“I thought you might want this photo,” Dad says, bringing me a tiny black-and-white photo on glossy paper. It is my mother, one of my sisters, my brother and me. We are all sitting on a picnic blanket in a wooded area in Wyoming. My sister and brother, age 8 and 5, look like they are about ready to jump up and run off. My mother is sitting in profile, neat in a wooly sweater and hairband. I am grubby in boy’s baggy jeans and a white hooded sweatshirt with the hood over my head so that only my little face sticks out. I am probably 3 years old. I am leaning against her back, my arms around her neck, draped over her shoulder as if my body is melting into hers. She is mine. And I am hers.
The most amazing thing about the photo is that even at this moment, I can feel what it feels like to lean into her like that. That beautiful, warm intimacy of her solid back pushing back at me as I lean on her. That she was there, solid and supportive, warm and loving. And suddenly, for the first time in a long time, I really miss her. I ache for her. My chest aches. I go for a long walk, carrying the ache in my chest.
Even as an adult, until she died when I was in my late 20s, I lived near my mom. I didn’t see her often — once a week, perhaps. But I would stop by the house and sit at the table next to her, and hold her hand. She had very soft, knobby, useful hands. I loved holding her hand.
Perhaps this is why it is so hard to give up some of her things — things I do not need and have very little room for in my house. Costume jewelry. Her button box. Slender gloves. A pill box hat. And her dresses. Dozens of dresses I could never possibly fit into.
I can almost feel the crinkle and rustle of a netting petticoat under the broad 1950s skirts as I hugged her around the waist. I can almost smell her perfume lingering in the dresses she wore when I was a teen as she got ready to go out with my father, sitting at the dressing table to braid her long hair and fold it up into a barrette.
My mother was a small woman. Even when I was in high school, I was taller by at least three inches, and broader than she was. I think my father must have been proud of her impossibly tiny waist when they married — 22 inches at 22 years old! — because he spoke of it and we all knew he had been able to put his hands around her waist. Is that true? Or just a story? Her beauty was legendary in our family. Her elegance and grace. Her “niceness.” Next to my mother, I felt like a giant, rough and tumble. Boyish. At 14, I was two or three inches taller than she was, with the broad shoulders and back of a swimmer and the legs of a runner. Weight training made me strong, but I was not delicate like my mother. Even then, I could not fit in the beautiful clothes she had saved from her own youth. I was sturdy and robust, strong and healthy. But I was not delicate.
I try on a dress she wore when she was about my current age — a day dress she got at a rummage sale. It is a plain gingham dress and it looked nice and friendly on her. I remember her wearing it when she volunteered at the election polls, getting groceries, working at a real estate office. I slip it over my head. While I can zip it up, it is tight — in the shoulders, across the chest and belly. I look like a gingham sausage. I’m not sure what I expected. I haven’t been her size since I was about 10 years old. But I feel disappointed. I wanted it to fit.
I take the dress off and hang it back up. And suddenly, when I look at the dress on the hanger, I realize I didn’t want to wear the dress. I wanted to be my mom. I wanted to look in the mirror and see her again. I want to lean on her back and feel her warmth and smell her perfume. It is mom I am looking for, not a dress to wear. I want my mom. 24 years after she died, I want my mom.