by Jin Ryan
A bit of memory play about my mother
When I was little I stood in the middle of my mother's closet and breathed her scent in. When she sprayed her sweaters with perfume the smell lingered. You did not wash the sweater every time it was worn so that you didn’t shrink or discolor the fabric. Dry clean only. This left a slight fog of mom in every room of the house, but her closet was the most potent.
Estee Lauder Beautiful was her first signature scent, she wore it for more years than I could count, and underlaid it with a faint trail of Virginia Slim Menthol light 120’s. I could never explain to her the many times I got in trouble for being in her closet that I would only sit there to breathe her in. Single, or in between husbands she was rarely home. When she was married? I faded into some small background place. Not quite a ghost but not quite as visible as human either. I would stand between the sweaters hung on the closet rod and comfort myself with my mother in absentia.
Scent is a funny fickle creature. It glides away from your grasp smoke like, when you try to capture it. You can say, “My favorite smell was grandaddy's garage”, but you can never quite explain, or mimic that dry leaves, gasoline, old wood stain, empty crown victoria, sawdust smell well enough for anyone to grasp. Scent leaves you. It vanishes faster than a voice or a photo. Scent is gone and then returned suddenly, barreling at you with locomotive force in the middle of home depot. When suddenly you are surrounded by it and can’t explain why the congruence of man, and 2x4, and spilled turpentine has moved you to sudden tears.
When my mother killed herself my sister and I sat surrounded by her belongings attempting to separate out a life. Who would keep what whittled down into two plastic bins and a stack of belongings left to be carried to a dumpster. My mom was not an easy woman to love, I cannot say even now years later that she did her best. She did what she could, when not infatuated with a new man. she tried to show us love with a ferocity of lessons meant to teach us how to be women. Never leave the house without your toenails painted. Revlon red is the only true red that will look good with your skin tone as fair as you are. Your entire worth is in the fact that you are a woman. It is in your ability to keep a man happy. Keep your makeup and your game face on unless you need something and then ply the world with this guilt that I have taught you. Bathe in it, rise from it, never let go of your past.
They convinced the coroner to mark her death as a heart attack, her heart pills being the only ones she did not swallow that night. She was smiling when she died, it was my grandmothers birthday, and i can only imagine that the thought of seeing her mother again was enough to light her from the inside in a way that we had never been able too. When a woman cries wolf enough times in a life, you shut off your ears to the threat. She waited calmly, explosively, an eternity until we had done so.
Her voice was the first to go. I can remember the way she would yell “Hey baby” but not the tone of voice used to do so. I remember that she had a slight southern lilt but not the way it sounded. I remember a frenzy of tears one night when trying to find a video taken of my son in a pre-k pageant because I knew she had annoyed me by talking through the recording of it, I knew that could I lay my hands on it the voice would be unlocked again. I never did find it.
Her face was next, no one wants to admit the part where you forget the face of someone you have lost. I see her in photo’s, recognize the curl of her hair and the shape of a nose, she is as familiar to me as my own hand but if there is no photo close when I close my eyes, I no longer see her. My memory shot with holes puts a blank spot there, a morphsuit in the shape of a woman where she used to be.
Near christmas a few years after she took her life I was walking through Barnes and Noble with my partner at the time. She stood in line to pay for things while I browsed the impulse buy section near the registers. Holiday tchotchkes and ephemera meant to fill a home, a bag, a stocking hung from some picture postcard family’s mantel. I was lured by the candles and in search of one to make my house smell like a holiday. I picked one up, in a small round tin decorated with green and red ribbon, and I opened my mother.
I would never say that she smelled like Christmas, I don’t know how the company who created that wax managed to pour my mother into a tin and package her for resale. I don’t understand how to them the scent of an overpacked closet, and menthol cigarettes meant Holidays but I was brought low, in a crowded store. Her face suddenly there, spotlight bright behind my eyes, her cool hand with those red dagger nails on my cheek, her voice in my ear saying “Squirt. Come here.”
I will never be at peace with the life that we lived, or the way that she took her own. I may never outlive the survivors guilt that comes from the way she chose to leave, but I will carry with me a small red candle on every move, to every home, for all of my life, so that on occasions like today I can take the lid off lightning quick and for a second, for just that one small moment in a busy day be 6 years old and hidden in my mother's closet safe again.