When my mother passed away a few years ago, I was not able to sift through her clothes and shoes. I did not have a problem going through her jewelry, skincare products or fragrances yet I could not get myself to look inside her wardrobe. In opening her closet and drawers, touching the fabrics she held so close to her body and smelling her familiar scent, the recollections and memories would have been too much to bear. Recalling when she wore a top, jacket, skirt or pair of slacks to work, during a holiday or at a family gathering – I would not be able to bear the memories. There was absolutely no way I would have been able to touch her clothes – it was too painful. Had I sifted through her closet and touched her clothes, I would have felt I was violating her privacy; I did not have the right to touch her belongings.
I remember clearly the day my sister, niece and I arrived at my mother’s apartment after the funeral service. It was unbearable – I love my mother so much that I could not stand to look or touch her belongings; it was as if her presence was everywhere. As I gazed around her empty home, I saw her image all over, how she occupied space – sitting at the dining room table, on the sofa reading the Times and cooking in the kitchen.
My sister and niece sifted through my mother’s closet. They selected, examined and filtered through her dresses, slacks, outerwear and shoes. These items held my mom’s “gestures, both reassuring and terrifying, touching the living with the dead” (36) and of course her smell. Yes, my mother’s clothes and possessions were there, but her body was gone. As stated by Stallybrass, “When a person is absent or dies, cloth can absorb his or her absence presence” (38). This is precisely the reason why I could not partake in removing and packing my mother’s belongings – the task was too overpowering for me. Consequently, my sister and niece packed our mother’s clothes in boxes while I made idle chatter and pretended to organize random items. My sister and niece kept most of my mother’s possessions which they keep in their attics. Occasionally my sister will search through a box and select a blouse or blazer to wear. She says it keeps her close to our mother. As described by Stallybrass regarding Allon White’s jacket, he “was inhabited by his presence, taken over. If I wore the jacket, Allon wore me.” My sister as well feels that wearing our mother’s clothes would give her the sense of our mother wearing her. I, on the other hand will never be able to look through the boxes and wear an item, as nine years later, it still hurts.
I was rather impressed with my sibling’s ability to handle the removal of my mother’s possession; how my sister and niece were strong, kept their feelings hidden, yet all I felt was “absence, darkness, death, things which are not” and would never be the same, a sense of nothingness, nothing would be the same again. I could not touch the cloth, because every item symbolized a time, a day, an event spent with the person I most loved.
Unlike Laurence Lerner’s father who got rid of his wife’s clothes when she passed, my sister will never donate mother’s clothes or take to a second-hand shop. In doing so, would seem as if we are discarding my mother’s memory, as if putting an end to something that was; as if our mother never existed, erasing my mother’s life.
Mother’s clothes are saturated with her shape, smell and gestures. Her hands touched every piece of clothing she wore. As a result, it is too painful for me to handle her clothes. My mother is “there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles which in the technical jargon of sewing are called “memory” …” (36).