I have a natural aversion to wool. It’s itchy, it smells when wet (or old—boy does it), and worst of all, you wear it in winter. Ah winter … long cold nights, mold and dust, dry coughs, cracked skin … (Is my Seasonal Affective Disorder showing?) It’s not all bad, you’re thinking, and sure, I love a good crackling fire, a little hot cocoa, silver bells and the occasional boule de niege, but with sincere apologies to all the knitters, Pendleton execs, and fat furry Merinos out there, wool gives me the willies.
My mother, on the other hand, was a great fan of Cotswold and English Leicester alike, a lover of gabardine, houndstooth, tweed in all its many manifestations, a veritable wool-monger, she was. I clued in early on, during a jaunt through the British Isles when I was all of ten, to my mother’s respect for—nay love affair with—wool. In every village north of Liverpool, she scoped out the corner shop with the fisherman’s sweater in the window and the rafters draped with tartan plaids. “Turn in here!” she would cry, and my father, every joule of energy dedicated to keeping the rental car left of the centerline, would pull over with a sigh. Inside, I found I stood just about bolt-height, which is to say, no air. I breathed in wool, left and right. My eyes watered and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I scratched and wiped my nose while my mother the seamstress swooned over a length of wool crepe, imagining it as a pleated skirt, or coveted a bit of McKenzie green, dreaming the smart blazer she might wear to a ladies’ lunch back home.
She simply couldn’t resist. She bought meter after yard, reams of the stuff, not only from the Scottish and Irish shopkeepers she quickly befriended but back home, from Atlanta stores like Hancock’s, Davison’s fabric department, later Sew Magnifique, and a place called Penney’s (or was it Penny’s?) that once sat deep in the heart of Buckhead. I liked our Saturday morning visits to Penny’s. It was open and well-lit and I was able to hide happily among the silks, to breathe in the cleaner scent of the cottons while Mom sorted through her jersey knits and herringbones.
When my parents added on a family room in the mid-seventies, I guess it was only natural for my mother to have a cedar closet built into the attic space above it. Now, after having spent the last week sorting through the closet’s contents, I wonder if the family room wasn’t an excuse for that cedar closet, which is a shrine really, a temple consecrated to mom’s wooly obsession. (And I’m here to tell you the cedar is a miracle tree. Fifty plus years of fabric and moth-holes only in the single-digits.)
Sample Contents: (values approximate; wool, unless otherwise indicated) 79 skirts, mostly tea-length, some to-the-knee or maxi, 2/3 home-sewn. 37 suits (skirt and jacket, the occasional wool shell), a few Jaeger, some Chanel, more St. John’s Knits, and again, the better part home-sewn. 29 overcoats, a couple men’s styles included. 16 pair of slacks (though a closet-ahem-feminist, Mom fought the ’60s fashion overhaul to the end). 41 silk blouses (mais oui, moths eat silk for dessert), and countless–seriously, to count them would exhaust even Ebenezer Scrooge–wool remnants zipped or tied into plastic bags. These include strips and squares leftover from finished outfits, swatches brought home to be mulled over, and stacks of uncut wool, some of them color coordinated, others with notes attached that indicate Mom’s master plan. Good black flannel, she might write. Pants for Marth?–that sort of thing.
As we sorted through all this (Save for Family Distribution? Give to Goodwill? Toss in Trash?), we made sure to check pockets for forgotten treasures. Hoping for jewelry or hundred dollar bills, we found instead (see below) dozens of balled up tissues, emery boards, chalk (?), a toothbrush (??), and several notes-to-self. But we also discovered a startling number of unfinished projects, skirts and suits Mom began and stored away, thinking she’d get back to them. She was also a fan of the Re-Do. The closet thus coughed up many store-bought items with rent seams or dismantled collars, designer outfits my mother with her tailor’s eye just knew she could improve upon, if only she had world enough and time.
These unfinished pieces sadden me. I think of Mom’s last years, years filled with the stasis of the very elderly. She sat mostly, in her favorite chair in that added-on family room she came to love. She read, until her eyes went. She watched television, until her short term memory went, and along with it, her ability to logically follow a storyline, while just above her head in their cedar shrine these half-baked dresses, these cut-outs with their filmy patterns attached, awaited her expert hand. Too, I can’t help but think of my file cabinets, their drawers stuffed with poems I began then abandoned, stories, even a novel, compulsively revised but never published. I guess I’m not so different from my mother after all. And maybe it’s the process that sustains us, the joy of creating. Though we can never finish all that we start, we can sure go down trying.
My youngest son, 16, is lucky enough to be part of his high school theatre department and this year, I’ve served (sometimes kicking and screaming) as the Props Mom. As such, I work alongside the Costume Mom, whose job is gargantuan. It hit me mid-week that I should start her a stack from the Cedar Closet, and I’m happy to report she accepted every skirt and overcoat and dress I brought in. In fact, one of the leading ladies in the next production (set in the 1930s) has decided to wear one of Mom’s old ball gowns in the final scene. It’s a china blue taffeta with a tastefully plunging neck line, and a perfect fit. I think Mom would love the way she wears it.