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.