In Our Mother’s Closet


It was an exquisite tablecloth: cream-colored with light brown stitching embroidered by our grandmother, our mother’s mother. For years my mother had told me that she wanted me to have it. After all, George and I loved to invite friends over for dinner, while Karen and Paul mostly used their dining room as a pass-through to the front hall. But now Karen was insisting that our mother had promised the cloth to her, that even though she didn’t think she’d use it, she wanted to have it in her house. We’d been arguing by e-mail – much less risky than doing it by phone or in person – and I worried the unsettled tablecloth issue would hang over us as we sorted through our mother’s clothes. We were too polite and careful with each other to discuss anything emotional in person, which meant that far too much remained unspoken. As we headed to our mother’s bedroom I could feel the beginning of a migraine, as often happened in tense situations.
 

We left our brother Howard sorting out family photos in the living room; our other brother, angry with all of us, had gone home. As we stepped into our mother’s room, all the tension of the last few days melted away. I felt as though I were watching The Wizard of Oz at the moment when the movie magically changes from black and white to Technicolor. The room glowed with gentle shades of peach: the fluffy down comforter, the grasscloth walls, the spotless carpeting, the reading chair with matching ottoman, even the triangular pillow at the head of the bed embroidered with “Ruby.” Everything still had our mother’s scent – a combination of her perfume and lotion – and we breathed in what felt like her presence, as we marveled at the wonderland of her clothes. We fondled cashmere sweaters soft as kitten fur, unfolded brightly patterned silk scarves, and caressed buttery leather purses. Finally, tentatively, we began laying out sweaters on the king-size bed. I kept thinking our mother might come into the room at any minute and catch us handling her belongings.

 

Suddenly my sister, always bolder than I, took off her T-shirt and tried on one of the sweaters. It hung loosely on her tiny frame, but the shades of green highlighted her hazel eyes.

“I love it,” she declared, moving past me to look in the mirror.

I removed my denim shirt and slipped into a pink sweater set accented with black leather piping.

“Gorgeous!” my sister cried. “Try it with these black pants.”

Within minutes we were out of our jeans and transforming ourselves into elegant ladies. We were two little
girls trying on Mom’s clothes, giggling at our transformation as we recreated our mother, modeling outfit after outfit. For hours we played dress up, stopping occasionally to remember something about a particular piece of clothing.

“Remember when Mom wore this to dinner at her club, and we decided that she hadn’t gotten dressed up enough?” I asked, twirling around in a black wool skirt and blue knit top. “And then we went into the ladies’ room and some woman we didn’t know told us that Mom was the most beautiful woman she knew – inside and out?”

Karen rolled her eyes at me as we both used to do when someone said something that wasn’t exactly true. Then she took up the game.

“And remember this warm-up suit she wore every day when we went to that spa in Florida for what Dad called a girls’ weekend? When we thought everything was funny? And how we kept kicking each other under the table like we did when we were kids?”

“And,” I choked out between fits of laughter, “you peed your pants on the way back to the room because you were so hysterical?”

“Stop!” Karen shrieked, “or I’m going to do it again.”

 

Some time later, Howard opened the door to let us know that he’d ordered pizza and we’d be eating in twenty minutes.

“What are you guys laughing about, anyway?” he asked.

My sister and I looked at each other and started in again.

“Never mind,” he smiled as he pulled the door closed.

 

My sister and I went back into the closet, which was nearly bare. A long silk robe that our mother had worn every morning hung from a hook. We stroked it and once again breathed in our mother’s scent. We were suddenly quiet together until my sister spoke.

“We had a disagreement,” she began.

I swallowed hard. Now she’d say something mean to me.

“And we’re still talking. We got over it.”

I didn’t know what to say. Clutching the robe, I was beginning to cry.

My sister put her arms around me. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” I replied. I finally let go of the robe and returned her hug.

“And the tablecloth,” Karen said. “It’s yours.”

 

Arnoff
 
Author’s Comment: My mother’s death unleashed a flood of emotions, some of which I have tried to capture in this piece. Feelings contained for years erupted from me and my siblings, and, as a result, our family has changed dramatically. I have been writing memoir for many years, mainly for myself and my writing groups. It is a bit scary to share my work with strangers, but I am thrilled that my first published piece is appearing in The Persimmon Tree.

 

For 30 years Gail Arnoff taught English and Special Education in the Cleveland Municipal Schools. In ”retirement” she teaches composition at John Carroll University and Questions of Identity at Case Western Reserve University. She enjoys running half marathons in the 70+ division, practicing yoga, mentoring young people, reading, writing; and spending time with her six grandchildren.

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7 thoughts on “In Our Mother’s Closet

  1. Lynn Haney

    Despite all of the mishegas we may have suffered through when our mothers were alive, those tender remembrances of the items left behind haunt us in the immediate aftermath of their demise. Bravo, Gail for sharing so exquisitely these moments that touch us so deeply.

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