Selling My Mother's Dresses

I like to think that a bit of her laughter, sense of wonder and fun travels with them and that any tears or sadness are long since washed away.

I moved from Chicago to Brooklyn in July of 2004, just in time to watch my mother die. That wasn't why I moved back. She was supposed to be getting better; the chemo was working. I came because I'd rented an apartment with Jay, this cute guy I'd started dating, who was originally from New York too. But a week after pulling up in a U-Haul, I found myself cleaning out my childhood home with my siblings. Our parents were both gone now; anything that we couldn't take with us had to fit in a 20-cubic-yard Dumpster.

I could barely squeeze the little I saved into the one-bedroom Jay and I shared. I didn't even try to unpack the boxes of my parents' books, the bags of my mom's dresses. Jay (who held me up at the funeral and painted our place all my favorite colors and quickly proved to be much more than just a cute guy) had to shimmy sideways to get between my father's easy chair and my mother's broken desk. I was claustrophobic from the mountains of photos and misplaced knickknacks, and yet I found myself drawn to someone else's castoffs. We hadn't lived there more than a month and already I was claustrophobic from the mountains of photos and misplaced knickknacks. So it made no sense when, out walking one Saturday later that summer, something caught my eye ― a pale green scrap of fabric ― and suddenly I was steering Jay toward someone else's castoffs. My first stoop sale.

Laid out on the pavement was a batik scarf with dangling earrings, glass candle-holders, a small wooden jewelry box, books from Heidegger to Nora Ephron, a videotape of "Risky Business." Draped on the wrought iron fence behind: a tan knit shawl, a few pairs of jeans, a green cotton dress with buttons that looked like the inside of a seashell. I'd never owned anything green, but I had to feel those buttons between my fingers, the cotton so thin it was maybe two washes away from disintegration.

"You can try it on if you want. There's a mirror over by the tree."

I looked up to find her face. I'd inspected all of her things without even saying hello.

I saw a smile that was working hard. Her skin was pale; her shoulders thin and her hair cut very short. Or was it new peach fuzz, just growing in?

I was at once embarrassed and humbled. I'd thought people who hosted stoop sales just had too many clothes or were looking to cash in on some scratched records. But there was something else happening here. This woman looked like she was getting rid of a past she didn't need or want. A dress that was too big for her. A chest of drawers that took up too much space, space she needed, maybe, to heal or grow.

"Thanks," I whispered. I wasn't planning on buying anything really, but now I needed to, to show her that I appreciated her things and would give them a safe home. I paid her 20 bucks for her green dress, her wooden jewelry box and her blue candle-holder.

From that day on, I became devoted to stoop sales. Some of my favorite things ― including the sundress I'm wearing today and the Winnie the Pooh car that Jay is pushing our daughter in ― are from someone else's life. I find no joy in shopping at regular stores anymore. I've been known to break down in cranky tears by the checkout of Ikea. I'd love to say I'm trying to speak out against sweatshop conditions or conserve thread. But it's much more selfish than that. I love trying to sniff out a memory from a bud vase or a favorite song from a case of L.P.'s. The stains and broken switches, the bend in the knee of an old pair of jeans. Sometimes I just want to look at how many Mason jars one person can collect and imagine what they might've held. It's comforting to know that someone has breathed and laughed inside a sweater before me. That I am part of a continuum.

I have great respect for people who organize stoop sales. It must be an emotional way to spend your weekend. Arranging your history on a card table so strangers can snoop and evaluate. There's also a certain freedom and recklessness to putting a price tag on an ex's mix CD or "The Marx-Engels Reader" you never read in college and are finally ready to admit you never will.

I am very big on purging my own things. Every few weeks I drop off a load of clothes at the resale shop around the corner or cart a stack of books to the curb. The more I read about Buddhism while the stock market dips and flips, the more I feel like I have to practice non-attachment. Maybe it has to do with losing my parents at a young age. Maybe I can't bond with anyone or anything without also seeing us eventually separated. Whatever the cause, I know that once I love a scarf or shirt too dearly, it needs to find a new home. Even that green dress ― which I turned into a blouse after deciding it made me look like a celery stalk ― is long gone by now.

The one thing I haven't been able to do is manage my own stoop sale. I've come close. A few weeks ago, I carried the last of my mother's dresses to a friend's stoop. These were Mom's best items ― strong taffetas and feathered collars, cream brocade and lavender chiffon. My mother was elegant, whether she was in a tailored suit or her limp blue bathrobe. I tried to remind myself of this as I watched, from the park across the way, for hours, those dresses wilt on the cement stair. The sidewalks were crowded with iced coffees and farmers' market gladioluses. Nobody even glanced at my mother's finery.

"C'mon," I finally said to my 2-year-old daughter. I pulled her out of the swings. "I'm going to show you Grandma Joanie's dresses."

Grandma Joanie is just a name to my daughter. Even when I show her pictures, there is no perfumed hug or ice cream afternoon to make her a real person. And those dresses were equally meaningless to her. Empty pieces of hot fabric that were once worn by the most important person in my life. For all my hours with Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings on letting go, I still hold on tightly sometimes, whether I want to or not. I still think her stuff is as sacred as her memory.

I did not buy back my mother's things.

I did not pick up her skirt that was dusting the sidewalk.

Instead, I bought a new/used raincoat for $10, put my daughter on my shoulders, and walked us a new route home.

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