Mom's Closet

Friday afternoon in Queens, New York.

Dave and I agreed we wouldn’t go to Mom’s empty house alone. You can’t clean out your late mom’s closet alone. If you try, you’ll linger over every item, inspecting its every side for memories. Overwhelmed, you’ll sit down on the dusty floor, a soggy mess of tears.

And here I am, doing just that.

Here is a drawer overflowing with scarves and costume jewelry, samples that belonged to Mom’s late brother. The brother who phoned her eight times a day when his wife died, asking, “Where is Claire?” The brother who was comforted by Mom’s patient repetition of the same answer over and over again, “She died, honey. Remember? We had a big funeral. Everybody came.”

Here are some shapeless free-size floral shifts, the kind Mom used to buy on consignment from the boutique on Main Street, the kind she would resell to make a profit for Hadassah. Mitzi, the boutique’s owner, always dressed in such a shift and vouched for its comfort. Around the corner from her store was Booth Memorial Hospital, where we sat anxiously in emergency when Dave, age 10, got a concussion moments before a Passover Seder.

Here are some oversized tee shirts — just like the ones Mom got for me to wear when I was pregnant and nursing. My favorites were embossed with glow-in-the dark cats. At the front of the shirts glowed the cats’ faces; at the back, the cats’ tails. Sixteen years later, Hillary, who took shape underneath those shirts, wore them as pajamas herself.

Here’s a polo shirt, a heavy duty cotton weave made for tennis, with the Fred Perry emblem. Some of our first non-Jewish playmates were the children of Mom’s tennis friends. Once Dave and I came upon Helen’s sons playing in the mud by the courts at Kissena Park. “Want to help us?” they asked. “We’re gonna dig all the way to heaven!” Hmmm, I thought at the time, isn’t heaven up? Maybe Christians think it’s down. Another time Dorothy’s daughter informed me, “The Jews killed Jesus, you know.” “That’s impossible,” I replied. “I don’t even know who he is!”

As teens, Dave and I were wicked tennis players; one summer I spent all my free time playing tennis and going out for ice cream with our neighbor Cora, four years my senior. Cora came to Mom’s funeral and said our mothers were now together, “at their big Hadassah meeting in the sky.” And I was comforted.

Here’s an off-white, 100% polyester goddess robe, a giant muumuu with rippled flowing sleeves. Or maybe it’s a djellaba. Mom used to write an “About You” column for the newsletter of her local Hadassah chapter, celebrating the accomplishments of members. Her best line ever described an art-gallery owner, looking majestic “in a purple flowing djellaba.” Actually, I think the woman wore a velour zippered house robe, but why not celebrate and elevate your friends?

Maybe I’ll wear the polyester djellaba on Yom Kippur. Over my clothing. It looks sort of like a kittel, or at least a feminine reinterpretation thereof. I could just say, “I found it in Mom’s closet.”

Oh my. Here is a pile of those ridiculous white doilies women used to wear on their heads at schule. Some have plastic combs sewn in, and others are folded attractively with a bobby pin marking the shape. All my adult life, I’ve made fun of this fashion. But holding the lace disks in my hands as I travel through time today, I understand. A doily is the perfect lightweight, non-damaging accessory to put on top of a tall, teased, set, and sprayed 1960s coiffure.

I think I’ll choose one and take it home, maybe wear it for a retro look. Yes, I can’t wait to show up at Or Shalom wearing it. Maybe I’ll wear it on Yom Kippur, with the white djellaba. No, just kidding. Each item by itself is already on the edge between retro and costume. Both together would look like a garish Purim joke.

Shabbos morning, Dave and I go to the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative movement synagogue, founded in 1931. From 1934 until 1984, Ben Zion Bokser served as rabbi. In the 1970s, my father and I used to walk there sometimes on Shabbat morning. Once Rabbi Bokser began his sermon with a quote from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and I was entranced.

Today, the sanctuary looks exactly as it did in 1975. People read from Rabbi Bokser’s 1983 prayerbook. Officially the synagogue is egalitarian. Women as well as men wear uniform woolen talitot, white with black or blue stripes. But the rabbi, cantor, gabbai, Torah reader and haftorah reader are all men. A woman comes forward to offer a prayer for the government, reading directly from the siddur: “Heavenly Father, invoke Thy blessing…”

As she steps down from the bimah, I see it. On the back of her head. A white lace doily held in place by a plastic comb. Oh my. More than half the women here wear them. Women only a few years older than me. Women without fancy hairstyles to protect. They wear their doilies on top of simple, straight, blow-dried hair.

Oh my. Here I am, 24 hours later, still lingering over the doilies. Existential fashion questions rain down thick and fast. Should I wear the doily if it evokes sexism in schule? If I wear it in a truly egalitarian environment, am I redeeming it? Can I wear it just because it reminds me of Mom? Is it a disingenuous honouring if I mean only to be funny? Even if Mom sometimes expressed her own sense of humour through dress? Will she be more honoured if I style my hair in a back-combed retro fashion, maybe based on an old photo of her, and then place the doily on top? Will she laugh, looking down from her big Hadassah meeting in the sky?

I should never have gone through Mom’s closet alone.

— Photo: Me, in mom’s bedroom, playing with my uncle’s old costume jewelry samples on my 50th birthday. Taken in the mirror with, amazingly, a palm treo.

  1. What is our role in preserving the memory of a loved one who has died?
    Is their immortality in this world in the minds of those who knew them related to recalling the
    their names, the clothes they wore, the values they espoused? What is my role as their partner in this life to keep that memory alive? Shall we donate to the causes they valued in their memory?
    Shall we take the time to give away some special items to friends that knew her– a sweater, a scarf, a special chai or mogen dovid pendant? Do we begin a fund, an endowment, at shul in their name?
    Of course, we buy a bronze yarzheit plaque, I guess. And as the freshness of that loss fades, and her name is spoken with less frequency as lives move on, what is our role in the preservation of their memory, in this world, while we are here?

  2. SO very beutiful Laura in all of your emotions. You are a gifted writter!

  3. Oh yeah. Sharon and I went through our Mom’s things together. We gave away so much, but we also kept bits and pieces. That generation never threw anything out!
    I like that idea of the big Hadassah meeting in the sky. All my kids were born in Hadassah Hospital, and both my parents passed away there. The circle of life. My mother used to get a thrill when she found a plaque on the wall of the hospital with someone’s name from Kew Gardens. Be strong.
    all my love,
    Susie (Aziz) Pam

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