‘This Dress,’ and Other Musings on Motherhood


This Dress

It doesn’t fit, Mom
this dress, your death
it’s like a net, in satin
wrapped around me, I’m trapped in
this collar, I flounder
I can’t get it right
it’s not my size
I wish I was naked
and you had your breath.

It’s a straight jacket
in black, I’m crazy
like burlap, scratching
my joints, my deep creases
can’t squeeze into this garment
I buckle right under
this neatly hemmed grief.

The stitching is permanent
too dark for me, too grave
I bedeck myself more lightly, Mom
and these restless sleeves bite me
the zipper’s angry, I can’t breathe
or dance.

Remember when
we would get all dressed up
in colors and bourbon and stories
and talk until the night
stripped off its darkness
by dawn we were basking
in our friendship
our connection, that cord.
Do I really have to wear this?

I am bereft in a dress
with no lining
there is no penny, no
falling star to catch, no
Kleenex or keys
just this puddle of silk
too heavy to hold this loss
I want to wash and wait
for it to come out
as something different
than this dress
your death.

I watch myself and I watch my girls as we hang out. At first, it seems so different than how I spent time with my own mom. That process of witnessing. She watched me grow into womanhood, I watched her grow into middle age. We met in the middle, relieved at last, as so much of the stumbling and stammering of earlier days in our time were behind us. A leveling occurred.

The girls and I travel and hang out together in a way I never did with my mom. We have seen the world together. Ireland and Argentina. Chile and Mexico. We have all attended university.  Together we united our splintered family. Just the three of us. We wrote and made art and watched each other on stage in a variety of theatrical endeavors. We ate an awful lot of scrambled eggs. Witnessing. Leveling.

My mom and I pretty much traveled as far as the Cunningham’s across the street where we often walked for our ritual “Coke and a smoke.”

A ‘Coke and a smoke’ meant time to talk, uninterrupted. To laugh. Whisper. Reveal. Release. Gossip. Laugh some more. Light up. Take a sip. We figured things out.

Somehow it was about the nose. Smoke in the nose. Bubbles in the nose. Being nosy. Inhale, exhale. Funny, she died of cancer right there. Not in Cunninghams. But right there, back behind her nose. That’s where the cancer landed. Little did we know as we poured our souls over a tall icy drink, and another long drag. We were dear friends until her death.

The chemo and radiation ripped her up pretty badly. The oncologist told my dad that it would; he had promised they could easily kill the tumors that had usurped most of her sinuses and nasal cavity, and they would rid her body of the nasopharynx cancer. That was the good news.

But my parents would hate him for it. Her life would be miserable he warned. And it was.

Along with the tumors they took her saliva glands, and her sinuses deteriorated like a Kleenex that’s been in your pocket too long. Frayed and full of holes. Not any good for snot, that’s for sure. She ended up dying of an infected skull.

After 14 years of infections – sinus, ear, throat, mouth – all stalwart in the face of antibiotics, the germs freely marched into that big old spherical bone we rely upon so desperately, or casually, to protect our brains. Osteomyelitis. A major army of germs descended. Led a successful coups. Antibiotics couldn’t even get past them. Didn’t have a chance. The failed pharmaceutical warriors retreated. Necrosis won.

All those wonderful talking sticks, thinking sticks. Cigs, they stuck it to her. I often wonder if I carry the propensity for that same cancer, or another. I smoked for some twenty years, which is a very sad statement thinking that my first cigarette was at nine years old.

It was behind the billboard at the Grandmont Hardware Store with Katie Coonen and a Virginia Slim we had stolen from her mother. We coughed and laughed. And continued. Amazing how a mere child can be so enticed by the burn and choke of a cigarette. I started buying packs of cigarettes by twelve. And I smoked until I knew I had conceived Riana.

Quitting had been a nonstop effort since my mid-teens because I didn’t really like smoking all that much, so I never quit quitting. And, I owe Riana big time. Or she owes me. We’ll have to talk about that. But it won’t be over a “Coke and a smoke.”

It will be over the racks at a Goodwill store or a game of cribbage. One of my favorite “Coke and smoke” moments with Bridget was actually over espresso and scrambled eggs in some little neighborhood cafe in Alphabet City in the lower east side of New York. Our moments happen when we hike up the trails on Mt. Elden behind our house in Flagstaff. Or window shopping. Over the phone.

My tie with my girls is neither soda nor nicotine, which makes my witnessing with my mother seem so different, it isn’t really. It’s all about the talk. The lens through which we watch each other evolve from one stage to the next: girlhood to womanhood to elderhood. From the politics of the world to the politics of our extensive families, we have lots of opinions and theories. We bring perspectives that are different and respected. We have our wonderful fiery moments. And sometimes we just settle into ogling over the cute cat cuddling in the corner, or watching as the soft snow falls in the triangle of yellow under streetlight. We talk. We level. We witness.

And yes, something will someday take us from each other’s lives. The frail Kleenex of our bond, the inexplicable and unpredictable tether to this earth, this life, will fray or rip or dissolve. But that will be then. This is now. Let’s go  . . .


I take back my house
missing and pushing the girls
out at once – go! give me space stay!
I need your sweet and smart and beautiful
there is no one on the roof no one in my car
no one sleeping in my bed or on my couch or spare
bedroom, no paintings and socks and dry cleaner stubs no
steamy mirror no Mac products spread about the couch counters
come back no go clean up no leave it sort through it no let’s keep it
my girls my life my walking sticks water witching there you are
again go be brilliant and brave and ambitious and teach me
everything you learn I so want to reap the benefits
of your brains beauty your wit talk to me never
stop visiting or talking talk me to sleep
on my final day tell me the best part
and the worst tell me you bake
better and write with zeal
love more deeply, think
more clearly and at last
remember to let me
smell a nutmeg cut
in half and garlic
sautéed in butter
lemon zest set
in sugar then
tell me your
song story
and that
you did
it damn
it you

Photo from Kris Atomic at Unsplash.com

“This Dress” first published in Puerto del Sol, 2004.

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