One day my mother, Roberta, asked me what I was going to wear to her funeral.
Midpoint through the long, hot August of my mother’s illness, she hosted an afternoon soiree. Invited were her girlfriends and female relatives. Roberta’s objective: to find appropriate homes for her most treasured clothing and accessories. We gathered in her bedroom, the only air-conditioned room in the house, and an obvious choice anyway as she was bedridden. A tea party with no refreshments: by then she just had a feeding tube in her belly; her inability to swallow also meant she couldn’t speak. And the malignancies in her brain pressed on her auditory nerves. All communication happened in writing. Yellow legal pads. (I’m left with reams of them filled with Roberta’s elegant and sometimes shaky cursive, which is mixed with a variety of answering scripts)
Ma proceeded to have each of us try on various outfits and pieces of jewelry, all the while signaling her approval or lack thereof. The afternoon was very odd, with underlying morbidity, yet having the feel of a teenageclothing swap, or a grade school fashion show.
The things of hers that I chose to keep were representative of the parts of Roberta that I most wanted to remember. Items that were emblematic of her adventures, the era in which she came of age, her creativity, and her youth. I shied away from the truly “grownup” items.
After my mother died (I was 20, it was my last year of college), my grandmother, Clara (my mom’s mom), and Herb (my dad) would periodically try to thrust remaining items of her clothing upon me. The white wool suit that she had worn to work once a week, small and tasteful diamond earrings, black low heels…
I felt like I was Judy/ Madeleine in the movie Vertigo, and the pair of them were the bereft Scotty trying to remake me in Roberta’s image.
Of course I was mourning the loss of my mother, but also it was my time to break free of family and establish my own voice. I was feeling for the first time the presence of my own identity that was not defined by rage or rebellion against Roberta. The multitude of yellow legal paper contains evidence of mutual forgiveness! Thus, with her death I was able to let go of the idea of oppressively binding ties! I could break free of chafing strings was able to view threads of attachment as lovely stitches.