Helping my mother clean out her closet, the year before she died

By Kandace Chapple

After a year, my father told me he was taking everything to Goodwill. “It’s been a year,” he said.

“But I’m not ready.”

“I’m going Friday,” he said.

“I’ll get whatever I want by the end of the week,” I told him. And I let Friday come and go, barely breathing on the frosty morning my father boxed it all up. I should have helped him, carried and folded and cleaned with him. But I couldn’t. Because I’d already done it once, a first going-through with my mother before she was gone.

“Help me clean out the clothes that don’t fit me anymore,” she’d asked.

It was casual and unassuming, but my sisters and I gathered in the bedroom to go through nearly every piece of my mother’s winter clothes—in November. We moved onto her tees and shorts, too. Nobody said anything as we completed the task, a quiet acknowledgement that my mother would not see another year.

“How about this shirt?” I held up a navy blue striped shirt, her signature look. “And this one and this one?” Two more polos, red and yellow, the same shirt. We all laughed. My mother’s trademark purchase was to buy three of any one thing she liked. Maybe this is why she’d settled on three daughters.

“Keep the navy one,” she said. I sat on the bed and held it in my hands, smoothed the collar and folded it in thirds. When my mother turned away, I breathed it in.

“You should try it on,” I insisted, why I don’t know. “Does it still fit?”

My mother no longer tried to hide the scars on her breast, the one that was cut out, the top half sunk in, stitched back together. It was an ugly and persistent mark, going in one side of her bra and out the other, up under her arm. I pulled the shirt over her thin hair, but it hung on her, a full two sizes too big. My mother, who had dieted her whole life, had lost 20 pounds to chemo.

She pulled it off slowly, flinching. I didn’t help; she was sick of being helped. She tossed the shirt across the bed.

“Pitch it,” she said with a light laugh.

The room grew quieter, another shirt making its way into the donation bag.

What about your shoes? I asked. I went through the flats and then her heels and sandals. My mother discarded nearly every pair, keeping what was on her feet, slippers, and a pair of slip-ons at the back door. It was true. My mother wouldn’t be going far in the coming days.

“You’ve got to keep something,” I finally said. I couldn’t stand to clean out an entire closet, haul away my mother’s wardrobe while she still sat there, living and breathing. I wanted to hear my mother say this wasn’t happening. I wanted another summer with her under the crabapple tree and silver maple, where the branches had met above and grown together, cupping mother and daughter each season.

“I don’t need much, honey,” my mother replied. She pulled the too-big blue shirt from the pile, leaning out of her wheelchair to reach it. “But I’ll keep this one. It’ll work.” A small concession to her youngest daughter.

In the end, she saved us an unfathomable chore after she was gone, but cleaning out her clothes with her meant we’d kept nothing. There was no reason to be sentimental. We were fine; she was still here. God, she was right here. So we gave away nearly everything. She never once said, keep this or take that. Her old sweatshirts and the head scarves for chemo that my Aunt Barb had made her, all gone.

But what would I have kept? Because when my father took away the very last of her clothing, including the navy blue shirt, that Friday, I couldn’t go and didn’t go, to get it. Her small concession to her youngest daughter, sent to Goodwill in the end anyway. I didn’t want the shirt; I wanted my mother.

After it was all gone (and I checked—I opened every closet the minute my father wasn’t home and ransacked the house to see that it had been done), I lived in fear every day I was in town. Would a woman walk by in my mother’s shirt? Would I recognize her shoes or her handbag?

Once, the month after my mother died, I thought I saw my mother crossing the mall parking lot, wearing the navy blue striped shirt.

But really, the first time I did find my mother’s clothing on another woman was a year later. By then, my father had met someone. I stopped by one evening unannounced, as I often used to do when my mother was alive, but I had to knock at the door now. Things had changed since she’d moved in.

So I did, hard, my knuckles white with impact. A way to note my displeasure to my father, to begin knocking after 20-plus years of living there, and another ten years of coming in the back door without hesitation, eventually with his grandkids in tow. A sound “fuck you”—rap-rap—on the door of the house that I would always consider my home.

And his new companion opened the door and stood in front of me wearing my mother’s jacket.

Navy blue, a Jackson Hole logo over the chest. I had a forest green one; we’d bought them together. And so it was. My father had saved a few things apparently and, like a ghost, it hung on this strange woman.

As the moment passed, I finally understood that I did not need my mother’s clothing, one way or the other. The jacket was no longer hers. It was just another nylon coat with cuffs and zippers. Practical in a rainstorm. Nothing more.

I hadn’t kept the clothing but I realized then, that I had kept the right things instead. Things that didn’t go in boxes, that didn’t get hauled away. Things I couldn’t hold and couldn’t touch. Things I could never lose.

In the end, I got to keep my mother: who she was, what we had, how it was. And I didn’t need her navy blue-striped shirts or anything else to remember things like that sad day in the bedroom. Or those lovely days under the apple tree out back. And my father, who would always bellow, another striped shirt! as my mother laughed in response. Those things are mine to keep. Forever.

Kandace Chapple is the publisher and editor of Grand Traverse Woman Magazine. She lives in Michigan and is married with two sons. She tells her boys about their Grandma every chance she gets. She’ll pass on her love and stories instead. Connect with Kandace on Facebook and Twitter.

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