Trying on My Dead Mother’s Clothes
October 29, 2021 / Claire Tsui
There’s a lot of things I remember about the last time I ever tried on my mother’s clothes, but for some reason the month isn’t one of them.
I remember it being a heady afternoon, and the branches outside my window shivering on the cusp of a storm. I remember the way the dust flew as I dropped the plastic bins of clothes onto the floor, how I paused to watch the motes drift through watery streams of light. One of those liquid memories where everything feels slowed and hazy, like film rolls played through waves of heat.
Was it late May or early June? I couldn’t tell you.
It had been nearly a year since I last pulled out my mother’s boxes of clothes, typically tucked in their dark corner at the back of the closet. I didn’t try on her things very often. But every now and then, the vague urge would seize me, compelling me into this reverent, half-ritualistic practice. There’s a sanctity in handling the clothes of our dead.
The first time I tried on her clothes was a few months after she died. I’m not sure if I had expected something profound to happen, some divine connection with my mother or whatnot, but all I experienced that day was the profound embarrassment of how ridiculous I looked. The hems fell wrong, the shoulder seams reached down to my arms, and the necklines were appallingly low. A complete child.
And then came that liquid afternoon. Pulling on a downy, pea-green sweater from Ann Taylor, I was so elated by the sight of it fitting properly around my shoulders and clavicles that I didn’t immediately notice anything else; then I looked down at my wrists and saw the sleeves sitting two inches higher than they should have.
I had grown several inches over the past year, and it showed now, in the mirror. In the reach of my limbs, the stretch of my torso. Somehow, it had escaped my attention.
The last time I compared heights with my mother was at the hospital, upon her behest. She loathed the fact that she was only 5’2 and held an ardent insistence to the end that I had to grow taller than her. That was three years ago: I came up to her nose then. It was only logical that things would have changed since, but an irrational part of me was still convinced that I was yet to pass her bridge.
There’s something about outgrowing your mother that just feels fundamentally wrong. As if in doing so, you’ve disturbed the natural order of the universe. Even then — at the grand, jaded age of twelve years old — the metaphor felt almost too comedically on the nose, in all its situationally ironic glory. This was the stuff of overwrought coming-of-age novels.
Honestly, no wonder I grew up to become so pretentious.
The revelation of that afternoon jarred open a door to something within me. It was the first genuine realization that the flow of time would relentlessly continue sweeping me further and further away from my mother. A tide pushing me far out to sea.
The months immediately following her death were a strange period of existence. I had a phase at one point where I would write my mother letters every night, a quirky little practice that lasted all of one month.
There just wasn’t much to write about. I didn’t have a lot going on during the time, and what little went on tended to be depressive.
“October 15th, 2012
Hi Mom, today was my birthday. Sienna’s mom brought a cake to after-school. They made the class sing for me, and everyone had to write one nice thing on a card. I know some people there don’t even like me, so it felt pretty awkward. Dad comes home and doesn’t get up from the couch. Wish you were here?”
It was like a fugue of sorts; feet in the clouds and my head in the ground, reality hazing in and out of focus unrooted. The resolute facade of normalcy was what kept us standing.
Two weeks in, I was forced to sit down with my teachers in a check-up the counselor arranged.
“Yeah, I’m doing fine.” Voice light, a noncommittal shrug.
They exchanged a look.
“Yes, we’ve found it very…impressive…how normal you’ve been throughout all of this.”
For some reason I doubted that ‘impressive’ was the word they wanted to use.
Normal. It’s true. I craved for any semblance of normalcy to return to my life. I wanted my dad to return to the person he once was, for the teachers and classmates who were privy to stop with the eggshell-walking, and for all our family friends to quit looking at me with that face during their periodic visits.
There’s a specific nook in my bedroom at our second house that I remember. A small gap of space between my bed and the side of the wall — just enough for me to slot myself into — where I would sit with my knees tucked to my chest and gaze out at the eaves and rooftops of houses stretching out and beyond from my window. I’d survey the little windows of other houses and wonder what lives those people were living. Normal people lives, probably.
Those afternoons were deep and pensive, still like a suspended breath. A liminal space carved in the form of a four-by-four nook. Amidst the perpetual changes and flurry of those years, those afternoons were, perhaps, the quietest my mind had ever felt.
At this point, I was ten. If I attempt to look back on my childhood, I am forced to face the reality that I never quite had one.
Psychology tells us we don’t retain memories from before the age of three, and my mother’s cancer stole away any notions of childhood bliss and indulgence from the age of six onwards. Everything from there felt like a constant series of endings. Dropping piano, then dance classes because we didn’t have time for it; silent dinners with just my little sister and I; the master bedroom gathering dust as my father began spending nights in the hospital room with my mother. Everything was a marker of her gradual deterioration. Yet here it was still, festering in our lives even after her passing.
I despised the label of ‘girl with the dead mom’. In bid of normalcy, I shoved aside my grief and shut it away, where it sat quietly in a dark corner at the back of my mind, in a box untouched and no longer opened.
It took a few years before regret crept in. I repressed my grief so definitively that I sometimes question whether I even understand the nature of it. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about my own emotions over the course of these ten years, it’s that grief feels like a splinter nested deep inside my fingertip.
A revolutionary metaphor, I know. There’s just a lot of writers with dead mothers.
That splinter — the sharp, initial sting as it pierced me, the ache of it settling beneath the skin as my internals hissed and rejected the foreign feeling inside me. The ebbing of that pain that came terrifyingly soon after, until I could barely recall the way it once hurt.
If there’s one thing I tend to pride myself on, it is my ability to shrug off pain and keep pushing forward. But it’s a pride that sours when I consider what moving on so quickly entails. It’s the reason why I press my finger against the pad of my thumb every so often — to feel the splinter’s sting and remind myself that it’s there. It’s a melancholic sort of aching. The throb of an old wound that never got to heal right. I’m afraid that forgetting the feeling of it will be losing the last fragment I hold of my mother.
Something that I feel is seldom noted about childhood loss: when it comes to losing a parent at a very young age, what endures most prominently of them as the years pass isn’t their memory, but their absence.
I remember how it feels to grieve her more than I remember having her presence in my life. I suppose you can say I miss her more than I remember her.
Standing in the mirror those many years ago, looking down at the wrists of the too-small sweater — this was why I felt so profoundly shaken by the revelation that I had outgrown my mother. That ache of growing up without her, coupled with the fear of us growing apart. Grief made my mother feel tangible, and I am afraid that once it’s truly gone what remains will be empty space. Apathy. The emotional estrangement that comes with forgetting how we once felt towards a person. I spent so many years shoving down any stirrings of grief, posing for normalcy, priding myself on feeling close to nothing at all for my mother’s death, and thinking it was resilience. I’m not sure if what I feel now constitutes regret. But it’s something close to it.
Please linger within that quiet, dusty box. I don’t want to grow up yet.
Please never cease to haunt me. I’m afraid of losing you.
What will be left once my grief for my mother is gone? What will I feel then? ■
by: Claire Tsui
graphics by: Zayana Uddin