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Garbage bag in hand, I enter the room that used to be my mom's. I scan quickly for an easy place to start. My mom's black leather purse and hospital bracelet sit untouched on the nightstand, the curly brown wig she wore during her Interferon treatments carpets the Styrofoam mannequin on the dresser. I know I cannot begin with these objects, even though it's been over two years since her death — they are too painful, too intimate, connecting me with memories I'm not sure I want: a pair of lips caked with blue morphine, a wrist so thin I could encircle it with my thumb and index finger.
So, I start with the closet. When I slide the wooden doors to the left to display my mom's wardrobe, I smile. Her signature red sweater collection. I rummage through the rack of sweaters, noticing how they are all the same solid shade of red (she hated stripes), the same bulky cotton material. Only the cuts of the collars differentiate one sweater from the other: scoop necks and V-necks, turtlenecks and cardigans. At least twenty sweaters spread before me.
"I know what I look good in and I know what I like," she always said. "Why change now?"
One scoop neck had nervous holes nibbled into its collar. My mother was an avid watcher of dramas like Numb3rs and CSI, and when the suspense became too much for her to handle, she'd start chewing — one of those quirks that seems embarrassing in life but endearing in death.
"It's your fault that I'm wearing down my teeth," she'd tell my dad and me later. "If you watched the shows with me, I wouldn't need to chew my collar."
"Or you could just shut your eyes," my dad suggested.
"Or stop watching them altogether," I chimed in. "I've never known a sitcom-watcher with a collar-biting habit."
Though we often teased her about her sweaters, we had to admit she was right about the color red: it did complement her shoulder-length dark hair and her fair complexion. As I fold each sweater and bag it for donation, I think about how I am my mother's daughter. How her facial features now mark me — her square jaw line, her teardrop eyes — and how the color red probably complements my dark hair and fair skin, too. And I have to wonder: someday, if I have a daughter, will I find traces of my mother in her face, too? Will she share our jaw line, our eyes, or bear my mom's rounded nose, her wide forehead? Or maybe my daughter won't resemble my mom at all. That thought — of losing the traces of my mom in my daughter's face altogether — lingers longer than the others, wakes me up from my sleep months later, urging me to look through old family photo albums in the middle of the night.
I fold a cardigan, ready to toss it into the abyss, but follow an urge to button it over my T-shirt. The fabric hangs loose on my skinny arms, my small breasts, and I know I must look as silly as a young girl who borrows her mom's lipstick, coloring haphazardly outside the lines. Still, wearing my mom's clothes makes me somehow believe that I can relive moments with her — hear the intonations of her voice, smell the Vicks Vapor Rub she used to lather on her chest when she was sick.
But the sweaters hold no magic, only memories.
And soon, they will no longer hold even that. They will be un-bagged by a thrift store worker and buried on racks of mismatches in a store that smells like moth balls and Bengay. No one will know their histories.
I shut my eyes and squint until they hurt. I stay that way for more minutes than I can count.
Finally I reopen them, and promptly begin the process of un, un-bagging and un-folding each sweater. I take a deep breath and start the folding all over again, vowing never to tie the bag shut until I've memorized every thread of the red sweater collection.
Kayla Washko lives for words and wanderlust. She holds a MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Chatham University, has lived in Peru, and has traveled to Spain and Argentina. Her essays have been published in Paper Darts, The Literary Bohemian, and The Road Less Traveled. Her travel writing appears in Travelhoppers and Unanchor.com.