Cleaning out my mother’s closets

My mother’s red duster


I wrote this three months ago. It was too soon for me to even proof read it. Now, after 6 months of the numbness of grief, I am able to read this, correct the spelling and the grammar, and put it out there for the world to read. I have been sorting clothes, and trying to figure out what to do with them.

My father asked me to clear my mother’s clothes from the closets and drawers in the house. Seeing her things hurts him. The loss is too fresh. Three months ago she passed; it’s the longest my parents have been apart in nearly 60 years. Her clothes are reminders of her absence, tangible pieces of the person who has ceased to exist.

I can’t stand to see my father in pain, so I taped together boxes with multi-colored duct tape I found in the garage and I started to empty the closets. My dad studiously made a salad for dinner. He’d prepared a full meal of all my favorites: meat loaf, mashed potatoes, Momma’s home canned green beans. It was the first full meal he made for the fiddler and me since my mother left us. He didn’t turn around as I taped up boxes.

“Your father, he’s a clothes horse,” Momma used to tease, but her own closets were packed with clothes hanging neatly from wooden hangars. Pants and shirts crisply ironed, seams straight, collars arranged properly, cuffs square, buttons done up, everything ready to be worn. As I emptied the closets, hangars clicked and fabric whispered. I fumbled with the origami of sleeves and shirt tails—I never did learn to fold clothing properly—and I apologized to my mother as I pressed each shirt and trouser into a dry smelling cardboard box.

Joan Didion in A Year of Magical Thinking says that, after her husband’s death, she kept his shoes. Surely he’d need them when he came back, when he returned from the temporary journey he’d taken the night he died. Because surely, she thought, he was coming back.

I felt the same way. Despite all logic to the contrary, I was awash in guilt as I packed away her clothing. How could I take away her clothes, the things she was so proud of, the shirts and pants in which she looked so cute and so pretty? What would she wear when she finally returned home? When she was over this death thing and came back to us?

In my anguish, I imagined her, unseen, gesturing to me, waving her hands and saying stop that! Or worse, I imagined her weeping for the loss of her elegant slacks and sweaters, her comfy jersey shirts and her capris with the stretchy waists. My mother had grown up during the depression, so poor that my grandmother made her clothing from patterned flour sacks. Momma loved clothes. They made her feel safe.

I wondered, what will I do with these clothes, to honor her? Where can I take them, how can I make it bearable to part with the only solid, touchable things I have left of her?

I imagine I’ll keep some of the clothes. They fit, I am short on clothes-buying cash, and we wore the same size. They are quite beautiful. I don’t feel ghoulish about this at all. Pre-modern times it was quite common to leave clothes to survivors. Clothing was hard to come by and in short supply.

What I don’t keep will ultimately go to a second hand store, and that saddens me beyond measure, to imagine her freshly-laundered, sweet-smelling slacks and shirts and skirts and robes and pajamas jammed into the racks of the sour, mildew-reeking aisles of the local thrift shop. Or worse, just thrown away or ripped into rags because nobody wants them.

I know my mother was—is—not her clothes. But as I searched through her things, seeking some sign of her—a diary, a journal, a day book—some words in which I could hear her voice, it became clear that one of the few impressions I had of her were her clothes. They still smelled of her, the clean of laundry soap and the faint scent of who she was. They still held the shape of her body, the stretch across the shoulders, the push of her bosom, the set of her hips and the angle of her legs. If I put laid them out on the bed, could her ghost fill them and sit up and go make dinner or come out for a walk with me?

Shedding the clothes of one who died is a tough row to hoe. As I went through the closets, I kept finding clothes of my grandmother (dead these 20 years) still hanging, ready for her to wear. They appeared like anachronisms in an archeological dig as I sifted through the clothes: a fur cape; a ruffled rayon shirt; a plaid wool jacket. My mother used to ask me, “what should we do with Granna’s things? We can’t just throw them away.” I never had a good answer, except, “I’ll take them, Mom.”

At my house I have my grandmother’s cedar chest, full of her treasures. For the last three years my mother planned to visit me, and together we planned go through the chest, unpacking, sorting, identifying the provenance of each item. Momma never made that visit; she was never well enough. Now I have to go through my grandmother’s cedar chest and my mother’s cedar chest. Alone.I have no children or female siblings. My mother’s grand daughters live far away, and are busy with their lives. I screwed up. I should have had a daughter to help me sort through the clothes of my mother and grandmother, to bear witness to their lives, to cry with me as I remember their lives, my own life. There is no one to care about these clothes with me, to listen to stories they tell. Someone who would treasure at least a few items—Momma’s wedding dress (used three times by her, my aunt, and me) maybe? Or the fur coat my grandmother made for her. The handmade square dance dresses she twirled in back in her prime.

Instead I cry alone until the fiddler hears and comes to hold me. And he makes plans to cart all these clothes to our house so I can go through them as I can bear it and decide what to keep and what to discard.