The Clothes She Wore

My mom, graduating with a degree in registered nursing.

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.

17 thoughts on “The Clothes She Wore

  1. Thank you for sharing the beautiful story about your Mother. Reminded me about my Mother and her clothes. In her eulogy I made mention of her clothes so your story today was a lovely reminder of my Mother. So nice on this Mother’s Day to remember mothers of the past.

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  2. Clothes take on the shape of the person who wore them so that there’s a gentle ghost of them inhabiting the cloth, the seams that have expanded to fit, the rolled waistband, the belt that’s taken on a curve. My mother has been gone for 35 years, but my mind can still clearly conjure up the scent of her top drawer, where she kept her scarves, handkerchiefs and modest jewellery. It smells of clean linen, Ma Griffe by Carven and her. I have an ancient silk scarf of hers, rich cream with quarter inch navy spots. It has worn away in several patches, but it’s still soft and comforting inside a shirt collar in cooler weather.
    Thank you, a lovely post that conjured up some great memories.

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  3. Thank you Laura. What a beautiful writing about your momma. Thank you for sharing about her with us….and I agree about the clothing…. my grandma smoked and some If the books I inherited smell like her house that was drenched in cigarettes♥️…. sometimes I run the pages across my face for that smell that reminds me of her . She was such an amazing women being born in the 1920’s and going through the depression and wars. Thanks again, Christy


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  4. Love this piece, Laura! Thanks for sharing it. You had such a RICH childhood. Regarding handkerchiefs, a favorite line my mother uttered when she was in the hospital was, “You can’t blow your nose without a pocket.” It made total sense to me. And when I was a young teen, I found a lot of pleasure in ironing my dad’s handkerchiefs into neat little squares. Little pocket memories. Thanks for tugging on them.

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    • I get the pocket reference, although clearly your mom never met my grandmother’s friends. Those ladies were forever daubing their drippy nostrils and would stuff a tissue or handkerchief anywhere — up a sleeve, down a shirt, in a belt, even under a bracelet. Then, of course, they’d insist on hugging us before they left, little ends of used tissue waggling in our faces.

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  5. Beautiful this is so true. I recently broke up with my partner and the one thing I could focus on to write about was picking out his clothes from my wardrobe and having to make a massive pile of his crumpled posture! Clothes are extremely evocative, shame you couldn’t write the book,Thanks for sharing.


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