During the first years after her death I wore a few of the outfits – the shimmering black dress, the copper silk suit that made me feel so elegant – and I felt like a ten-year-old dressed in mommy’s clothes. My feet still attempted to slide into the 9 ½ AA shoes, which I knew were much too narrow for me. Clad in one of her dresses, I would gaze at myself in the full-length mirror and think about my mother looking at me. For once she would smile in approval rather than pursing her lips, as if to keep to herself what she seemed to be thinking when she eyed my own dress-up outfits: “Not quite right.”
At last I am ready to take her clothes to a high end thrift shop that every year hosts a Designer Dress Day. Although some of the clothes are at least twenty years old, I know there are women who will be thrilled to wear them. Encased in the dry-cleaners bags, with my mother’s name and her address printed on a ticket attached to the hanger, each outfit brings back memories of going through my mother’s closet soon after she died. Then I was with my sister. We looked at the clothes together, sharing stories as we tried on skirts and tops, dresses and pants, deciding which ones we might wear, which ones we might keep just because. It’s the just because clothes I have finally decided to give away. More than fourteen years since my mother died, and nearly one year after my sister told me she was done with me, I think I am ready. Maybe without the clothes to remind me of my mother or my sister I will finally accept my status: motherless daughter, sisterless sister.
Motherless daughter came to me easily, as I was in my sixties when she died, and I had the company of most of my friends, who had also lost their mothers. But sisterless? I don’t know any sisterless sisters, or at least not any who were carelessly cast aside – ”I need a break. Don’t call or write” – so there is no one with whom to compare notes, to share the horrific sorrow of not talking to someone who for more than seventy years was my role model, my best friend. My sister is very much alive and in touch with my brothers; I can hardly stand knowing that I have been excluded from news of her grandchildren and all the tidbits of life I used to share with her. “There are a lot of things you don’t know about me” plays over and over in my head, the words she tossed at me when I asked her why she never told me about the book of poetry she had published.
Tomorrow I will drive to the thrift shop and hand over not only the clothes, but also the memories. When I told my oldest granddaughter I was about to donate Grandma Ruby’s clothes – my granddaughter is twenty-one and actually knew her great-grandmother until she was six – she wanted to see everything. Just after my mother died, my granddaughter told me, “I have Grandma Ruby’s style,” and that is true. She is one of the girliest girls I know. And so on Facetime I held up outfits for her to see, and, not surprisingly, she fell in love with the pale pink sparkly jacket, which I promised to keep for her. It matches the small handbag in the same color that she took home on her last visit.
I imagine handing the outfits to the people at the thrift shop. I hear them exclaiming over every item and tenderly taking each one from me. Instead, the two people at the donation site seem to have no interest in what I have brought.
“Just hang them on the rack,” one man growls, “then take the donation slip.”
“I have a trunkful of beautiful clothes,” I reply, hoping he will help me unload them.
“We can’t go into people’s cars,” he answers, as he turns around and goes back to sorting clothes with the other worker.
As I carry a few armloads at a time I wait for one of the workers to say something, anything to help me as I leave behind these pieces of my mother. Maybe one of them will admire a jacket, or a sweater, and give me a chance to tell him how my mother looked in the blue dress that matched her eyes, or the scoop-neck blouse that showed off her tan. Each time I return to the rack with more clothes, I see that the pieces are already gone, probably being checked for tears or spots, handled not as special items, but just as more things to inspect and add to the stacks of accepted clothes. I feel bereft, much as when my mother’s body, covered and deposited on a gurney, was wheeled to the area of the hospital where the funeral home workers would pick it up. But as I drive away from the donation store my mood begins to lighten, as though some of my feelings as a motherless daughter stayed with my mother’s clothes, leaving me with memories not weighted down by tangible items, but memories I will treasure when I think about her.
I can’t accept the sisterless sister status quite so easily. My mother did not want to die; she was still vital and active at nearly 92. Even before she got sick, I was prepared for her death because she was old. But my sister chose her actions and had her own reasons for discarding me, reasons that I still don’t understand. One of my friends wondered why I would want to have a relationship with someone who could be so cruel. My response: she is my sister.
A print of a Renoir painting hung on the wall of my office. A young girl sits at a piano, one hand holding the sheet music, the other playing the notes. An older girl, her elbow on top of the piano, peers over the younger girl’s shoulder, her head tilted so that her cheek rests on the side of the other girl’s head. I like to think the girls are sisters, not unlike my sister and me. We both studied piano from the time we were very young, and we looked somewhat like the girls in the painting, she with dark hair, I more fair-haired. We often sat at the piano together, sometimes playing “Heart and Soul” for fun, other times practicing for a recital. One year our teacher assigned us a duet, “March Militaire,” which both of us immediately hated. When we practiced it we would often start together and then race to see who could finish first. I still have that music, and every time I look at it I hear two giggling sisters enjoying the joke only the two of us share. We always loved our secrets. After my sister stopped talking to me I took down the print, and now it lies at one end of my desk, reminding me of that time when my sister was my sister.
Scattered around my office are photos of us together. Here we are as little girls, dressed in pinafores, with bows in our long hair, hers curly, mine straight, holding hands, loving each other. In another, taken after her son’s wedding, we stand close to each other, laughing. And there we are, wearing matching white terrycloth robes, courtesy of the spa our mother treated us to for a girls’ weekend. I remember both of us collapsing with laughter after dinner, when we thought the old people in the dining room looked and acted so … old. One night our mother called our room to tell us we were making too much noise, which of course set us off into new fits of giggles.
Months after my sister cut off contact with me I sent her an email. I wrote about my sadness, as well as my confusion, for I never understood what I had done to offend her. About five years ago I published a piece which I intended to be a loving tribute to my sister. She was offended, and we argued via email for several months. She finally agreed to talk to me again, but only if I promised never to write about her or her family. Of course I said yes to this bizarre dictum because I didn’t want to lose her. At the end of my recent email I wrote, “As for not writing about you or your family, all bets are off. I will write about whomever I want, whenever I want to.” I doubt that my sister read the email, but I felt some resolution after I sent it.
When I returned home from the thrift shop, I checked the closet in my office to see how it looked without all of the clothes. Hanging by itself was the jacket. I held a sleeve to my face; the scent was gone. It was still stunning, but somehow missing something. Even the opalescent discs seemed duller. The jacket looked lonely, lifeless, and a little less sparkly. When I tried to picture my mother wearing it, the only image I saw was her shroud-covered body in the casket. The funeral director had asked us if we wanted her to be dressed or in a shroud. My sister quickly declared, “A shroud.” I think I nodded my head, but only because I was too stunned to speak. My brothers quickly agreed, and that was that.
I often wonder if I will see my sister before I die. I know she won’t sit shiva for me because not only am I already dead to her, but many years ago she renounced her Judaism and became a Quaker. Last January, when my sister wrote, “Don’t call or write. I need a break,” I thought we’d eventually forge a new relationship, one which would be less intimate. I was convinced this break would end. But as the months have gone by, I feel less optimistic. After fourteen years I have accepted my mother’s death: I am a motherless daughter. I feel less sure about ever accepting the loss of my sister:
I never thought it would be for the rest of our lives.
28 Comments on “In Another Closet”
Gail- I learned from you the Yiddish word “Besert” (soulmate another meaning of it?) and have always been grateful for your friendship since we first met! Your heartbreak so eloquently conveyed again in this story hurts us readers! And we all hope for a future reconciliation – sometimes these do happen even after 10 or 20 years. But if being with your sister or estranged brother proved toxic, perhaps she’s best gone from your life. We have Sisterhood in our book circles and you have bonding with so many mentees and other beloveds that you cherish. The blessings of grandchildren who give us hope, how cool is that? Keep writing always, for not only your own therapy, but for what it means to others! Good health to your belly button”, as the sages say!
Thank you for this piece. My mother died 16 years ago just shy of her 70th birthday. I inherited a ton of her clothes. We often shopped together and this was a way to stay close to her. She loved clothes. It took years, but I have finally given away most of the clothes. I still wear a few things. I also have had a split with one of my siblings and it pains me. So your piece hit home in many ways.
Thanks for your comment, Morgan. I would be interested in hearing more from you about the estrangement if you are willing to share. Losing all contact with my only sister has been extremely painful, especially since I don’t know what my “crime” was. The split with my youngest brother is one I understand, and even though I remain angry about it, I know it was his craziness which caused it. If you are interested in corresponding, let me know and I’ll send you my email address.
Gail, Your story is beautifully written and so direct, by which I mean that you share your reality, the smell of your mother’s suit jacket, the indifference of the second hand shop workers, and the pain of a sister who will no longer communicate with you. Bravissima! I look forward to reading more of your stories. Love Phyllis
Gail, there’s so much heart in this piece, so much love in the careful descriptions of your mother’s clothing, the Renoir print, and the photographs of you and your sister. I’d love to read your memoir. I too am experiencing a deep rift with my siblings, which is connected with the death of our mother almost 2 years ago. It is heart wrenching. I too, am writing a memoir, trying to get down all of it, the pain and the inexplicable beauty of connection with those who made up such a big part of our lives. It can be hard not to just feel the loss. Keep writing- we all need the stories., we need all the stories.
Pamela: Your response touched me more than any I’ve ever read, as it sounds like you are experiencing some of what I have for the last nearly 16 years. I would love to be in touch to hear more of your story. Not sure how to do that, but if you’d be willing to send me your email address, I’d be interested in hearing your story. Thanks so much for what you wrote. Gail
As a fellow adjunct college professor — although not of English — Gail’s story strikes me as a perfect example and way to explain the teaching of “metaphor.” I never had a sister, but I can see here how this kind of loss is so, so painful. The writing is magnificent.
Thank you for this sad but lovely tale.
Thanks so much for your comments, Sue Ellen. I appreciate what you wrote.
This is a an evocative, beautiful piece of writing. Her love of her mother was evoked through the descriptions of the clothes and their journey from the closet where they were treasured to the resale store where they were just clothes. The pain of the rift with her sister was palpable. The reader felt wrenched by the inexplicable rejection, all the more so because of the happy childhood memories of a close sisterhood. I look forward to the book length memoir.
Thanks, Paula. You may have to wait for the book length memoir, but look for more shorter pieces. Your comments mean so much to me.
This essay is lovely and heartbreaking. So many of the details stuck with me – the mother’s pale pink shell, the scene at the thrift shop, the two sisters playing piano duets – but what moved me most was, of course, the relationship between the sisters. The rift between them is so sad and bewildering. Beautifully written.
I read “Don’t call or write. I need a break” as hopeful. A year may seem like forever, but whatever is going on in your sister’s mind may require that much time. I see a reconnection in your future. Please allow that, no matter when.
Thanks for your response, Mary, but I am not optimistic about a reconciliation. Yes, “a break” sounds temporary, but after all this time (now nearly two years) without any word from her, I have pretty much lost hope.
Gail, yesterday I began to relentllessly remove unused clothing from my closet. They were then crammed into yellow bags for Vietnam Vets. I too was imagining the comments that the receivers of these amazing bits of clothing would express. But our mindful attachments can never be replictated into the lives of others. Attachments to family are another story. It has always made me feel sad how your sister cut you off so coldly. Your use of the closet cleansing is a painfully beautiful metaphor that resonates with many of us who also are detached from once close familial bonding. Thank you. I look foward to your memoir and the journey upon which you must continue.
Gail beautifully captures the empty feeling of sudden, inexplicable loss. I love that her granddaughter will wear Grandma Ruby’s jacket and hope we might get a glimpse of her someday!
I loved your story. And I read the first one as well – and loved it! Wish it wasn’t true about your sister though! Maybe she’ll read it and reconsider your relationship!
Unlikely for either scenario. Very little chance of her reading it unless someone she knows reads it and tells her about it. After two years of total silence from her—even after reaching out to her several times—I don’t have any hope of seeing her ever again. You are do lucky to have sisters with whom you have a rela
I love this piece, Gail. So beautiful.
This story is heart-rending. It moves from the emotional and sensual review of a mother’s clothes and the memories of her presence into a deeper and unexpected story of the loss of a living sister. The weaving of the two stories is artful. A wonderful addition to this issue of Persimmon Tree.
Gail’s piece captures so much depth of feeling with sharp details and emotional restraint. What a sadness to have a sister put up such an impenetrable wall. This is a very moving piece of writing.
Gail’s memoir drew me in immediately with her mother’s quote, “The legs are the last to go.” I can visualize the mother “pursing her lips.” So many of Gail’s phrases and paragraphs moved me: “sisterless sister,” “pieces of my mother” and the experiences donating her mother’s clothes as well as taking down the Renoir print. It’s so beautifully written, it’s almost a narrative poem.
I love reading Gail Arnoff’s pieces. She writes with such openness and honesty, displaying great courage and self-awareness. I echo the words of Betsey Edwards: “I only wish her sister would hear it as the rest of us do.”
Gail writes with an eloquent voice from her articulate heart. I only wish her sister would hear it as the rest of us do.
Captures the grief of letting go- even after years of loss. “Grief has no timeline.” The grief compounded by another loss is so real. When she says, “Let me start again,” (in the telling) the reader feels they are in the room listening to the story unfold. Masterful. It is a wonderful follow up to the first story about Arnoff’s Mother’s Closet.
This is a beautiful, sad story. It leaves me bewildered by the silent family rifts. Thank you for the beautiful prose.
Thanks, Ivy. Yes, lots of family secrets. We are going to be in LA to visit family 12/22-12/29. Maybe see you in 2022?
I can hear Gail talking as I’m reading her story. It’s as if she’s telling the story to me. Just to me. I can see her mother in her beautiful clothes. That’s how Gail’s writing is; like talking to me.
Roni, I love what you wrote, and I am happy you heard me talking to you. I hope we will be talking to each other for a very long time. P.S. Yours is the first online comment. Hoping to read more.