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“The Woman Behind the Clothes” Based Upon Diane England’s Evolving Relationship with her Mother


I looked my mother up and down. “Really, you’re going to wear that?”

She smiled. “What would you prefer that I wear?”

I let out a sigh. “Well, I guess the truth is, you don’t have much else to wear, do you?” I stared at her with question marks adrift in my eyes. “Perhaps we should spend the day clothes shopping for you?”

My mother adjusted the belt on her dress. She had sewn this garment herself a few years earlier. The fact that she’d done so—even though many women still made their own clothes in the late sixties—was bothersome enough to me. But why did she insist on still making shirtwaist dresses when everyone else was wearing the A-line dress? And the shoes she was wearing had wide rounded toes when the current style was a pointed one instead.

I shook my head in disbelief as I stood there in my wool suit. “You know the saleswomen are going to turn their noses up at us, don’t you?”

“That won’t bother me,” my mother said. “I’m more interested in being comfortable. Oh, and I don’t intend to shop. I really don’t need anything.”

I opened a navy leather purse which matched my navy leather shoes. Of course, they matched my navy wool suit. Well, and I’d shortly be putting on a navy wool coat with fur at the collar and cuffs.  I perused the inside of my purse to ensure I had clean tissues to handle a runny noise on this December day. And then I looked back at my mother with raised eyebrows. “That’s only a cotton dress. Are you certain you’ll be warm enough?” Before she had a chance to answer, though, I went on, “You really should buy a wool dress or suit while we’re in the city, Mom. You could wear it when you go to concerts or plays with Dad.”

My mother stepped across the beige vinyl flooring of the family room. I could still remember her telling me years earlier that she’d selected this particular pattern because she was convinced it would do the best job of hiding dirt. Needless to say, my mother preferred spending her days doing things she found more enjoyable and interesting than cleaning. When she was standing by my side, she wrapped her arm around my waist. “I’m so sorry if I’m an embarrassment to you, my child. Unfortunately for you, I’m quite comfortable with myself.” She gave my waist a quick squeeze and added, “I hope the day arrives when you feel equally as comfortable with yourself.”

I rolled my eyes. “Meanwhile, I’ll have to contend with those snooty New York saleswomen.”

My mother released me and began to brush some of our dog’s short hairs from her dress. “Dear, they want to make you feel insecure so that you’ll purchase expensive clothing you truly don’t need. Why play into their agenda? You must learn to live life on your own terms and refuse to be the puppet of others.”

I turned my head and sucked in the warmth of my mother’s latest smile. “Okay, I hear you. And so I’m ready to have a fun day in the city with my mother. I won’t allow some saleswoman’s behavior to ruin my day.”

“That’s the attitude,” my mother replied.

I stared at the picture in my hand and compared it to one I'd set aside on my glass-topped dining room table days earlier. I realized that the eighteen-year-old me would have selected the picture on the table top for my mother’s memorial service. But the  much older me realized that the photo in my hand more accurately portrayed the woman my mother had been throughout the twenty-two years she’d lived at Kendal, the continuing care retirement community where her memorial service would be held. However, to be certain I was not making a mistake by selecting this casual picture of my mother--in shorts and sneakers standing beside her flower garden with a basket full of freshly cut flowers on her arm--I’d shown it two days earlier to her closest friend

As Mary took note of the photograph, her eyes had immediately brightened. “Yes, that's exactly how I’ll always remember your mother,” she’d said.

I slipped the photo into a manila envelope with the other materials I’d be taking to the print shop. And then I slipped on my flat shoes with their wide rounded toes. As I did so, I realized that perhaps as a young woman I’d taken to heart the saying that the clothes make the man. But clothes had certainly never made a certain woman I’d both loved and admired. Indeed, my mother had ensured that she was defined by whatever it was that she viewed as more important—such as how she treated others or by choosing to regularly embrace life positively and with exuberance. Furthermore, I could now appreciate that I was better off, too, because she'd made the decision to live this way. And might I best honor her by electing to do the same?