In the back of my closet hangs a scratchy old polyester striped v-neck shirt.
I pay it little attention, but I’m aware it’s there when I lean in to get dressed for the day.
The other evening I was pulling out clothes for the donation bin, as we all do at the onset of a new year – time to clean the clutter.
Reaching in deep to get to the stuff I rarely wear, my hands brushed against it and I decided to pull it out of the closet and slipped it on, feeling soft and nostalgic and a little bit lonely.
It was my grandmother’s shirt. One I must have seen her wear hundreds of times – enough to make me want to keep it – but I can barely vision her in it now.
It didn’t look like this on her. My image of her was as hearty Czech woman, but she was tinier than I am now, because I remember this shirt – all her shirts – were much looser fitting on her.
I wore this scratchy shirt around that evening, drinking a little wine, and tidying up while listening to music and just letting myself feel the missing.
I miss the family that belonged to me.
I miss my mom.
I miss my grandmother.
I have only a handful of things of my grandmother’s – due to the way things happened when she died, I wasn’t the first one to get to go in and collect mementos. They were picked through by others before me. But I did get two precious things: this shirt, and her coffee cup, which sits in my cabinet and My Mister has been given stern warning he’s not allowed to use it.
Sitting at her kitchen table while she would ask me, “Dolly Girl, how about some tea or coffee?” And she’d put her kettle on the stove and we’d wait for the whistle.
If we were having tea, she’d make it with warm milk and sugar, and if we were having coffee, we had instant Taster’s Choice, also with milk and sugar and it was always always the perfect blend of both.
I’d listen to her stories of the olden days, or her complaints about the cost of beans, drinking them up along with the beverage. Sometimes, if it were an occasion and her sister Anna was visiting there would be boisterous stories the two of them would tell, along with my mom, and sometimes their friend Jules was also there and, Oh! how I loved being twelve and thirteen and fourteen years old and drinking milk tea and listening to those stories about playing “house” in a chicken coup, or my grandpa letting my mom unwrap all her Christmas gifts one year while my grandma was cooking down at the County Home, and then wrapping them back up so my grandma wouldn’t know.
I feel a little broken inside sometimes, with these women of my family gone, now 25 years for my mom and 11 for my grandmother.
When I go out to my childhood home, it’s just hard to reckon that this house – this house – is the one that grew a family of five, and put home-cooked meals on the table, where I exercised on that living room floor to Susan Powter screaming at me to Stop The Insanity, or lay in bed with my mom in the evenings watching “our stories” on a little 15-inch tv. The home where they hosted card games with their friends, and thousands of stuffed cabbages were made, and tomatoes were canned all summer long, and clam bakes were had every fall and summers were spent reading books on the front porch glider, wiling away the days.
It’s just so empty of all that life now. The atmosphere is missing.
I didn’t know why I took this scratchy old polyester shirt when I was eventually allowed to walk through the house and see if there was anything I’d like to have. I didn’t know why I took it, yet it’s hung in the back of my closet now for 11 years as if some part of me knew that one day I’d need to slip into some sort of physical connection.
I’d like to say I felt some magical, ethereal comfort when I slipped it on, but really I didn’t. There was no lingering scent of my grandmother attached, nothing special that would strike anyone else as a reason to keep this at all, and for anyone not knowing why it’s there, they would seriously question my fashion choices. But it was a touchstone for me – a physical reminder that sometimes you need to reach all the way back 35+ years and remember – who and where you came from, the strength and the brashness and the imperfectness and the lovingness of the women that built me.
My friend wrote a piece on grief at the beginning of the month that has stayed with me. In it she expressed the holes – the ones that remain after our loved ones leave us, are theirs and will always belong to them; but they do not remain entirely empty when we pay attention. It’s then, when we still our minds, we can hear them… see them….connect again.
I hung that scratchy old polyester shirt back in my closet, back where it belongs. With me, close enough to reach in and wrap myself in when I need a touchstone to help me pay attention and make those places inside me a little less empty.