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

 

 

No candy here, but you are loved

On Hallowe’en, after eating Michael’s amazing lamb curry, we went for a walk around the neighbourhood. Dusk, and the veil between the worlds was growing thin. We saw some spectacular sights: skeletons rattling from tree branches, dozens of glowing jack-o-lanterns, front-lawn cemeteries, and even fog machines blowing eerie mists over cardboard gravestones. We saw a few costumed kids, as well, and were reminded that we had no candy in our house.

On our return home, we closed the living room blinds and turned out the porch light. My husband printed a sign and taped it to the front door so there would be no confusion: “Sorry, there is  no candy available here. Please be safe and enjoy your Hallowe’en.” We are out of the habit of distributing candy to trick-or-treaters not only because our children have grown to be men, but because we rarely eat white sugar anymore.  My body suffers when I eat sweets—I experience an immediate high then a crash with aching joints and deep fatigue. So doling out mini Snickers bars or bags of M&M’s seems cruel. (Apologies to my own children for feeding them so much sugar over the years.)

We settled down to watch a movie, a documentary about Fred Rogers called “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”  Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood made its debut on national public television in February 1968. I didn’t watch the show as a child, but it aired until 2001 so my children watched it sometimes, and I always had a fondness for the show’s slow and gentle pace and the kindness reflected in the content.

As we watched, I found tears streaming down my face.

I cried when Fred Rogers, sitting on a low stool, angled his tall, lean body toward a small boy and listened carefully to what the child had to say. I cried when children thronged around him during his public appearances, and one little girl came right up to him and said “Mr. Rogers, I want to tell you something. I like you,” and he said “I like you too, dear. Thank you for telling me that,” and touched her arm. I wept some more when I heard him say, “I like you just the way you are” to the thousands of unseen children at home and again when I heard that the simple, scruffy Daniel the Tiger puppet spoke from Fred Roger’s own childhood fears and vulnerabilities. More tears came as I witnessed the kindness Rogers showed when he spoke to children about how confused, sad, or scared they felt about divorce, death, or war.  I cried out of sadness about my own childhood when I heard him say “Children have very deep feelings, just as everyone does.” And I cried the most when I heard him say that “Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”

It was my birthday present to myself, I realized, to release my sadness and joy through tears as I watched this movie. I feel happy that Fred Rogers created the show and made a difference in so many children’s lives. I suppose it was ironic that we hadn’t been neighbourly ourselves when we posted our “no candy” sign and shut out our young neighbours on Hallowe’en.

A few days later, I went to a craft fair with friends and found a man who carved wands out of wood.  A wand with a chisel design and a heart at one end caught my attention. After buying it for $10, I moved the wand through the air, imagining that as I waved it, love flowed from the tiny wooden heart and spread warmth and philia over those around me. I tested it on my two friends and a few of the craftspeople sitting at nearby tables. Feeling the immediate effects of the love wand, their smiles grew wide and shiny.  I was onto something.  So when I brought my wand and other purchases home, I thought back on Hallowe’en and imagined what might have transpired if I had in my possession that evening my magic wand. I would have cast a small yet convincing spell over all the children in the neighbourhood as they trudged house to house for treats. To the witches and zombies and superheroes—to all of them—I would have delivered a powerful message: You are loved just the way you are.IMG_3403

Michael’s Lamb Curry (the secret is in the onions)

serve with rice; 8 portions

2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
6 large cloves garlic and 1.5 inch knob of ginger – both minced
7 Roma tomatoes
3-3.5 lbs. lamb shoulder (boneless) cut into small cubes
14 oz. can chick peas, rinsed and drained
3 c. green beans, washed, trimmed and cut into 2 inch pieces
1/3 jar Patek’s Vindaloo paste
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
approx. 1/2 tsp. cayenne (to taste)
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. honey
olive oil as needed

Sauté onions, garlic, and ginger in olive oil over medium heat until you swear they are going to burn. Just keep turning them as they turn dark brown and you have to scrape them off the bottom of the pan. This takes a while. Meanwhile, pat the lamb cubes dry and fry in another pan in olive oil until brown, then deglaze the pan with a little water to get all the brown bits off.

Blanch and peel the tomatoes.

When onions are completely brown, add curry paste and fry into the onions, blending well.  Crush the tomatoes with your hands into the onion mixture. Stir. Add the lamb, the cut beans, and the chick peas, then mix in vinegar and honey. Add the cayenne to as hot as you like. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook 40 minutes or until the lamb is tender.

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Magic love wand: $10