The black jumpsuit probably.
Maybe it would be too much. It’s more of a dinner party outfit. Palazzo pants and jewel-encrusted cuffs feel more appropriate for throwing a wine glass than mourning your mother. Then again, she believed in showing up dressed better than the occasion called for. “Better to be the nicest dressed in the room than the worst.”
She was a doctor, but most of my strongest memories of my mother involve clothes. Which makes no sense, because I’m your female friend who hates shopping. I mean… I hate shopping. I remember sitting underneath the clothes carousels at Nordstrom or J.C. Penney at age eight, sighing loudly while my mother browsed sensible office blouses for another thirty minutes. The salesladies knew her well enough to greet her with a hug. When I was in my twenties, I’d come home for a visit, crying over some idiot. (It’s Los Angeles. There’s always some idiot. And you’re always crying.) She’d look me over and then say firmly, “Let’s go buy you some new bras.” After she’d marched me through the entirety of the nicer underwear racks, she’d smile and say, “Now you have something nice to show off when you meet the next man.” Meaning there’d better be a next man. Not this one. This one had to go.
Maybe that brown dress. You were going to return it because it cost the shocking amount of $80, but she saw it and said, “Oh, no. I like that. You keep that one. I’ll give you the $80.”
The woman loved Macy’s. It was her church. She’d storm into the joint like Norman Schwarzkopf, lay down a series of Star Rewards coupons like a blackjack dealer, and exit with $400 worth of merchandise for forty bucks. They didn’t know what had hit them.
Days after she died, my sister and I went into her closet like we were stepping into a sanctuary. There’s a quiet reverence required when going into your dead mother’s closet. We stared at everything. Her collection of work suits. (She was 5’3” and tiny. We won’t fit them.) The dresses from dinner parties she hosted in the ’80s, nights we’d quietly sit on the stairs and eavesdrop on conversations between suburban couples. My mother organized the seating of a dinner party like she was plotting a surprise intervention for an alcoholic and needed the arrangement to be airtight. (“Janet can’t sit next to the other Carol. They’re having some sort of a feud.”) She still had the ’90s shoulder-padded office blazers we had told her to get rid of, the ones that would inevitably still be hanging in the closet the next time we came home. She never threw anything away. T-shirts. Christmas cards. Air mattresses we’d reminded her time and again had a hole somewhere in them and slowly deflated during the night. If you had a personalized favor at your wedding, the woman still had it sitting on a shelf. (I hope you’re still married, Matt and Melanie, whoever you are. And that you sent her a thank you note.)
God help you if you hadn’t sent someone a thank you note. She taught us that. And how to write a check. How to balance a bank account. What credit card APR means and why you’re an idiot (in a nice way) to not know what yours is. When I didn’t feel like writing and called her at 11 AM, she’d finish the conversation with: “Apply thy ass to chair. Get it done.”
Maybe something with color. The red dress. But that’s too much boob. You can’t interrupt a moment of solemnity with too much boob.
My sister and I did equitably divide up the few choice closet items we’d always coveted. I got the blue leather purse with a metal lion head clasp from the ’70s; my sister got the incredibly weird dragon statement necklace our mom liked to wear to fancy events. I swiped a pair of patent leather Ginger Rogers heels. My sister took the 25th anniversary dress.
But then what? We don’t want to dump the rest of her clothes at Goodwill in some garbage bag. She believed in repurposing things. My sister and I have decided we’ll donate her still-stylish suits to an organization that provides workwear for women who can’t afford it. My mother mentored middle school girls interested in science careers and medical students at the University of Washington. I think she’d like knowing someone was showing up looking sharp and feeling confident for a job interview that could change their life. She believed people deserved a chance. If you screwed it up, that was your fault, but you deserved the chance. And you needed an outfit.
Then again, a classic black dress would be more traditional. She bought you one once and it arrived in your mailbox out of nowhere. “Every woman needs one good black dress,” she said.
We talked almost every day. She taught us girls to be tough. Resilient. Don’t put up with shit. But be very polite when you’re doing it. Always be a lady. And please stop swearing all the time. And for the love of God, stop cracking your knuckles. Her last words to me, whispered through a mask after I burst into tears in the radiation oncology unit, before she was taken back to the skilled nursing facility in a time of Covid were: “Liz, keep it together.”
She could silence a crying child in a restaurant with one look. It wasn’t a mean look. It was a gentle, but firm look. We knew it well. It was a look that said, “You stop this. You stop this right now and finish your sandwich.” She didn’t believe in falling apart. Her rural North Carolina childhood home had no plumbing the first few years. She went to college on a Merit scholarship. She was one of only two women in her medical school class in the ’60s. She sewed her own white coats because she had no money. Her stories of harassment from that time are shocking. When I see a black-and-white medical school photo of a doctor in Buddy Holly glasses, I want to punch him on her behalf. My mother could take it, though. One time, a fellow classmate held up a nail and said, “Here, honey. I got a screw for you.” My mother stared at him, frowned, and said, “But it’s so small.”
Now that I think about it, definitely the black dress. It had a Spanx-like panel built into it. She always said, “If you feel fat — and you’re not fat — put on your most slimming black.” It would have been the most appropriate.
My mother loved occasions. Weddings. Birthdays. Funerals. She’d stock her sensible purse with Kleenex and show up like a seasoned pro. I’m furious she won’t get her occasion. The one she’d earned. It’s Covid. No memorial. No gathering. No awkward luncheon or feeling grateful you chose not to wear mascara that day. When she retired, her thank you notes from former patients filled two scrapbooks. The place would have been packed. She’d always come home from work with a plate of brownies or cookies someone had brought when they came in for their annual physical. She treated three generations of families. Her staff got annoyed because she was routinely running late for appointments after taking extra time to talk with the patient before. She was chatty. “Be folksy,” she always told us. She knew the name of every grocery checker she’d ever met. “Learn their names,” she’d say. “Why?” I’d respond, most likely rolling my eyes. “Liz,” she’d say, “people like to be remembered.”
We will remember her. But there won’t be the event my mom deserved, so all our wardrobe choices remain moot, hanging in a closet (and let’s be honest, I don’t even have the right bra for some of them). We set aside expectations about what ridiculous pantsuit we might have worn. How things could have been done. Who should have been in attendance. How the day would have gone. We put the slimming black dress on a hanger and place it back in the closet. We acknowledge the package of ashes sitting in a fancy embossed bag in our home. That’s our mother. A legacy in a box.
(She’d also think that’s a really nice bag she should save.)
She deserved the moment that so many won’t get with this virus. But she’d be furious with us for falling apart.
In the absence of options, we have no choice. We keep it together.