes in her closet had barely been touched in recent years. Some of the clothes were stained from age. Dust had settled on them. Soon we were all sneezing.
It was seven months after our mother’s death. I, the out-of-towner, had returned to do an author event. It was an opportunity for the four of us to go through our mother’s closet, decide what we wanted to keep, what we would give away.
The oldest of us slid open the closet door and began removing items one by one. The styles ranged over decades – padded-shoulder blazers of the eighties, blouses in op-art prints, oversized sweaters, and more than one leopard-print jacket or windbreaker. The variety of sizes reflected our mother’s fluctuations in weight as she sometimes dieted, other times let her body reach its natural dimensions.
It was quick work for the most part. Look at this, we said to each other, holding up this or that item as if we were browsing a department store rack. What about this, we asked, suggesting that one or another of us might wear it or keep it for some other unknown reason.
Before my mother retired in the early 90s from her job as a retail clerk, she had an active wardrobe of slacks and skirts, blouses and sweaters, casual flats and low-heeled sandals.
There were lots of reds. My mother wore red well. Even the ugly red Christmas sweater. It’s a color that’s bold and upbeat, which my mother could be even though at heart she was shy. There were earthy colors too, which complemented her skin tone.
And the cool colors – deep blues and purples, which I think she preferred later in life. I could be wrong about this. After all, I’m the one who lived away all these years, seeing her a mere once or twice a year, and otherwise only talking to her on the phone – something she wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about. The phone was awkward, just our voices being transmitted, no image of our furrowed brows, darting eyes, or the clothes we were wearing that might hint at our feelings, our unspoken needs and wants, or the ways we may have failed each other.
Then there were the black clothes. Basic, goes-with-anything black. Somber. Chic. Arty like the black button-down sheath with white piping. Something that might have been in style in the 60s. It was the only dress in the closet. Why had she kept it? What memories had it held for her? What stories did it hold? What stories could I make up about it?
Most were things we could not wear (too old, too stained, too big) or would not wear (too ugly). We made big piles of clothes that were to be given away. But we rummaged and sorted and we each found a few things to take away, to inherit and maybe to wear, maybe to fold away into our own drawer or hang in our own closet. I kept waiting to come upon that one garment that would speak to me about my mother’s life.
I settled on an old black cardigan with white flowers embroidered at the neckline. It was worn and pilled and had lost its shape. But I wanted it. I was sure of it. I have never had any writing superstitions or charms. But I decided I would invent one for myself. I would make this sweater my writing sweater. It would embrace me as I wrote. I would button it up in the winter and roll up its sleeves in summer.
For these moments, my mother and I would be close.