January 16th, 2015
Back when my mother was in high school in Mississauga, at Gordon Graydon, she wore a kilt–the one on the attached photo. She’s standing on the far end, next to my grandmother, and both great-grandmothers, with my uncle in front. They lived not far away from where my in-laws live to this day, in the house where my husband grew up. After my mother had her accident, so much of her old clothing ended up folded and away in the closet in our spare room, the sewing room, the one my grandmother would sleep in on the nights she would stay with us if my father was working. I like to think I would have discovered the kilt anyway, would have worn it regardless, because I loved it and wore it all through high school with black tights, liquid eyeliner and big, clunky black shoes. I wore in waiting for the bus in sub-zero temperatures that would meander all around the neighbourhood, eventually picking Katrina up, and we’d spend an hour, even more, in transit to get downtown where we’d walk up and down Queen Street like we knew what we were doing. Oh, that bus ride, it was killer, it took ages and ages, transferring at Square One, which, back then, was just rows and rows of orange-striped buses that were never remotely on time. I wore that kilt out dancing until all hours of the night after Lesley got her license, and we’d end up downtown at RPM after filling up on Diet Coke and Mars bars, which masqueraded for dinner. I wore that kilt late at night, hanging out with the skinheads at Michael’s with my friend Amanda, terrified at the conversation, and thrilled to be there at all, sipping a tiny class of ridiculously warm and watered down draft, and wondering if it was a good thing that a fellow named Chad had my phone number (it ended up being fine, really thanks to Jay, who bailed me out of so many situations when we were in high school). I wore that kilt rolled up so it would appear shorter, and never dry-cleaned it–wore it until the buckle wore through the leather. Maybe I wore that kilt because it was my mother’s. Wore it because it belonged to her, and I could thread my way back to her, ever so slightly, even though we were not remotely the same size, same build, or even really had the same colouring.
It’s a strange thing to raid the closet of a ghost, in a way. My mother wasn’t there to tell me not to cut down her suede skirt or to how not to royally mess up “sewing” a skirt with this phenomenal black-patterned material she was planning to use. My mother wasn’t there to make sure I took care of her clothes, but I did in my own way, just by pulling them out of their ghost-like status, and breathing new life into them. I forgot to ask my aunt where her family might be going on this occasion. My paternal great-grandmother in her splendid pink outfit with that glorious hat. My uncle’s hair is so tidy. My mother is probably in grade nine or ten here, her hair in a bangs-with-bob style that I wore through much of high school, too. I still have this kilt, tucked away in a box in our basement, yet another reminder of stuff I’m not quite sure what to do with, like my prom dress, which I’ll never part with simply because my grandmother hand-sewed it in places, and it’s still beautiful, to me. Maybe my son will have a daughter, and I can hand her a musty pile of 70s & 80s & 90s clothes for when she’s a teenager striving out on her own to define herself by how she looks instead of what she feels inside–I wanted so badly to be different, never really internalizing the fact that we are all inherently our own snowflake. I remember a bus ride, early on in my time at high school, still reeling from the loss of my mother, still beside myself at the weekends visiting her in the hospital, trying to cope with the sheer weight of the loss of her from our everyday lives, our house so quiet, slowly losing furniture, and never really coming back to life, when I got into a fight with someone about something as asinine as whether or not INXS was better than U2, and then burst into tears. “It’s okay,” someone whispered to someone, “her mother was in a car accident.”
And that became the rallying cry. The only story. The whisper between teachers and parents and other kids who knew me before–the girl whose mother was in a car accident. It explained so much and described so little, a definition beside my name in the dictionary of my life. There’s nowhere to go from there. You can’t explain or push it away, it sits there, lump-like, waiting to be unparsed by legions of therapists over the course of a lifetime. We are nine full years away from having a teenager. Our boy, still giddy with the thought of school, of doing his activities, of learning how to swim, of learning about life, only understands the bits and pieces of what’s come before, and he certainly doesn’t grasp the sadness. There’s a wonderful book by Oliver Jeffers called The Heart and the Bottle. It’s about love and the loss of a parent, and the young girl who closes her heart up in a bottle to survive it all. I read that book to him because I think it comes close to explaining what that kind of loss feels like when you’re a young girl who loses her mother. And I cry a lot when I read it to him. Not big, wet sloppy crying, but just some tears that leak out because that’s sometimes what tears do. They’re there just to remind you that the sadness stays sometimes even when you’ve dealt with the loss, and talked about it, and remembered, and filled up some of the spaces in your life.
I never got to fight with my mother over that kilt. Never got to ask her permission to wear it. I just took it out of her ghost closet and put it on, claimed it for myself, a strike in my individuality column, or so I thought. Maybe she’d have been fine with it. Most likely yes. But she was keeping it for her own reasons I’ll never know. Whether it was to remind her of high school or because she did want me to have it at some point, or because she had a hard time giving old clothes away. And because it’s hers, I have a hard time passing it along too, even though it doesn’t fit me anymore and probably never will again, and I don’t need to look like a school girl anymore, anyway. I can walk down Queen Street and know exactly where I’m going. That’s the gift of growing older, being able to look at how silly you were to brave the frigid temperatures just to visit Pages, but knowing you’d have probably not turned out the way you had if you hadn’t read those books or played those records or raided your mother’s closet.
The other day, I was carrying our boy up the stairs for his bath/bedtime routine. He had the hiccups. He pressed himself to me, monkey-like, as we went upstairs, his “hic hic hic hic” right against my chest. And for a moment, it felt like he was back inside, “hic hic hic hic” was what I felt for almost the entire eight months he was in there. I didn’t know it was possible to be reminded of my pregnancy in such a vivid way–it was pretty great. And I wanted, at that moment, to tell my mom, one of the many things I’ve stored up over the years–put away into stories or tales or hidden way into the hinterland of my subconscious–and ached to be able to let out. Maybe that’s what I’m finally doing here.