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What My Mother Wore

My mother gave me a tiny brown kidskin baby shoe and said, "This was mine. I want you to keep it." Before I could ask what had happened to its mate, her crazyquilt mind jumped to another topic.

The shoe has two straps that button across the instep and the leather at the toe is worn, or maybe it's been eaten by silverfish. I'm still trying to decide whether to submit this relic to the permanent rigor mortis of bronzing or to just let it disappear one molecule at a time.

My mother was a Depression Era baby, the youngest of five children born into a family which often teetered into poverty.

As a little girl, despite being a tomboy with scabby knees and warts on her chin, she hungered for the crisp perfection of store-bought clothes. But the few new things her family could afford went to Jacquie and Mackie, her older sisters, who were sent, against their will, to distant Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools. At best, my mother got their left for dead hand-me-downs. And at worst, she was forced to wear Great Uncle Billy's high-topped, hump-toed L'il Abner boots to school. This indignity shaped her theory of fashion, which was simply this: if you didn't have the right shoes and if they weren't polished and well-heeled, you couldn't possibly look good, not even if you wore a forty dollar dress. In her eyes, forty dollars was a pinnacle of extravagance, a fiscal line she could never bring herself to cross.

I've seen a black and white snapshot of my parents on their wedding day in 1946. My father, who looks like a handsome B Movie tough guy, wears a suit with an open neck shirt and no tie. My mother also wears a suit, the kind with a peplum flaring below the waist of the jacket. Her dark hair is shoulder length and wavy like Rita Hayworth's. On her feet are a pair of sensible leather penny loafers, appropriate for a child bride of fifteen. And she must have calculated that while chunky high heels with ankle straps would have been more chic, they would also have made her several inches taller than my father.

Insufficiencies of height and work ethic were only two of the many reasons this first marriage didn't last.

In 1960, while still married to taller, more industrious Husband Number Two, my mother bought a slinky white knit sheath and an entire arsenal of fake gold jewelry. She couldn't afford new shoes but she had just enough money for a can of gold spray paint, which she applied liberally to a pair of white pumps with five inch heels. The shoes only survived one night of dancing before the paint cracked and flaked. Luckily, a single deployment was sufficient to land Husband Number Three, the man who, though not my father, will always be my "Dad".

My mother had elegant feet; small and narrow, even when she'd put on weight in her sixties. As I grew older, my own wide, flat feet developed corns and bunions and comfortable shoes became my Holy Grail. I tested a strange assortment, ranging from K-Mart flip flops to pink Converse hightops and Airwalks, meant for skateboarding. No matter what shoes I wore when I visited my parents, my mother admired them effusively, as if she believed I had some insider's knowledge of cutting edge footwear trends.

Sometimes, in her enthusiasm, she asked me to send her a pair too, and occasionally I did, though I could usually placate her just by painting her toenails magenta.

She had no real need for new shoes, not since her life shrank to fit within the triangular path linking her bed, the bathroom and a Lazee Boy recliner in the living room. Dad kept her best tennis shoes polished and ready, with the laces washed and ironed but most of the time she went barefoot. As she was the night Dad found her wandering in a field near their house. When he asked what she was doing out there, she stabbed her cane toward an impenetrable thicket of blackberries and wild roses that hid a dried-up tributary of the Mad River. "I'm going home," she said.

Two days later, my mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. I was horrified when a cousin offered to help me dress her for burial. Dress my mother? Wasn't that something you paid those mortuary people to do? But somehow, the idea gradually took hold and I started to see it as the last kindness I could offer; something that would make up for all the things I should have done, all the things I should have said. It was a chance to finally be a good daughter.

I went through her closet, fingering every tobacco-scented garment. There wasn't a single dress to be had. My mother's entire wardrobe seemed to consist of sweatshirts, sweatpants, pajamas and jeans. All right then, jeans it would be. I found a brand new pair of Wranglers, with the pricetag still attached: $38.95. Whoa, Mom! I thought. We're dangerously close to your limit.

On a hook in the back of the closet, I discovered a beautiful blue Apache dance shawl with six inch fringe all around the edges. And there was a turtleneck the same color.

Dad peeked in and asked what I wanted to do with Mom's mink stole. Until that moment, I'd forgotten all about the once-prized possession, she'd inherited from her mother-in-law.

"Where is it?" I asked and he pulled a cheap vinyl suitcase from under the bed. The stole was stuffed inside, wrapped in plastic, and stinking of mildew Suddenly, I remembered the morning, when I was fifteen and two deputies came to arrest my mother for bouncing checks. Furious with Dad for being a poor provider, she attempted to salvage her dignity by making those deputies cool their heels while she changed clothes. I was stabbed again by the memory of her, wearing a brocade cocktail dress and that mink stole, being escorted to the sheriff's patrol car, as the neighbors watched.

I gave the mink a good dousing with White Diamonds, her favorite cologne, and hung it outside to air while I finished gathering the rest of her things. Bra, panties, blue socks to match the turtleneck and shawl. A nice pair of abalone earrings. There was only one last thing required: footwear. Tennis shoes with mink? Clearly a choice that could push an already unconventional ensemble into the realm of the downright peculiar. I dug around in the bottom of the closet and found a pair of gorgeous chocolate brown suede hiking boots, I'd never seen before. It was almost like discovering my mother had led a secret life. Where and when had she bought them? Dad couldn't remember.

I didn't know what to expect when I got to the mortuary. My mother had been refrigerated for three days. She was under a plastic sheet. Naked. Her eyes were closed, thank God. Her skin was cold. There were bruises on her face and one arm where she'd fallen. Her cheeks were sunken because her dentures had been lost somewhere along the way. My cousin and I both cried softly the whole time. We dressed her, turning her like a baby to pull on the panties and fasten the bra. We curled her hair and I applied a little foundation and rouge to her face, covering the bruises. Her feet were still beautiful, as if death had started at the top and hadn't quite reached them. I touched up the polish on her toes and when it was dry we put on her socks and boots. In the stiff new jeans, Mom's legs splayed out in a graceless way until we knotted her bootlaces together.

My cousin and I tucked her into the coffin, with the mink stole around her shoulders, and the Apache dance shawl below that, flowing like a blue river down to her feet.

Appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, 2011


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