My mother’s closet

We plan wonderful projects. The ideas are good and vibrant. Details burn high with leaping flames then slow down, muted but steady. Eventually the flames gutter and sputter. Other tasks intervene, only embers remain.

Last May, my son Sam and I drove to visit my sister. We zipped up Highway 1 over the Malahat, through Duncan, past Nanaimo and veered off onto Highway 19, then 4 toward Port Alberni.  Passing the tangled green forests of the Island and listening to Pink Floyd, the breeze whistled through the sunroof and we talked about a plan I had been brewing since 2016. The seed of the plan was to interview my mother about her closet. Open those wooden louvered doors in her spacious bedroom to examine the sweaters, trousers, and dresses. Ask her about them. What’s your favourite piece of clothing? Where did you get it? Why do you love it? Is there a story? My mother’s stylishness would be expressed in that interview, her signature love of black, her ability to pull together a look, her insistence on quality. Having taught history of art and design to fashion students for decades, her knowledge of fashion trends across time would be revealed through her closet. We would look down at her dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals lining the closet floor and discuss her struggle to find attractive, comfortable shoes to fit her size 10 feet, feet that had been misshapen by the squeeze of hand-me-downs during her impoverished childhood. Finally, we would walk down the narrow stairs to the room at the back of the house where dozens of hats were piled on a chest of drawers—grey and black knitted cloches, brown and beige floppy brims, watch caps in jewel tones, all made by Parkhurst, one of her favourite companies. My mother would pour a glass of red wine before telling me about her hat obsession that grew from acute embarrassment over her thinning hair.

We’d sit in the bamboo chairs in the back room, our bare feet cooling on the tile, maybe laugh about her practice of wearing denim cut-offs (cuffs rolled) over black tights when she was a young mother.  Ten years on there were the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, such a good look on her—showing deep cleavage, the curve of her hips, a peek of thigh when she crossed her legs, legs even more shapely than Anne Bancroft’s in The Graduate. She bought the legendary von Furstenberg wrap in both the green and the brown python print.

“If you love something, buy two,” my mother liked to say.

I thought about making a short film documentary about my mother’s closet with my IPhone, capturing her expressive face and laugh, the camera skimming over the clothes on wooden hangers, mostly dark things in rich, heavy fabrics. I would have to buy a tripod and figure out angles and such, then how to splice and edit.  That seemed too hard. Finally, the film idea metamorphosed into a scheme to write a series of blog posts about people’s closets and their favourite clothes. Sam and I discussed my plan, and he encouraged me to start blogging. That weekend, I interviewed my sister about her classic denim vest, her sundresses, and her huarache sandals. I took photographs and some video footage. But I never followed through. The project lay dormant.

When I had coffee with Sam last week he told me “somebody used your idea.”

“What do you mean?” Marie Kondo’s series, he told me, is a lot like your plan. She looks into people’s closets and talks about why they have the clothes they do—the history and meaning of each item. Lots of people are watching the show. “That means,” he said, “you had a good idea.” I laughed wistfully.

It’s too late to interview my mother about her closet. She died in February, wearing a black silky nightgown and black cotton watch cap when she drew her last breath.  Her clothes hang in that big closet now, collecting dust.  No longer can she answer my questions, laugh, pour that glass of wine.

So I have become attuned to death. Every morning Michael and I read a few pages from Wake up to Your Life, by Ken McLeod, a Buddhist scholar. He counsels us to contemplate death. Did you know that death is lurking everywhere? Envision dying tomorrow—a sudden accident could happen. Meditate on all of the ways you can die: terminal illness, a car accident, falling in the bathtub. Contemplate the moment of death—what regrets will you have as your life passes before your eyes? Imagine how—if you die of old age—your energy will seep gradually from your body, how everything will be difficult, how you will become dependent on others to do the simplest tasks. Any dormant plans will lie forever dormant. Each day I am reminded to act now. Don’t put off artistic projects, interviews with interesting people, travels, experiences, connections, opening your heart to the world.

Here’s the first of the “Open Your Closet” series. Maybe it will be the first and the last, who knows? The following is dedicated to my mother and my son Sam: thank you both for inspiration.

Rainbows and Basic Black

I wore a polyester rainbow mini dress to celebrate my 10th birthday 1968. That dress seems hideous to me now, but at the time I was thrilled to own it. It was like wearing a spongy, itchy hot box over my lithe young body. But remember, girls: fashion not comfort! (Even at age 10.)  How pretty you look!

My girlfriend and I listened to the Stones and danced like wild fairies around the living room, waving our arms in front of us, giggling. “She comes in colours everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s like a rainbow.”  Imagine Mick Jagger telling me I look like a rainbow in my rainbow dress!

Fifty years later my favourite piece of clothing is a size-L black bamboo undershirt. Large so it’s comfortable and covers me, reaching the tops of my thighs. Bamboo because it’s silky smooth and breathes during hot flashes, yet keeps me warm.  Throughout the winter I wear it all day and night. I wear it hard. I wear it until it is rent with holes. It doesn’t matter—I just cover the holes with a sweater.

In 1965 my mother wore cut off denim shorts over black tights, a grey sweater over a white turtleneck. I am surprised she let me photograph her, she was so embarrassed by her looks.  Ten years later on a trip to Greece she wore a peach cotton top and matching skirt on her slim bronzed body. Flat, comfortable Indian sandals on her big sturdy feet. A belt accentuating her curves. Sunglasses, always the sunglasses.

Your clothes – do they hide you or show you? Are they stories in cloth or merely covers?  That shirt, when did you buy it, do you remember? Is there a tale, a memory? Is there a catch in your throat when you recall the moment? What about that belt. . . was it a gift from somebody you once loved?  The jacket: did you steal it, shove it in your backpack in the dressing room? The dress, was it in the free box on the street? Does it make you feel beautiful? The pajamas, did you sew them yourself and make mistakes? Are they cosy dream-makers? Tell me about your clothes.

C6D5E783-B601-4672-928B-12E41B82D62EOpen your closet and
let me see
who you are
who you’ll be
who you were
what makes you free

Open your closet to me

 

 

Northern lights in my palm

The first two stones were too flashy for me, I realize now, as I cradle the third stone in my palm.  This piece of Labradorite feels like a mineral replacement for “blankie,” a faded green blanket I depended on as a small child. When I felt sad or lonely, I would rub its sateen border against my cheek as I sucked my thumb.  I find the same kind of comfort in my stone as I wrap it tightly in one hand in times of anxiety, or examine its blue and green gleams as I turn it in the light.  It was such an unpromising piece of feldspar, I thought, when I first saw it among others in a small basket at the Rockhound Shop.

I had been missing my second piece—a much bigger specimen, shot through with showy Labradorescence. I know exactly where I left it – beside the computer monitor in a room at the University of Saskatchewan where I was presenting with colleagues at a conference. I had been holding the stone for confidence—my usual practice. But once the presentation was underway and I was clicking through the PowerPoint slides and gesticulating, I had laid it down, only to forget all about it as I packed up, chatting with audience members.

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I found my practice of holding my stone during public speaking so effective, I incorporated it into a workshop on effective workplace presentations, even though I knew some people would find it corny.

I really missed it. Missed the cool warmth in my hand, the feel of it, the revelatory colours of it.  Every time I examined it, I was reminded of the Northern Lights. That stone played its Labradorescence fast and loose, so it took no work at all to find the lights—they gave themselves away quickly. But my third stone was introverted, I suppose like me, and it looked unprepossessing with a dull grey finish, quite a bit smaller than one and two, roundish, just a mineral lump. But as I held it and shifted it slightly, I detected a shimmer at one end—as if its interior light would only be revealed with time and patience.

I discovered these stones by chance in the Southwest. Michael and I were driving one of those long stretches on a road trip somewhere in Utah, heading to Flagstaff, Arizona where we planned to spend my Hallowe’en birthday. We’d been to Arches National Park, seen the red sandstone interrupt the blue sky, felt young and small next to the old and otherworldly shapes. Somewhere, perhaps in the café where we’d eaten breakfast, I had picked up a free magazine with articles about healing modalities, vegetarianism, and crystals, ads for herbal remedies and craniosacral treatments. As M. drove, I happened upon an article about Labradorite. Apparently the Inuit people believe this stone fell from the frozen fire of the Aurora Borealis. Ordinary dull grey stone is transformed into an extraordinary container of mystical light.  Its name stemmed from the place it was first reported found—Paul’s Island near the town of Nain, Labrador.  Labradorescence is the optical phenomenon produced when light entering the stone is reflected back.

We arrived in Flagstaff and found a restaurant. Sitting near the windows and doors open to the street and eating dinner, we could see all of the neighbourhood children in their fine costumes, trick or treating from business to business. The hostess gave them candy, oohing and aahhhing at their lovely get-ups. As the sky grew dark and starry, as ghosts, witches, princesses, and pirates passed in front of us and we raised our glasses in a toast to my day of birth, I felt exquisitely happy.  After dinner we located the store, Crystal Magic, on North San Francisco Street. Many glass shelves displayed stones from all over the world, sparkling under bright lights, but I headed straight for Labradorite, and held my chosen piece comfortably in my hand for the rest of the evening.

The crystal and gem websites and books provide many possible meanings for Labradorite: a crystal of shamans, a stone of awakening, symbolizing inner spirit and intuition, fostering self-esteem, etc. etc. But for me, it’s about confidence. Even though it’s an optical illusion—there is of course no light emanating from inside the stone, it’s merely reflected—Labradorite with its inner gleam is my constant reminder that I have all that I need within me. I have all that I need here and now to be contented, happy, whole, well. I don’t need anybody’s approval. I am enough.

I don’t know how I lost my first stone or how I obtained my second one, but some years have passed since that magical birthday in Arizona, and I have become more practised at losing things. These days I often think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem, “One Art,” pulsing with irony:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

[to read the whole poem go here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47536/one-art]

Loss is inevitable—memories, things, loved ones, life. We all get to have lots of practice. While treasuring my third stone, I already anticipate losing it. I’ve already misplaced it several times in one week, so its loss feels inevitable. I hope the person who finds this stone appreciates its oblique flicker, its slant of fire.