You’ve heard about my closet before. I’m back in here again but with a different purpose. Today is the day I clean out the clothes that belonged to Beth. It’s been four months since the funeral. The girls have gone through a few things already. They kept what they wanted. What is left behind will be disposed of how I see fit.
As I reach for the first hanger, I am aware of others who have done this before me. A few who may be doing the very same thing right now. We lost souls just got through one of the more challenging holidays. We wept a little bit. We laughed some. We starred at the floor lost in thought. And when I look at this closet, it feels like it has to be now or never. I can continue to look at her clothes every day and pretend that I don’t see them, or I can deal with it.
This is the universal passion of the widowed. The disposition of personal items. Some to keep. Some to pass along. Some to tuck away in secret places. Some offered to others who can use them. Some bound for the landfill. But all of it has to be done.
With an awkward determination, I start pulling her shirts from their hangers. Her wardrobe tells a lot about how simple of a woman she was. There are no fancy blouses with lace and frills. These are bargain shirts bought by a woman who lived for marked down prices and seconds at the thrift store.
“You wouldn’t believe the deal I found today.” She had been out treasure hunting. “I got all three of these for less than $20.”
She holds them up in front of her to show them to me. One at a time she pulls them from the plastic recycled bag that they give out at Goodwill. “What do you think about this one? This color doesn’t make me look too pale, does it?”
I show about the same level of excitement as a sleeping bloodhound.
“Well, I think they’re cute and there’s nothing wrong with them at all.”
And here they hang. One by one being pulled from their undisturbed stillness. Abandoned and forgotten shirts that no longer serve a need.
There’s a black one with a small red floral print. I remember the first day I saw it. “Did you get a new shirt?” I always tried to notice things like new clothes and haircuts. Any husband worth his salt pays attention to those kinds of details. She needs to know that her man sees her and likes what he sees.
She rolls her eyes. “Sort of. I got it two months ago. Took you long enough to notice.”
I didn’t say I was any good at it.
For this job, I have large plastic bags on hand. These are the tough ones made for collecting leaves in the fall. Not to get confused, I have sectioned off different corners of the bedroom for different purposes. Over there is the trash pile. Next to the bed is the donation-to-the-local-clothes-closet pile. And I have an undecided pile.
There are so many memories on these hangers. Here’s a sweater she bought at a gift shop on our trip to the Grand Canyon. She didn’t want to pay the money for it, but we were unprepared for it to be so cold standing along the south rim. This is high desert. It might be 80° down there on the river, but up here it was chilly enough to make her shiver and she needed some extra sleeves to stay warm.
As I get near the end of the first rack, smushed between two thick sweaters, is a red T-shirt. As soon as I took it down, I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit. This was her sorority shirt from college. Delta Theta. Her nickname stitched to the back above the shoulder blades. “Mickey,” because when she put her hair up to dry it under one of those bonnet dryers, she rolled up her waist long hair on two medium-sized Maxwell House coffee cans that sat on top of her head like Mickey Mouse ears.
I have pictures to prove it. Coffee cans. Ice-pick holes punched in the sides. On top of her head. Barefoot and bellbottoms. Early 70s, Baby!
I haven’t laid eyes on this shirt since Journey hit the charts with “Don’t Stop Believing.” I didn’t know it still existed. She weighed a whopping 105 pounds back then, with a 22” waist. This shirt reminds me of that. A Jr. High girl could fit into this thing. It goes in the undecided bag.
There seems to be a lot of red and blue in here. Red sweaters. Red prints. A red shawl. A red coat. I always bragged on her in red, which I guess had some influence on her purchase habits. But I liked her in blue, as well. When we first met, she used to wear a blue mascara, or whatever you call the stuff that goes on eyelashes and eyelids. She had this blue pull-over turtleneck sweater that matched the color of the shades around her eyes. That combination got me every time.
Look here. She kept her homecoming dress from college. Color, red. I was supposed to be her chaperone. Like an idiot, I told her the night before that it might be good for us to just “be friends” for a while. Things were getting too serious for a guy who wasn’t sure if he was done checking out his options. Being an unworthy dork, I offered to still be her escort. Being gracious and warm and kind, she let me walk her across the gym floor. And for the next 40 years, whenever she would get sideways with me, she would say to me, “Let’s just be friends for a while.” She never let me forget that I almost let her get away.
One by one, I go through every piece. Every crappy plastic hanger. Every memory.
I know now, more than ever, how much she filled up my life. Some days it feels like I didn’t appreciate her enough. Some days I can’t quit thinking about her. The old saying is true, that you don’t fully know what you have until it’s gone.
As I stand here, her clothes guiding my memories, it’s hard to distinguish between the young Beth that I dated and the Nana of my grandchildren. In my mind I see an image that converges the two. I don’t see a face that aged with time. I see my lifelong friend who is timeless. She still touches my heart like no one else.
I am keeping one item on the rack. Her wedding dress. My girls threatened me with pain if I got rid of it. Which I wasn’t going to do anyway. It was a hand-me-down dress in our family. It was our beginning. Maybe a piece of it will be “something old” on another young girl’s dress one day.
And if that happens, some lucky closet will again be full of treasured memories.