Five years ago this month, my sisters and I gathered in my mother’s bedroom. She had died the previous June and we were ready to sort through her clothes.
As I wrote in my January 2017 post, she had lots of them. A bulging closetful. A crammed dresser full. A jam-packed trunkful at the foot of her bed. Blouses, pants, and skirts that had trended and fell out of fashion and trended again. The array also represented the fluctuation of sizes she wore over the years. My mother was never happy with her body, convinced she needed to lose pounds or inches when hers was a normal body, one that had produced one stillbirth, five live births, and several miscarriages.
In her last decades, she preferred the comfort of sweatpants, pastel-colored with matching tops, some appliqued or embroidered with flowers, rainbows, or cute animals. For outings, there were dressy sweatpants and tops, sometimes accented with jewelry she had accumulated through her online and catalog shopping. Most of her wardrobe went undisturbed for years. Culling her collection of clothes was left to us.
We picked out a few things we each wanted to keep for ourselves. I have one of her mantillas, which I’m sure I would’ve wrestled my sisters for if it hadn’t been handed to me by one sister after she had secured the one she wanted for herself. We were very civilized about it all. I came away with three other items, oddly enough all of them black. It was not intentional. I was not looking for a theme. Black – the color of authority, of mystery. Maybe I was seeking something.
Five years later I wonder if there was something else I should’ve kept. Was there something meaningful that we missed? I can only guess what, if any, significance the items I chose had for her.
I’ve worn most often the black cardigan with the white embroidered neckline, the white accents repeated in the pilling of the old fabric, which were not visible on stage under the lights at the Moore Theater, one of my favorite occasions for wearing it. For a while, I draped it on the back of my chair within easy reach to wear while writing, thinking it might have secrets to whisper. I’ve only once worn the black, cotton, buttonless blazer from which I snipped the shoulder pads. Blazers just aren’t my thing, but I tried this one on again recently and decided I liked the droopy fit of it. I’m going to wear the hell out of it when the warmer weather arrives. And the mantilla? It’s not for me to wear, just to remember how my mother looked with it framing her face in church, where I have not been since I was seventeen.
But the item I’ve come to feel the most affection for ((and curiosity about) is the black shift or sack dress with white trim and rope belt. In my 2016 post, I guessed that it was a dress from the sixties, but now I’m thinking it’s more fifties-style. I can imagine it in a Doris Day movie or in the Sears catalog of that era. Whichever decade the dress belonged to, it hung in my mother’s closet for some sixty years. What made her keep it all those years? What memory did it have for her? (Writing prompt!)
The label says size 11 which predates the vanity sizing that started in the early eighties to make women feel better about their size. I wore a size 8 when I was in college, weighing 95 pounds and trying mightily to hit 100, which meant overcoming the genetic limitations of the bony structure I inherited from my father. Today I weigh 115 pounds and still wear a size 8 and something is wrong with that math. Without the vanity sizing, double-digit-sized clothes would probably be hanging in my closet now. The sweater, also from the same era as the dress, is an extra-large. It fits me.
The vagaries of the fashion industry aside, the size 11 dress also fits me. I want to wear this dress. I don’t know for what occasion my mother wore it, but to honor its longevity in her closet and perhaps also in some recess of her heart, I want to wear it for something special. Like a book launch party in a non-pandemic future. So I’m pinning my hopes on my recently finished novel manuscript, hoping for an agent who will sell it to a publisher who will make it into a book as enduring as this dress.