When I was thirteen, I made a dress. I have no idea what possessed me. The dress was denim, sack-like, too big for me. It had a ruffle at the bottom, swooping just below my knees. It was the 1970’s and such things were in fashion. The bleached and faded fabric pleased me. It reminded me of sky. I watched the clouds pass in that sky as I pushed the fabric at the machine I was afraid of, all the time trying not to think of the speeding, piercing needle. As I stitched seams, I saw dragons and warriors with drawn swords in the fabric, a dog barking, the Virgin Mary. She was at the back of my dress, just below my right shoulder. But by the time I noticed her, she was upside down. I hoped she didn’t mind so much. She didn’t seem to, I imagined she looked serene. Just to be on the safe side, every time I wore the dress, just before I pulled it over my head I said a little prayer. Not an entire Hail Mary, but something like, “Dear Mary, I’m sorry you’re upside down, but maybe you will bless me anyway.”
Just after it was sewn, I decided that it needed something, some decoration other than the ruffle and the cloud-shapes that only I noticed, dog and dragon, warrior and Virgin. I had no idea what the decoration should be. My mother, trying to be kind, to take an interest, suggested an embroidered flower, a rose or daisy, one of the trite, iron-on patches that were sold in stores like McRory’s or Woolworth’s. Even then such stores were fading from existence, making way for the big box stores. There was a Woolworth’s in our town, though, on the main street, and that is where my mother brought me to buy my fabric, the faded denim, then to find a decoration for the dress itself.
My father had left us two months before. There was no fighting that I can remember, only one evening when I arrived home from a play rehearsal (Jesus Christ Superstar) and the two tan Samsonite suitcases were squatting by the door, waiting.
“Are we going somewhere?” I called into the kitchen, where my parents sat in their usual places, but with no food or drink before them. “You know I can’t go anywhere until the play is over!” I was only a member of the crowd, but still.
My father came out to the hall, breezily kissed me on the top of my head. “I’ll see you soon, slugger.” He opened the door, hefted the suitcases, and went out into the night before I could ask him where. My father, a college professor (Art History), did not go on business trips.
I went to the kitchen doorway, leaned on it. My heart raced. I didn’t know what to do. Wanted not to be there, to hear in spoken words what the air was thick with. My mother sat with her hands folded before her. She looked very young. She wore a leaf-green cotton smock dress, her gold hair in a braid down her back.
She didn’t speak, as if I wasn’t there at all, lurking in the doorway. I hoped that maybe nothing had happened. That my father was only going to bring the suitcases to a friend who needed them suddenly. My mother examined her hands, as if she were studying flaws in the shell-pink polish. She looked like herself, beautiful, poised, her face smooth and unlined. She was thirty-four then, ten years younger than I am now. But that night she looked even younger. She looked as if she could have sat behind me in science class, or sailed on the parallel bars in the gym.
When she did speak, she didn’t look at me. She said, “My heart is broken.” I thought she might cry then, but she only rested her head on the table, between her open hands. I had lost all capacity to think. I found myself standing beside her, stroking her hair as she used to stroke mine when I had a bad dream and called for her in the night. I even said, “It’s only a bad dream,” and that broke the spell we were in.
She stood up in her ballet flats and made us a supper of fried chicken and green beans and cornbread. I did my homework at the kitchen table as I usually did. I forbore to ask her questions about Beowulf. Or questions about my father. I watched as she cleaned the chicken pieces, dredged them in flour, salt, then carefully placed them in the bubbling oil. It spatted up anyway, and burned her lovely white hands and arms. She had forgotten to shield herself with the big round screen she usually put over the frying pan. She didn’t seem to care, but she forgot nothing else, not the slivered almonds for the beans, or the apple butter I liked with my cornbread.
As my mother and I walked from the car to Woolworth’s for the second time during the week of the dress, I counted the cracks in the sidewalk. Each crack meant another month before my father would come home to us. There were four cracks. Four months. It was a game I played that summer. If I saw three cats on my walk to school, it would be three months. If I poured out eight M&M’s after I’d opened the bag, it would be eight months.
I saw him every weekend. He’d come to pick me up early on a Saturday. We’d go to the art museum or to a meal at one of the fancier restaurants in town, where he had to wear a jacket in spite of the heat, and I’d wear a dress. Never the denim dress, though. Always one with puffed sleeves and decorous pattern, navy blue or white-sprigged pastel, the clothes I hated, the ‘dress up’ clothes that I chafed under, my skin itchy from the roughness of the lacy Laura Ashley collar or sleeves.
My father was older than my mother by fourteen years. I thought that should make him smarter, but it only made him more formal. He sounded smart, words like ‘chiaroscuro’ and ‘patina’ always falling from his mouth, but I don’t think he was. The baby he was responsible for begetting with one of his students was due in November. I remember not directly having this knowledge imparted to me, but picking it up somehow in the whispers around me. He never talked about the girl, nor did my mother, but I knew of her existence the day we went to Woolworth’s that July in the broil. I knew her name was Julia. I had even sneaked to my father’s apartment after school one day, lurking in a rhododendron until I saw her come out of the building with him. She was not pretty. She was very tall and big-boned. She had long red hair and a wide face, thick bare arms, a jutting-out belly over her jean-clad legs.
Four cracks in the sidewalk, four months. In four months he’d see that girl with her round face all sweaty and her lank hair plastered to her neck, a red-faced baby in her flaccid arms, and he’d rush back to us. To his beautiful blond wife, and to me. Even if I never matched my mother’s movie-star loveliness, with my mousy hair and my gawkiness, at least I had reached the age of reason and could have a conversation without peeing on him.
I laughed at the thought of my father being peed on as I swung open the heavy glass Woolworth’s door.
“What are you laughing at?” My mother was ready to share the joke. Too ready, as she always was that year. She made me nervous.
“Oh, only something Trish said.” My best friend. Mary Magdalene in the school play, ever popular.
It was cool in Woolworth’s. Air-cooled, the sign in the window said. It had an underwater feel, and seemed dark in spite of the fluorescent tubes above us. I trawled the aisles behind my mother in her white linen dress. She looked out of place, even sounded out of place, her high heels ticking like an expensive clock on the stained wonky wood floors, her hair gleaming, pulled back from her face. All the other shoppers had straggly hair like mine, wore sweatpants even in the heat, looked at my mother as if she were the ghost of Woolworth’s past. But she just sailed along to the fabric aisle, unheeding.
My mother did not go to the mall often, preferred Woolworth’s for simple things – dishcloths and hangers and toasters. She told me her own mother, my Nana who had moved to Florida and was inaccessible except at holidays, had shopped in this very Woolworth’s when my mother was a girl. Also, she was never bothered in Woolworth’s. She could go about her business without the coos and cries of the big-breasted pigeony clerks in the mall, or the gum-snapping high school girls in the CVS. She ordered her clothes from catalogues. Or she’d run up a skirt on the beige Singer machine I had tried to conquer my fear of. I bought most of my clothes at The Gap or the Levi store, while my mother read a magazine by the mall fountain, waiting for me.
She hated shopping, but loved Woolworth’s. She said that in Woolworth’s she was never disappointed. She reveled in all the practical or odd things she could find there, all the small bargains to be had. I never minded, although when I hit high school, I was suddenly mortified at the thought that someone from my class might see me there. I’d grown out of my fascination with the emerald and sapphire-colored parakeets in their cages, and the soda fountain root-beer floats. But my possible mortification was assuaged by the thought that if I was seen, the other boy or girl would also be in Woolworth’s, also shamed. We would say nothing to each other, nothing at school.
My mother found the iron-on patches. Her nails clicked on the plastic sheets they were wrapped in. Roses, daisies, rainbows, and worst of all, smiley faces. I sighed and kept walking.
“If you don’t like any of them, we could pick up some embroidery floss and you could make your own design. I could embroider it myself, or I could show you.”
I couldn’t bear it, the thought of my mother bent over the dress, stitching her sadness into the fabric. Or bending over me as I sloppily stabbed the needle in and out, piercing a finger, dripping blood on the cloud figures, maybe falling into a spell like Sleeping Beauty. But my mother wanted so badly to please me. I had no words for the knowing, but I knew that no matter how we tried, everything was wrong then, off-kilter. We’d never again be easy with each other, because it was just us. It was too much of a burden to carry.
I wandered down the aisle, fingering bolts of pink gingham and ugly orange paisley. At the end of the aisle was a tray that held some small thin pillows. They were about four inches square. I thought they might be pillows for dollhouses. But when I looked at the sign I saw that they were meant to hang from car mirrors, like fuzzy dice. One had a ladybug stenciled on it, another a yellow butterfly, all made from the kind of plush, soft cloth that babies might like to chew on. Each had a faint scent. Pine or lemon or berry. I flipped through them, noticed a heart, purple crushed velvet surrounded by red satin. I held it in my hand, folding its sides together. The grey scent of lavender rose in the air. I brushed the fabric smooth. It was resilient, didn’t wrinkle but popped back into shape. I held it to my chest. It seemed right.
“Just a minute honey, I’m looking for a horse. I saw a girl with a horse patch on her denim jacket. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“I think I found it. Would this work?”
She came over, took the pillow heart in her hand. “Mmm. I think it would be fine. We can just sew it on.” She smiled at me, a lonely, dim smile, as if she was out of practice. “It will be pretty.”
“You don’t think it’ll pooch out?”
“We’ll make it work.”
That night after dinner (steak, corn on the cob) we sat at the kitchen table and sewed the heart on. My mother tacked it on, and I sewed around it. I was very careful not to poke my finger like Sleeping Beauty, and to make tiny stitches so the heart would stay on forever. But it didn’t after all.
The week before I left for college, I was going through my clothes. The white moon boots, no. The Frye boots with their blocky wooden heels, yes. No to the pastel polo shirts, yes to the fringy leather jacket. No to every dress. I put the discards into a black plastic bag for the Saint Vincent De Paul box. Except the denim dress. I took a pair of shears from my mother’s sewing box, cut carefully around the stitches of the heart. My mother was out showing a house. She’d gotten her real estate license the year after my father’s desertion.
I have always been superstitious, and my superstition was at its height when I was seventeen. After I cut out the heart, I went to my mother’s room and laid it flat between the mattress and the box spring of the bed. Just where her own heart, the broken one, might rest while she slept. Then for good measure, I cut out the Virgin Mary, too, placed her near the heart.
Over the next year, my magic seemed to be working. Things were different for my mother after I left for college. She met a few men, she dated. Her heart seemed to mend. Our enforced closeness faded, and she married Rick. I was ecstatic for her, was maid of honor at the wedding in a dusky salmon dress to her pale green. I kept a huge wheel of Queen Anne’s Lace from my bouquet in a narrow vase that lasted for months in my dorm room.
My father, of course, never did return. He and Julia got married and raised their baby, my half-sister Gina, ten blocks from our house. After they married, they both took me out on weekends, with Gina in tow. We went to the mall, on picnics, to the ski area in winter. Julia tried, I’ll give her that. But it never became easy. We still meet at holidays. She has broadened more and the skin of her face has become coarse. Her dark red hair is streaked with grey. She takes good care of my father, who had a minor stroke last year. His speech and gait seem only slightly different, slower, slurred. Gina is a lawyer in California, married with twin boys. Our lives don’t seem to intersect, although we sometimes talk on the phone. She calls more often now, after my diagnosis. She asks if I would like to visit. She is kind, but we don’t have much in common. The memory of picnics, and I will soon not even have that. I myself have never married, have no children. My mother has tried not to show her disappointment. Although now, she might be relieved. She will not have to raise my children after I’ve forgotten who they are. She and Rick can go about their lives.
My mother and I now meet at the same restaurant every week for lunch. A French bistro, a little pretentious, with excellent service and passable food. We go there because it is in the building opposite the old Woolworth’s, although we have never talked about this motivation. We sit in the window and gaze across the street to the faux brick entrance of the bookstore it has become. Sometimes after lunch we go there to browse, to buy a new novel or a book about gardening. The floor still has its dips and cracks. My mother’s shoes on it still sound like a clock ticking. She is still beautiful in a carved ivory goddess sort of way. I am less so, but my age is not showing as it might. I work out, do yoga, ride a mountain bike through a nearby forest, always with a friend now, just in case. My brain might prove fickle at any time. Or it might be months yet, a year. But probably no longer.
When it happens, and it may be sudden, my body will more than likely remember how things are done. How to walk, how to drive, how to brush my teeth. But I will often forget where it was I wanted to go, how to get there, and why I should. I will not remember faces or names, even those of my family and close friends. Every time I see them I will believe I am meeting them for the first time. Every day will be new. Every few moments. I will live this way for months or years, or even perhaps the entire natural span of my life. That sometimes happens. The tumor stops growing, but too late.
On a hot summer day that echoes the one of that trip to Woolworth’s, the clouds stride through a sky the color of faded denim, and I am reminded of the dress, that summer. Memory is a strange thing. It streams out behind us all, like contrails that sometimes pass, that always fade. For me, the fade will just begin early.
“Do you want to move home sooner rather than later?” My mother surprises me. There are certain things we never speak of. We barely talk about the future now. We don’t talk about how terrified I often am in the middle of the night, or how hopeful sometimes, thinking it must all be a mistake. We’ve never yet talked about what will happen when the disease progresses to the point of no return. I realize that she assumes she will be the one to care for me. It’s comforting. But I resent it, too.
“Home. Well, I have a home.” An Arts and Crafts bungalow backed up to the Connecticut River. Which I paint often, with or without boats. Often with angels scudding over its rippled surface. The paintings I am a little more than locally famous for.
“Besides, I can still teach. Another semester, at least. Maybe more.” Following in my father’s footsteps, I teach at his college. We would be colleagues still if the stroke hadn’t forced him to retire. Although we saw little of each other, as studio art is a different duck than art history. When I decided to teach, I could have ended up in Minneapolis or Seattle, but chose to return to my home town. Bought the bungalow. Became a little more than locally famous.
My mother spears a strip of avocado. Her face sags in a way I’d only seen once, for a moment, while I stood in a kitchen doorway. She uses the same words she did then.
“My heart is broken.”
Our memories define us, what we choose out of all sensation and experience to keep with us through the years, to hold to our hearts. I still remember the exact shape of the upside-down Virgin Mary on the back of my denim dress, one edge sharply white, the other spreading into the blue in tendrils, like hair.
“Do you remember the dress I sewed once?”
My mother looks up from her salad, startled. “What? A dress? When?”
“Just after dad left.”
“Well, somehow I can’t recall much of that year. I felt as if I wasn’t really there. I’m sorry I don’t remember.” She takes my hand and smiles. A real smile, showing her one flaw, uneven teeth between her pearly, still plump lips. Yet something in her has once again retreated, as it had when my father picked up the tan suitcases, walked out the door.
There is not much I can leave my lovely mother now, whose heart is once again breaking. Not even a cut-out heart, a fabric Virgin Mary. We both look at the sky, the scudding clouds, as if by design. We cannot look at each other.
“The sky is so blue today.” My mother reverts to what she thinks of as small talk, afraid of anything deeper.
“It’s not, though.” I immediately regret having said it. She’ll ask me to explain.
I never painted a blue sky again, after I learned an arcane fact. That the sky of my dress was all wrong. That everything I saw was, in a way, a lie. Something I should have known from my thirteenth year. We are never secure with the surface of things. There’s always something dark beneath. It’s why we need the magic of art, the trick of remembering, or at least of mis-remembering. Soon I won’t need any tricks. I will simply forget. That I am breaking my mother’s heart, that she is even my mother, that the true color of the sky is violet.
My mother looks at me, curious. She hangs on my words now. Whatever I say, she will remember. And now I know that will be my legacy to her, the trick that memory is, after all. So I tell her about the dress, I tell her about the heart, about the sky. I tell her everything.
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