I let the dress fall over my lap as I drove home from the resale shop. The woman at the shop hadn’t wanted it, said the style was outdated. The dark, laced fabric was dense, but soft. I held it to my face and inhaled.
Did it still smell like the air at the funeral?
The dress had lost the tangy, saltiness of Southern Missouri in June. It didn’t smell of earth and moss, remnants of her small grave where we placed her cremated body. I remember looking at the metal box that held her remains thinking: there’s no way my mother fits inside. There wasn’t enough space for her creativity, her darkness, her mangled thoughts and we opened the lid to free her into the space below. The dress I now held to my nose and mouth like a mask no longer held any hint of the gray ashes that blew in the hot wind, catching in my teeth, sprinkling into the toes of my sandals. My mother, who is no longer, melted into me, a whirling of wind and a tangle of sun in that moment at her grave. We become intertwined in the fabric
Why had I thought I could rid myself of her, take that dress to a consignment shop, and sell it for a fraction of the purchase price? How could I burden a stranger with it? The next woman to wear the dress would be unaware it had traveled hundreds of miles from its origin to a parcel of land hidden in the Ozark mountains.
The day of the funeral, Brooklinebrooklinebrookline, the halcyonic name of the cemetery whispered a frenetic tapping against the material from the inside out as my heart pounded, lubdublubdublubdub. A gazebo stood sentry and rose bushes trailed against lattice, and the thorns scraped against my calves.
Shortly after the service, a female relative lifted my chin. Her hand was smooth and cool and comforting. Her eyes bore into mine.
“You had to come, didn’t you? You didn’t do it for her, you did it for you.”
I nodded. A salty tear fell on the bolero jacket the saleswoman had suggested I pair with the dress, weaving itself into the fold of fabric that
is my life experience.
By the time I was a teenager my parents had been divorced for several years. I said to my dad, “Sometimes I wish she’d just die,” and he would flinch. His spicy brown eyes became downcast, troubled. “I don’t think you really mean that.”
I knew how it sounded: callus and cruel. “Maybe,” I admitted. “I just want her to be normal.”
Dad pulled me into a hug, wrapping his arms around my shoulders. “Dad,” I said, my voice muffled, “If mom were dead, it would be a lot easier explaining things to my friends. They wouldn’t ask why I don’t live with her.”
My father understood. He had to make excuses throughout their marriage when she torpedoed their social engagements, when her perceptions of the other party were skewed, when she felt she paled against their pretentious ways, or when she assumed they were talking about her behind her back. He covered for her when she was antsy and anxious, when she begged off because of a migraine.
Now, I feel a bit guilty for having those dark thoughts about my mother. I worry, twenty-five years later, I willed her to her death.
The woman who might purchase the dress from the consignment shop or Goodwill would not know the tumultuous relationship between me and my mother’s tormented soul. I could not let a perfect stranger purchase a dress with such ghosts.
I took the dress home and pushed things aside in my closet to re-hang it.
But I don’t want the dress and I don’t want my mother.
She was bipolar with schizophrenic features. She was not the I’m-going-to-drive-the-convertible-in-the-rain-with-the-top-down-manic. She did not have the I’ll-jump-in-the-pool-with-my-clothes-on attitude, but the I-think-I-am-God’s-Select-type and I’m-on-a-mission-to-save-planet-earth. She once thought I was the devil and she had to kill me to make things right for her mission.
My mother once believed she killed the postman and brandished a knife on a policeman. When that didn’t work, she stalked him and then spent a month in prison for harassing an officer of the law. During another episode she thought she was married to a Green Beret and she was going to have his twins—by immaculate conception because she had had a hysterectomy years ago.
Highly disturbed, she died by suicide. We’re told her death was peaceful and quiet, a permanent going-to-sleep by the help of a sleeping pill overdose coupled with a slew of psychiatric meds.
A week goes by, a month, then two. The dress still hangs in the closet. I have not worn it.
I am searching for a suitable fabric for a window treatment over my kitchen sink. I think about cutting the dress apart and fashion a valance, as someone might take the train from their wedding dress and transform it into a Christening gown for their newborn. No, the colors are all wrong; the fabric would clash with my palette. Besides, the dress doesn’t have enough material.
Nevertheless I go to the closet, take the dress out and hold it against my body, look at my reflection in the mirror. The temperature is unseasonably hot for the calendar. Everything is in the laundry; I am running out of things to wear.
I strip down and slide the silky smooth dress fall over my head, drop down to flow along my curves. It’s luxurious, cool even. I swallow. The hem dances against my calves, lifting, lowering, lifting. The scraping of the rose thorns is no more. My heart dips to my stomach. I close my eyes.
“You did it for you,” I hear, and this time it’s my mother’s voice. When I open my eyes I’m smiling at my reflection.
I wear the dress to the fabric store, where I pull gray paint chips from my purse and match them to bolts of fabric. Gray is the new beige. All the home décor magazines and HGTV shows are featuring gray. It’s sleek and sophisticated, stylish. But gray is also cousin to black, and black is for mourning.
I select a bolt of charcoal gray burlap. It is not soft. It is not luxurious. It is not even a color my mother would approve. If I were a seamstress, like her, I might spool that fabric around a mannequin and fashion a more Spartan mourning dress. But I do not sew. I ding the bell at the fabric cutting counter.
I tell the woman who responds I’d like three-and-a-half yards of the burlap. She unfolds the bolt swiftly and methodically—thump,thump,thump—and snips, cuts, pulls at the long fibrous strings of burlap so a neat fringed edge is revealed. Her movements mesmerize me.
She folds it into a neat square, scribbles on a receipt indicating the price which she pins to the fabric, and slides it across the counter to me.
“What’s your project?” she asks.
The dress flutters against my legs, a tickle. For a moment, I think it’s the air conditioning kicking on, but it’s a child of about three years racing past. She assesses me with wide blue eyes, a gossamer spray of blonde hair, reminding me of myself at her age, being dragged to fabric stores by my mother. Serendipity works in mysterious ways. I’m not sure if the smile spreading across my face it’s for the little girl I once was, or the one present before me.
“Kitchen curtains,” I say.
“With the amount you’re purchasing, you probably won’t even have to sew, you can fold and tuck and pin over a rod. Just secure with a ribbon or twine tie-back,” she chirps.
“That’s the idea,” I tell her. If I were to sew, it might mean that I am more of my mother than I like to admit.
She worked with fabric daily, ironing it, pinning it, smoothing it with the back of her hand, running it through her sewing machines. As an interior designer, she was happiest when she was creating beautiful draperies, bedspreads, pillows, bolts and bolts of material spooling around her, the incessant hum of the sewing machine. As a child I sat in her sewing room hour after hour to the hum of the machine. She would hand me scraps of cloth, a needle and thread to busy myself. I stabbed the needle in the fabric, pulled the needle through and imitated my mother; it was all I knew. She rarely praised my efforts, yet, I was a keen observer.
Still, I did not want to sew, not then and not now. My mother continued to press me, gifting me with a second hand machine in college, demanding I use it, asking after phantom projects. My mother thought it the highest form of praise if I were to be a carbon copy of her; somehow it fed her narcissistic tendencies.
Instead, I chose a career path opposite, yet tandem with my mother: Child Psychiatric Nurse.
The woman at the fabric counter says the burlap works well with the current on-trend vintage Farmhouse look. “Fresh and simple. It’s a psychological thing–good for mental health.”
She tucks the bolt under the counter, lying it to rest.
I notice the woman’s name tag reads, Lynn. No ‘e’ but still, it’s the same as my mother’s.
I smooth my dress, “Yes, it is.”
Leslie Lindsay is a mother, wife, and writer living in Chicagoland. Leslie is an award-winning author of Speaking of Apraxia (Woodbine House, 2012). Leslie’s work has been published in Cleaver Magazine, PsychCentral, The Nervous Breakdown, International Bipolar Foundation, Manifest-Station, The Mighty, and Common Ground Review. Leslie reviews books and interviews authors weekly at www.leslielindsay.com. She is at work on a memoir. Leslie is a former child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic.