by Sue Mell
I am folding my mom’s fancy clothes. Bright patterned dresses and diaphanous floral blouses from Bloomingdale’s. Bespoke wool pants, now impossibly baggy, from a shop on Madison. All the finery she once wore to Broadway plays and opera at the Met, to museums and lunches at upscale Manhattan restaurants. Clothes displaced by Miss Elaine nightgowns from Macy’s and cardigans from Talbots that I’ve ordered online—the only things she’s willing to wear since her catastrophic fall down the stairs, back in 2018. A fall that broke her nose, her left clavicle and two fingers, fractured all but one of her left ribs and her right tibia just below the knee.
Ten precarious days in hospital were followed by nearly four months in rehab. Stays that would reveal—and worsen—what I’d soon come to understand as not early, but mid-stage dementia. The truly independent chapter of her life—a decade of freedom to do and spend as she pleased after my dad’s death—meeting its inevitable end. Her dependence taken up reflexively by me, dogged fixer and heroic stepper-in. Leaving San Francisco with little more than a suitcase full of clothes, I flew back to Queens to help take care of her, not realizing that I would become her primary—and since Covid sole—caregiver.
I was quick to convert the downstairs dining room into a bedroom for her, slower to take over the upstairs spaces for myself. But today, I’m clearing out the drawers of my mom’s mahogany dresser for my winter clothes. Her short-term memory is shot to hell, but she’s still articulate and surprisingly healthy for 91, and though I know she’ll never wear those lovely garments again, I’m not ready to hand them over to consignment or Goodwill. For now, a clear bin from Home Depot will do.
I empty one drawer, open the next, and there, right on top, is that damn hoodie sweater, a disingenuous gift to my mom from a minor con artist named Clara. A woman who wheedled her way into my mom’s life, finally forging her name on a check for $1,000. This in the era between my dad’s death and my giving up years of emotional distance, slowly crossing a delicate rope bridge across an abyss of estrangement. Years in which I spoke to my mom only once a week, often less, while Clara stopped by with bags of cheap corner-brought produce. Apples that my mom, with an upper denture and few bottom teeth, couldn’t eat; bananas, which she’s never liked; and more grapes and grapefruits than any lonely elderly person could eat. In return, my mom wrote checks to cover her steep cable and electric bills.
The sweater is commercially manufactured but meant to evoke handmade — bought at the airport, I’m sure, on a trip to El Salvador possibly financed in part by my mom. Deep tomato red with a Charlie Brown zigzag of brown llamas moving across a wide band of cream, the pattern repeated along the border of pocket and hood. Once a fan of bright colors, my mom now detests red. As if the bold colors and patterns she once preferred have become too hard on her eyes, or perhaps they’re too painfully reminiscent of a culture-filled life that’s now fallen away.
Machine-knitted from the kind of acrylic that’s initially soft to the touch but scratchy underneath, the sweater has a ragged nap that recalls the flowing fur of a dead deer I once saw in the rusty-looking waters of a New Jersey peat marsh. In one pocket I find crumbs and a crumpled Kleenex. In the other a delicate cotton handkerchief, part of a collection that belonged to my grandmother, some embroidered with flowers or strawberries, others like this one with a crocheted lace edge. The bigger drawers of the dresser are now filled with my clothes, but the two shallow top ones still hold her many silk scarves. I tuck the handkerchief in with them. When I shake out the hoodie, it gives off a scent, not of my mom, but merely that thrift store smell of old clothes. I’d like to take a scissors to it—there’s a pair right there on the shelves of adult diapers and booster pads—or at least stuff it into the garbage. This manipulative offering, this shoddy sweater my mom clearly wore for years. But all I can do is lay it across the pile of clothes in the plastic bin and put on the lid.
SUE MELL is a writer from Queens, NY. Her novel, Provenance, is the winner of Madville Publishing’s 2021 Blue Moon Novel Contest. Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Cleaver Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Whale Road Review, and Newtown Literary. Find her at https://www.suemellwrites.com.
SUE MELL’s chapbook, Giving Care, was a finalist in our Fall 2020 Digging Press Chapbook Competition.
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