Years ago I interviewed for the chance to ghostwrite a book about the history of a textile factory that had recently closed. The opportunity initially appealed to me because it was a local story, and because the pictures of the abandoned manufacturing facility were so compelling. But the owners who closed the mill and design studio didn’t have the heart I believed necessary for the story. They saw it as a book about business. A book about staying on trend or what global competition can do to an entire industry.
“It’s not like the clothes themselves mean anything,” one of them said to me. I had just spent weeks clearing out closets and drawers after my mother died, so I disagreed.
I tried to explain that new clothes are only possibilities, but when they’re worn they become part of our experiences, our memories. “Clothes hold the bodies we love,” I told them. Their eyes showed no lift of recognition.
When I was in elementary school, my mother went away on a 10 day trip. She’d never been gone more than a night or two before. We kids stayed home with our father, reveling in greater freedom to pick out what we wanted at the grocery store and to stay up a little later. Those freedoms quickly lost their appeal. I missed my mother’s hugs, her voice, her scent, everything about her. Sometimes I needed her so badly I snuck off to her closet. I’d lean in until it felt as if her clothes were hugging me and breathe deeply, as if I might catch her scent there among clothes slack with her absence.
Thankfully we had her back for many decades, but it didn’t make cleaning out her clothes any easier. I wasn’t able to fold a dress or scarf without thinking of where my mother wore it and what this garment must have witnessed. No surprise, the items most fully imbued with memory were those she wore most often. A favorite dress, its floral cotton soft and faded. A navy cardigan she put on only at home, the one with a hole at the elbow she’d patched many times. Her closet held dresses she kept for special occasions and outfits she hoped to wear again. In drawers and boxes were packed away things she considered “too good.” They held no memories at all.
My sister and I tried on a few things our mother saved from her younger days, marveling at how much thinner she once was. (Size 12 from the sixties was much smaller than that size today.) We kept some things to cherish. I took a stack of handkerchiefs; some beautifully embroidered and some the utilitarian ones she used to give me when childhood allergies made my nose too tender for paper tissues.
I still use those handkerchiefs, in part to be environmentally conscious but also because they are kinder to my nose. Each time I reach for one I can’t help but wish they still held my mother’s scent, the way her clothes once held her.