About three weeks after Mom’s funeral, Geralynn and I meet at Dad’s to clean out closets. Ger brings along her grandson, Denim, who entertains Dad while we make “keep” or “give away” piles of Mom’s clothes and shoes in the living room.
I find Mom’s pink brush and pull out her strands of hair. I can’t help myself. I tuck her hair inside a bag of items we’ve put aside for Juliann. She’ll see this hairball next to an angel-print blanket and an apron, and she’ll understand. Juliann still has a lock of my hair that Mom sent to her after my first “big girl” haircut in kindergarten. Strange that Mom sent it, and stranger still that Juliann kept it forty-some years. I should talk. I have a mouthful of my son’s baby teeth saved in my jewelry box. Someday when cloning is a viable option, we will be ready.
Ger and I try on Mom’s coats and blazers. Mom’s weight fluctuated throughout her adult life, and she never got rid of her “skinny clothes” or her “fat clothes.” “Smells like Mom,” Ger says. I nod.
“Look—her Smurf hat,” Ger says.
I suck in my breath. She holds up Mom’s floppy blue knit winter hat, the one she always wore ice fishing. “Oh, look” I say.
We called her Smurf after the blue cartoon creatures. Today neither of us takes the hat. We add it to a pile that our siblings will look through before donating to Saver’s.
Denim runs around the livingroom, playing with the trucks and cars my dad has handy for his great grandkids. He visits here often enough to know exactly where Great Grandpa keeps his toys and his graham crackers. Dad sits in his recliner watching Denim and smiling. Who can be sad around a two-year-old?
Denim carries around Mom’s brush. “Finger,” he says, as he puts his forefinger in the end of the handle. This brush becomes an extension of his hand, a big pink finger with bristles. He brushes his own hair and then his grandma Ger’s. I startle myself each time I say Grandma Ger. I still think she should be 29, and I’m 19.
Denim climbs up on my dad’s lap and brushes what little hair Great Grandpa has left. Dad sits perfectly still and lets his hair be fixed.
When I try on Mom’s trench coat, I smell her more than ever. Hairspray and Freedent gum, maybe. I can’t name the scent; it’s just Mom. The tag inside the back collar reads, “Wear in good health”—part fortune cookie, part message from beyond the grave. I put the coat on my “keep” pile.
We discover that Mom wrote her name across the tags of most of her dress coats. “Like summer camp,” Ger says. Or the nursing home, I think. I suspect Mom did this because of the many nights she and Dad spent retrieving their coats from dimly lit supper club coat racks. She wanted hers clearly marked.
After Ger and Denim leave, Dad lets out a long sigh. “Oh ya,” he says. I’m no good at asking how he’s doing emotionally, so I say, “What did you do since the last time I was here?” That was 48 hours ago. He no longer has his twice-daily visits to Mom at the nursing home to organize his day. I want to know if he’s getting out. He tells me a play by play of everything: the grocery store for a senior discount on Monday, then the bank on Tuesday to take Mom’s name off of their joint account.
He seems sadder than ever tonight. Perhaps it’s that in the back of a dead loved one’s closet, we face our own mortality. Or it’s less complex. He has always been the organized one to balance Mom’s clutter, and now it’s all gone. The only items left in this closet are his too small suits. I suggest he offer them to some of his grandsons. “Suits like this never go out of style,” I say.
At home I sort through my bags of Mom items. I pull a hidden pair of folded gloves out of her trench coat pocket. My mom’s hands never seemed small to me until she was dying. They were tiny in her casket, wrapped in a Rosary. This final Catholic pose always strikes me as odd. I’m no expert, but I think no one says the Rosary with it wrapped around her hands like that. When my mother prayed in the car on long road trips, she most likely held her rosary in one hand and smoked a cigarette or drank a Tab with the other.
In bed she held her Rosary in one hand, close to her heart, as she curled on her side and faced the door. As a girl, I awakened her on many early mornings in this same position. Often her nightgown was on inside-out or backwards or both. She always told us kids that happened because she dressed in the dark after coming to bed so much later than Dad. We believed it till we were adults. One night out at the bar with my brother, I told him why I thought Mom’s nightgown was really on backwards. “Sex,” I said quietly.
“No way,” he said. “It’s because she dressed in the dark.” Why I think of this now amuses me, part of my daily rush of family memories often in no particular order, as if my brain is in constant word-association mode beginning with Mom, Mom, Mom.
Now I look carefully at this beige pair of Isotoners, stained at the fingertips. “Oh, Mama,” I say to no one. I cry alone in my laundry room. These are not a treasured item, just an old pair of gloves forgotten in a trench coat she hasn’t worn in maybe a decade. But they were hers. I put my hands inside: my fingers where Mom’s fingers used to be.