48: Clothed in Love

48: Clothed in Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Clothed in Love

Turn your wounds into wisdom.

~Oprah Winfrey

I recall sitting in my bedroom, praying for the wisdom I needed to proceed with what I had to do. I had been faced with many challenges in my 70 years, but this could prove to be the greatest. It had become clear that my mother needed more help than I was able to provide for her in her home. There was a 15-mile drive separating us—not a huge stretch, but adding that to my responsibilities with a sick husband was more than I could handle. She would have to come to live with us.

Until now, my mother had rejected the idea vociferously. The mere mention of it would result in a huge argument, leaving us at odds for days. Finally, I just crashed and said that we would no longer discuss the issue. Instead, I resolved to spend more time with my husband and visit my mother every few days instead of every day. Always in control, my mother continued to be firm in her resolve, so I was forced to be firm in mine.

There was another issue that I had to come to terms with. It was something that I hated to acknowledge, but if I expected this to work, I would have to take a look at a deeper, more serious issue. It had to do with the resentment I continued to feel toward the mother who had never shown me affirmation or praise, never a warm hug, never acknowledgment of my talents. How would I be able to welcome her, take care of her, cook for her, see to her social life, and pretend that everything between us was fine?

Finally, my mother capitulated and moved in, making it clear that she would do it her way. “I will stay in my room!” she insisted. “You can deliver my meals there, and I will come out to the living room only if I have visitors.”

“But, Mom,” I cried. “I have a beautiful sun room and deck! You can watch the snow fall and sit by the fire. You’ll love it!”

“I think I know what I love,” she responded, not budging from her position.

So the months went on until my husband succumbed to his illness. I was wrought with grief and at the same time angry that he, my best friend, left me alone with my mother. I was over 70 now, and my body was rebelling. More than the physical pain, the emotional pain was dragging me down to a level that I understood to be trouble. I made an appointment with a psychologist.

Dr. Janice and I spent months trying to unravel the reasons for my mother’s negative behavior.

“Your mother is stuck in the past,” Dr. Janice said. “She’s never had a life outside of her own environment. She won’t change. You have to change. Put aside your hurt and move along.”

“But how… ” I began. I didn’t have a chance to go on.

“Come on,” she said, “you’re smart enough to figure it out. Reasoning capacity diminishes in old age, so don’t expect your mother to suddenly understand, even if you tell her straight out how you feel.”

“So, tell me what to do!”

“Find some common ground,” she replied. “Something where you can both come together. If you really want to do this, you’ll find a way.”

I thought about her suggestion for weeks until I finally came up with an idea. Dr. Jan had said that Mom was stuck in the past. Instead of fighting her, why not join her?

I went to the attic, collected her old photo albums, and placed one on her lap. I pulled up a chair beside her. As we began, the tone of her voice became soft and mellow, full of emotion. There were tears as she spoke of her parents, her siblings, cousins, old friends, all gone now. But there was a good deal of laughter, too, as she recalled the events surrounding the faded pictures.

“Did you know that my father made moonshine?” she laughed. “The cops were always at our door, but it wasn’t to arrest him!” She turned the page. “Oh, here’s my brother, Tony. He earned a Purple Heart in the war, you know. And my sisters...”

“Tell me about them, Mom,” I said, sincerely interested, taking notes on everything she was relating to me.

Finally, we uncovered a large envelope filled with pictures of me as a child. I had never before seen this treasure. They were not casual pictures, but posed and deliberate. Each picture looked like it could have been in a magazine. The outfits—dresses, coats, hats, sweaters—were beautiful. Plain, simple lines were resplendent with inverted pleats, hand-smocking, crocheted collars, and soft gathers. I was totally shocked!

“Mom,” I said, “you always talk about how poor you and Daddy were during the Depression. How in the world could you have afforded to dress me in these clothes?”

“Well, you were my little girl. I loved you so much, and I didn’t want you to look shabby just because we had no money. At night, after you were asleep, I made clothes for you. Sometimes, I’d take apart one of my sweaters or skirts. I’d save the thread and the buttons to make dresses for you, and cut the sleeves off sweaters to make leggings. I would crochet around collars and embroider little designs. The lovely white wool coat is from the dress I wore on my honeymoon. It took a long time because I had no sewing machine and no pattern.”

“But this outfit is fur,” I said, pointing to a beautiful little jacket with matching hat.

“Oh, yes, I remember!” she said. “Before I was married, I had seen a fur coat in a store window. I loved it, so my father bought it for me as an engagement present.”

I was spellbound. Listening to those stories made me want to hear more. I went to her room daily and began noticing that her demeanor was changing. She was no longer the demanding, angry mother she had once been. She was softer now, happier.

For the eight years my mother was with me, we continued to discuss stories of her past. Sharing the trials of her life and her secret desires, I came to understand that, in her time, outward affection was a sign of weakness. She never understood that there could be a different way.

I think of my mother every day now and of how those old photos gave us a chance to be together before she died. The pictures of a little girl in long curls, dressed in high fashion, are a poignant reminder that my mother, in her own way, truly loved me.

She had given everything to me—literally the clothes off her back.

~Pam Giordano

More stories from our partners