Family Matters

If the Dress Fits…

Sorting Through a Closet Full of Memories

Magazine Issue
May/June 2020
An illustration of two dresses hanging in a closet



Two months after my mother died, at the age of 94, I was ready to tackle sorting through her clothes closets. I’d been instructed by friends who’d faced this task for their own mothers to make sure to check every pocket, and I did my homework on the limitations of what Goodwill accepts. I could drop off bras but not underpants, and shoes were acceptable as long as the soles had no holes.

Armed with industrial-sized trash bags, I began the process. What was good enough for Goodwill went in one pile, and things too worn or stained in another. My mother and I were different in many ways, and clothing was one of the defining distinctions between us. I was certain from the outset that none of her clothes would be coming home with me.

Alone in her apartment in New York City, I laughed out loud at how many pieces of orange clothing she’d owned. Orange was her favorite color, and we nicknamed her apartment, with its orange walls and orange carpet, l’Orangerie. There were orange tights, orange pants, orange blouses, and even an orange faux-leather jacket. She wore her favorite color with pride while clucking her tongue in disapproval at all the women in New York City draped in homogeneous black outfits. Color represented life and made her happy. She assumed cheerful colors made others happy too.

As the sun began to set over the Hudson River and her apartment took on the glow of twilight, I opened the last closet. Exhausted, I reached in to pull out the final armful of items and was flabbergasted to find, tucked in the very back, an outfit I’d never forgiven her for wearing. Why on earth, I wondered, had she saved it? Did she seriously consider wearing it a second time? Whatever her reason, there it was, preserved in its original packaging: the dress she wore to my wedding. Seeing it again, almost 40 years later, reopened a deep wound.

I’d wanted a big wedding, a white dress, a tiered cake, and lots of dancing. What I hadn’t wanted was my mother as the mother of the bride, someone notorious for asking, “Don’t you think marriage ruins relationships?”

From the start, I knew she wouldn’t ease any of my anxiety about planning the wedding. But after she put her foot down about helping me search off-the-rack dresses at department stores, she reluctantly agreed to accompany me to a bridal store. There, I found a long gown, trimmed in Irish lace, which made me feel beautiful.

For her mother-of-the-bride dress, she refused to bend to convention or wait for me to go shopping with her. Instead, one night in her kitchen, she simply modeled her choice. “Isn’t it great?” she asked, clearly more of a statement than a question, as she stood before me wearing an off-the-shoulder Grecian-inspired dress that was bright teal with large flowers and a rope belt. “I found it in the lingerie department at Saks on final sale,” she informed me. “I feel fetching in it.”

I was 10 years old when my mother divorced my father and moved by herself from Long Island to Queens. She chafed at the role of housewife and wanted to pursue a college education. My father couldn’t accept my mother’s desire for independence. Like many men of his generation, he expected his wife to stay home with the children.

Although the fighting between my parents finally stopped with my mother’s departure, my own struggle with her was just beginning. There was no formal child custody arrangement in place, but she and I would meet in New York City and go to museums together on the weekend.

These dates with my mother were intoxicating. One Saturday, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a magnificent exhibit of Impressionists on loan from Paris, and then we ate pretzels from the street cart so we had enough money for standing-room-only tickets to see Manuela Vargas dance the flamenco that night. It was an unforgettable performance and an introduction to a new culture for me. But as I rode the train back to Long Island by myself, I longed for a mother who was happy to live with her children.

By the time I was ready to date, it was the early 1970s, and the sexual revolution was in full swing. My mother traveled during vacations from her teaching job and was the first person in our family to go to Europe. She brought home French perfume and photos of Europe’s great art treasures. She also told me more than I wanted to hear about her encounters with men. Her ability to get dates far outpaced my own.

For my high school graduation, she gave me a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and a set of red American Tourister luggage. I was grateful to be out on my own, happy to relinquish my job of making dinner every night for my father, and ready to start a new life. When I came home from college for winter break, I called my mother, eager to tell her about my first semester at Northwestern University. I thought she’d be proud. But rather than listen to my stories, she told me, “I’m leaving tomorrow for Greece to marry Angeles.” Her soon-to-be second husband, whom I’d never met, was 17 years younger than her.

“It takes a certain amount of naivety to take marriage vows the first time,” she said. “After they’ve been broken, they don’t carry the same weight.” She enjoyed Angeles’s affection, and he could only stay in America if they were legally married. So, despite her reservations about the institution of marriage, she signed the papers and moved him into her apartment in Queens. This marriage lasted seven years.

My junior year of college I finally had an opportunity to visit Europe myself, when I was accepted into a study abroad program. I was thrilled to have some adventures of my own. Thanks to my mother, I loved culture and knew how to navigate cities on a limited budget. But I never matched my mother’s success with men. My year in Europe taught me that, although I was capable of being alone, I was lonely and wanted a relationship.

According to my mother, I was too inhibited. She constantly admonished me to “shape up,” which meant lose weight, buy more fashionable clothes, and get a haircut. Her opinions, which were more like criticisms, were freely given under the tagline “I have perfect taste.” Along with her departure, they etched a deep insecurity within me about my own desirability.

Then at 22, my life changed when I met a man who captured my heart. A rugged outdoorsman, he was more foreign to me than any of the men I’d met during my travels abroad. I introduced him to New York, the opera, and Chinese food. He introduced me to camping, sailing, and Nantucket reds. After dating for four years, we announced our engagement. I never expected to marry, given my mother’s criticisms, but once I decided to take those vows, I was determined to do better than her at staying married.

I’m grateful to say that marriage did not ruin our relationship. After 38 years, I treasure my work and the time I spend with my women friends, but truth be told, I love coming home every night to my husband. I worry that if he dies before me, I’ll be ill-equipped to reawaken my capacity to live alone, despite my mother’s appetite for it. She associated living alone with independence; I associate it with abandonment.

Because my mother was on her own for so long, she was fearless in her approach to living. At her memorial service, I met many of her friends, who spoke of how inspirational and supportive she’d been to them when they were facing a divorce. She criticized her widowed friends who were unwilling to go places on their own, and she always prioritized what she wanted to do ahead of having someone to do it with. As a young girl, I yearned for her to prioritize me, but now I appreciate how little she depended on me, even in the last weeks of her life.

As I held her mother-of-the-bride dress, acquired from the lingerie department of Saks, I was suddenly overcome with sadness. I’d never stopped cringing, even after all these years, at the site of her standing next to me in my wedding photos, beaming in that outfit. But now I felt paralyzed about deciding which pile of clothes it belonged in. I’d defended my mother’s right to self-advocacy to the very end of her life. Her final days were what we’d all hope for: no pain and no indignities. She died at home, in her own clothes, just as she’d wanted.

Finally, after standing in the doorway of her mostly empty closet, I decided it didn’t belong in either the Goodwill or trash pile. So I brought the dress home with me and hung it in my attic next to my wedding gown, where it waits for its fate to be determined. Although we were cut from very different cloth, I loved my mother and she loved me—I realize now that we just loved differently.



Maggie Mulqueen

Maggie Mulqueen, PhD, is in private practice in Brookline, MA. She’s the author of On Our Own Terms: Redefining Competence and Feminity.