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“Get in here! I’m in the Bah-loo Room,” Farrell called through the house on an otherwise quiet July night. Farrell was my wonderfully quirky friend who served beers and burgers with me at a restaurant on the lake. The “Bah-loo Room” was what he called my big sister’s old bedroom in the house where I grew up. When I was thirteen I put a long-lasting blue light bulb in a lamp and, almost a decade later, the Bah-loo Room was a favorite hangout among my new friends. In a sleepy town like mine, our entertainment was largely homemade.
I was twenty-two that summer, the ink still wet on my college diploma. With a few months to spare before starting law school I decided to do one last stint in my small hometown. My parents still lived there, but their new house was five miles from mine. After being away at school for four years, I naively thought I was too old, too independent to share their current roof. That’s how I found myself back in my childhood home, For Sale By Owner, running toward the Bah-loo Room with two girlfriends to see what Farrell had discovered.
We found him standing in front of the closet, bi-fold doors open wide, his face aglow. So was his shirt. It was bright bubblegum pink and, moments earlier, had materialized inside on an old metal hanger.
The shirt wasn't alone; the closet was filled with forgotten treasures from my mother’s life before me. Pumpkin orange, royal blue, deep purple – the clothes, nearly bright enough to burn our retinas, looked like the pieces of a polyester Pride flag not yet sewn together.
That’s when I saw it—the fabulous life-altering banana-yellow pantsuit. I was instantly smitten. All the outfits were magnificent, but none spoke to me like that suit. It also happened to fit me like a polyester glove. It was twenty-five years past its prime, but it was screaming for a comeback. After an impromptu at-home fashion show, we hit the town in all our blinding glory.
A strange thing happened that night as my friends and I paraded around the local pub. As a recent college graduate, about to embark on a scary and more sophisticated academic adventure at law school, I was not yet truly comfortable in my own skin. Caught somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, between the small town of my past and the big city of my future, I was still getting to know who I was and would become.
Putting on that pantsuit made me feel like someone else entirely. Although I looked ridiculous, I felt incredible. Suddenly I was bold, brave, confident – everything I wished I was but didn't yet know how to be. I felt like a 1970s rock star just passing through my small hometown, en route to someplace better. Four weeks later when I packed up for law school, the pantsuit was left behind, but not forgotten.
Months later, in my new apartment at my new school, my new friends discovered a piece of my polyester past. A small photo from that magical July night was prominently on display, and my classmates were intrigued. In fact my friend and neighbor, a lovely Volvo-driving Talbots-wearing New Englander, insisted I wear the outfit to her birthday party. She had me at “banana-yellow.” I retrieved it on Thanksgiving, and the following month it made its law school debut. Once again I became the best version of myself in that crazy ensemble, which I accessorized with a bright red Santa Claus hat. I was fearless, flirtatious, the life of the party.
Little did I know that night, as I walked with purpose in my mom’s outdated pants, that both our lives were about to change irrevocably. Just weeks later she was diagnosed with breast cancer, already advanced and spreading through her body. With one phone call from home, her silly pantsuit and the carefree confidence it gave me were forgotten.
For the next six years I held my breath. I finished law school, passed two bar exams, and became a real lawyer. The cancer did not return, and my mom was there to see it all. But just when we thought she was in the clear, a new and more determined death sentence was issued. My mom developed an untreatable form of heart disease that, in a cruel twist of irony, was likely caused by the cancer treatment that had previously saved her life. Just three days after her new diagnosis, the mother who raised me, the pillar I depended on, the once-young woman who rocked that banana-yellow pantsuit, was gone.
After she died I began telling the tales of my banana-yellow adventures. It had been six years since the suit’s last public appearance; it’s not every day, after all, that a big firm lawyer can occasion such an ensemble. The time had come, however, for another banana-yellow comeback, I was utterly lost in a haze of grief and I thought the outfit might help guide me out. I needed to feel its magic again. The pantsuit, however, was gone.
For months I attempted to unearth the cherished outfit. I tore apart my own apartment and rummaged through every inch of my father’s home. My panic deepened with each upturned closet. Did we accidentally donate it? Did I lose it during a post-law school move? Was I the victim of a polyester thief? As the years ticked by I didn't stop looking. I went through the same closets again and again, during each heartbreaking trip back home, looking for answers that weren't there to be found.
Although losing my mom was clearly the bigger tragedy, accepting that her pantsuit was also gone felt almost as painful. Throughout my life she was just, to me, a mom. She had mom hair, wore mom clothes, did mom things. I never thought of her as anything but my mom until I found her vibrant old wardrobe. The pantsuit was my proof - my tangible evidence - that a tall, poised, waif-like woman, with beautiful flowing dark hair and a bold sense of style, walked this earth before me.
That very outfit had been hers when she was young and carefree, like I was when I wore it. It was the only common bond shared between her youth and my own. Then, like my mom, it was gone, and the hole in my chest stretched a little bigger. She hadn't worn the outfit in thirty years, and certainly wouldn't need it where she was going, yet I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had let her down.
Years later, as a thirty-four-year-old New Yorker who no longer needs a funny outfit to feel comfortable in my skin, I recently thought about that pantsuit over lunch in my Upper East Side neighborhood. As I pondered the mystery of its disappearance, I had a comforting thought: perhaps my mom took it with her? Perhaps, heading into the unknown, she needed to feel brave and confident, like I did when I wore it.
Maybe the suit gave to her what it once gave to me, and maybe, at the tragic end of her days here on earth, she needed its magic more than I did. At this very moment, in some other world that my mortal brain cannot comprehend, maybe she is fun and fearless, a 1970’s rock star in a banana-yellow pantsuit, who just passed through my small hometown en route to someplace better.
Jules Barrueco is an attorney in New York City currently working in the insurance industry. She lives in Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her husband and their rescue dog, Tuck Noodle.
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