When it finally comes time to lay them out, I can’t decide between the print with the tree silhouettes, or the flowing red with gold embroidery, shimmering and geometrical like a mosaic. These are just two among dozens, so many dazzling garments, it’s hard to choose.
As a little girl, I watched you tie your sari before parties. You tucked the folds into the waistband, not ashamed to use a safety pin. You threw a perfect fan of pleats over your shoulder. The glimmery aqua was your favorite. I knew so well the delicate swish of its satin, a sound like the wings of birds. You powdered your lipstick, blotted with tissue, and powdered again, bracing for the night ahead, trying to reinforce what might easily be rubbed away. Sharp points defined the peaks of your lips, the corners of your eyes, drawn by your artist’s hand. You’d given up clothing design to marry, yet precision inhabited everything you touched.
We didn’t speak as I watched, but this was the silence of awe, not the silence that came later. I was not yet the daughter who climbed out her window in the night to attend parties where I would carry no trays and serve no hors d’oeuvres. Not the girl who grew up, who moved away to make a life and tried not to look back. The girl who left you to fend for yourself.
From college I read your letters. How dad locked the dishes in the basement so you had to wash after every meal, took you off the joint accounts when you bought more. How you learned to start the lawnmower, and then landscaped the entire yard with the tools that weren’t locked in the shed.
Over the decades, you found a way to hold on. Buy extras when you can. Two replacements, or more, for each one thing lost or taken away. Not just one length of fabric, but a stack to hide away in the back of a closet, in case you have the time again to sew. Store used coffee grounds that could be used to make pigment in a cupboard or drawer. Cut out an interesting idea. Save. Repurpose. Stock up. Hold on to what could be made useful, or beautiful. There’s always tomorrow. Always another chance to bloom.
With each visit I made home, I watched your sharp lines fade. For so long, you resisted the slide. You stockpiled clippings, still with perfectly square corners, meticulously cut, filed by subject. Then, no longer the clippings, but the magazines themselves, first shelved neatly by date, then amassed in reused grocery bags. Then just all the mail, in stacks, in bags, in piles.
When I finally move back home, you have long outlived dad. Walls of boxes tower throughout your house. You thread your way as if through the corridors of a fortress, hands reaching out to steady you. I open windows and doors, take a week to unearth the stove.
I go through boxes for months. My school reports packed against crumbling eyeshadows, leather tools crushing broken electrical cords.
You eat home-cooked meals, have your nightgown changed every day. Finally, I tackle your room.
“I can’t watch.” You turn your eyes and roll away. Until ... “The carpet still looks good. What about that speck of lint, that pile on the desk?” There, buried under age and a lifetime of memories and unfinished plans, is the you that cries out for beauty, the ordering creation of intention, design.
We reach the closet. One-by-one, the garments come out for a view, some with tags still hanging, things you imagined wearing long after the days of hosting faculty parties were gone. Each night I hang your day’s favorite on the door, what you might wear next if you had the energy to dress.
“That’s beautiful,” you say. “I’ve never seen it before.”
“You don’t remember this?”
You reflect. “Sometimes I think it’s better I don’t remember everything.”
I make you marzipan from scratch, hang a new birdfeeder outside your window, repot the kalanchoe, reseason cast iron. Eventually, the house is like a flowerbed you laid out with everything in its place. I bring you photographs with breakfast, the arrangement of drums you collected, the paintings you made, forgotten views through windows now revealed. You smile, as if to reassure, this last push to restore order, my effort, mattered. But you don’t speak, or pat my hand. Our third silence is a simple one, camaraderie, amity.
When the moment finally comes, I can’t understand. Somehow, you: the one thing I couldn’t restore.
You wrote out all the instructions long ago, but this I forgot to ask. Which among these will you now wear? I flip through the hangers like yellowed pages, and there it is, your aqua sari, hidden at the back for years, still crisp and clear as an empty sky. Long too small, you’ll fit into this again now, with your frail limbs like wings. I hang it on the door, and tomorrow you will be swept off in its satin, to the sound of the whispers of birds.