Featured Essay   

Trousseau

by Lisa Richter

My father has collected us from our scattered lives to huddle here with him. We are in the family home, in the basement, the den of my childhood. My older sister, Lori, stands to my right, my younger sister, Lynn, to my left. We fall into position unconsciously. This is the way it's always been. In countless family photos and events we stretch our smiles, eldest to youngest, me pressed between.

He sets a deep box before us. The aged thick cardboard is embossed with a bronze hue. Paper peels at its edges; dust stripes its lid. Hutzlers, the logo says, a once glitzy Baltimore department store now defunct.

A tabletop fan whirs on a steady swing. A dull, flat light falls from the ceiling bulbs and is sucked into the concrete. The floor is thickly painted to keep the dust down. Anchor straps on the storage shelves keep the danger at bay. Bars on the window keep the bad out.

Forty years ago, this room breathed open and free. I drew highways with chalk on the then raw, unpainted floor. I created magical kingdoms from shelves left mobile. I climbed through that window, always gaping wide.

Strapped to the ceiling beams is my grandfather’s handcrafted seesaw and jungle gym, squeals of laughter memoried deep in their aged wood. Laughter once owned this basement, now gutted. The drone of the fan swells in this strange emptiness where memory pulls. My father’s drying Levis dangle from a strung clothes line, swaying in the pushed air. The A/C runs. It's early autumn, but the air feels icy. A blast from the fan catches me. I shiver.

The box waits, centered within our huddle. Mom’s box. My father taps its lid. “It's time,” he says.

I gasp as the fan pushes another blast across my skin.

My mother died in my old bedroom, four springtimes ago, bathed in the same soft light that I had known as a child. When I arrived that evening, the hospital bed had been dismantled, the drugs and syringes packed, the boxes taped over and brought downstairs, the TV moved back to the kitchen. Only the IV drip remained as a reminder of her presence, the gangly apparatus standing where my Humpty Dumpty lamp once sat.

It's how my father processes life: tidy up and move on, stick fiercely with the positive. Anyone asks, the answer is an upbeat “Can’t complain.”

“Hey, girls,” he says. “Look through this.” He taps the box again. “The last of Mom’s things. And listen, whatever you don’t want, hand it over.” He yanks his thumb in the direction of the driveway as he strides outside to the gaping mouth of the dumpster. The largest one available, it smothers the bottom of the drive. It's filling too fast. In a couple of days, the seesaw and the gym will find their way into it.

This is it. The final weekend. Right now, right here. My sisters and I are to take what we can of what remains, the rest goes. There will be no discussion. The house is sold. The car donated. Truckloads dropped off at the Catholic charity in Baltimore. Taxes paid. Lawyer notified. Inheritance discussed. My father wields a ten page checklist, and he will settle it all, so that we will not be burdened.

He will take his bed, a dresser, his Lazyboy, the family photos, and a small suitcase of clothing and check himself into a senior facility near his church, where he is a beloved elder. Six months ago, my father looked ten years younger than his age. Now he is a withered man, though his smile is still bright. His doctor has said he has a couple months left, maybe six if God allows. He is dying, too.

The tape on the side of the box is yellowed and dried. The fibers barely grab the cardboard. Lori runs her finger under the band, and it releases with a dusty pop. She lifts it slowly, then looks at me and Lynn, offering. We don’t move. She wedges the lid off. Nylon fluff, satin embroidered flowers. A gust from the fan grabs the fabric, tosses its blossoms in a flutter.

The lid slides away. Tissue, brittle and gray, wraps the contents. A card rests on top, my mother’s handwriting.

There is no stopping it now, our descent over the edge. I'm already there, in the barren blue-black where orphaned bodies float, where impressions sink in padded silence, where lungs echo with the swell and shrink of fake breaths, where pulse drags and ticks like a metronome set low, where not a whimper is allowed, not one, because that tear, that first tear, will be the end.

My father slams another item into the dumpster. His will is his strength. When my mother was moved home to die, he selflessly tended to her medication, performing a ritual of injections every two hours day and night, to ease her pain and chemically nourish her. He pushed on relentlessly, unaware that a kiss, an embrace, might have healed so much more.

My sisters and I read the card silently. My wedding trousseau, 1957. Written for us to find. I lift out the fabric, a cloudlike fairytale of full, translucent white. It smells of tired cardboard, but it is exquisite. Two pieces unfold: a negligee gown and a light cover-up. The gown’s tight bodice of woven lace falls to generous yards of sheerness. Wide lace bands flow over the shoulders. The sleeves of the cover-up poof wide, trimmed in satin with a satin tie at the neck, the same airy nylon, the same fullness. The effect is at once both angelic and daring, a holiness awed by sensuality.

Her spirit flies from the box as I hold up the gown, its wrinkles already disappearing. I lay the trousseau garments on the table.

There is a second tissue-wrapped package. Two 1950’s crinoline half-slips unfold. Lori shakes them out, and they bounce open into wide stiff skirts. There is, too, a glamorous scarf hat, also white. Its satin label reads Christian Dior, New York.

A third package contains a silk communion dress, my mother’s from 1936. The veil is included, its delicate lace disintegrating, and a pair of small white gloves with a pearl button closure. We have a photo of my mother wearing this, kneeling in the cathedral receiving communion for the first time, her eyes glistening restless, shining dark like her hair.

 The box is now empty. We stand motionless, unable to close it, or move it, waiting for my father to return and take it away.

The fan swings, its current stirring the abundance of white before us. Lynn finds a loose rosary protruding from some tissue. It slips easily into her pocket. When her son lay critically ill with leukemia at age three, word spread until the entire archdiocese of Baltimore was praying for him. The moment the oncologist gave up, Nicholas regained strength and made an inexplicable, complete recovery.  

My mother was buried on Nicholas’s birthday; my father will be buried on mine. “That makes us special, Aunt Lisa,” he will whisper to me in the approaching spring as we share a seat in a cavernous sedan, his suited young body in black.     

Lynn folds the communion dress, the veil, the gloves. She lays them in a pile behind her. These will be hers. Being touched by grace gives her the right. Lori and I nod.

Lori looks at Lynn, then me. Lori has survived a divorce and stomached already one divide of shared goods. She has learned to be selective and cautious. She lifts the crinoline skirts. “Take them,” I say. “They are perfect for you.” She smiles, relieved. “I’d like the hat, too,” Lori says, looking at Lynn. “It would mean a lot to me.” Lynn grasps the Dior and strokes its sides. She inspects the weave, smells it briefly. After a time, she returns it to the table. Lori takes her pieces, puts them aside.

The trousseau remains. I lift the sheer gown, and it swings before me, flaunting the desires of a woman alive in her skin. I imagine my mother as she once was, the woman in the photos, the electric mind in fabulous clothes laughing with friends and dancing on the boardwalk. The woman she was a lifetime ago, before the silencing began.

I want to believe that it was beautiful for her, at least those initial days of the exuberant freeing from virginity. I want to connect with that spirit, its powerful innocence, its vibrant determination. I want to unfold in its embrace.

My sisters look solemnly at me. Though they will not give up their treasures, they are sorry, sorry for me, sorry that I must retain the trousseau of that first night. It makes them uneasy, this billowing enticer, a participant in our parents’ coupling.

I don’t explain, I don’t have to. This is my right as the one silenced in the middle. I don’t tell them how thrilled I am, that it isn't exactly the gown that I want, but the energy it contains. If I can touch my mother’s essence maybe I can once again find my own truth, and through this, offer my daughter a possibility to claim hers.

 

It's evening, and I soak in a rose mint tub. A bubble hovers on my skin. I blow it a gentle puff and it is carried off perilously on an air stream. I pull a toe through the foam at the surface. A fragrant mist rises.

I step from the bath and towel dry, tapping each water droplet until it pops on my skin. I wrap my hair up high and slide the negligee over my warm shoulders. The bodice’s soft lace presses against my breasts. The fabric is forgiving, light as a joyous thought. It's true: my mother was my size once.

I slip into the cover-up letting the satin tie dangle open. The aroma of rose is rich in the soft light. “Mom,” I whisper. “Are you here?”

I spin a pirouette. The fabric lifts, the flowers dance.


 

Lisa_Richter_photo.jpgLisa Richter is a fiction writer and poet and a member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Her work has appeared in The Santa Monica Review and is forthcoming in the Squaw Valley Review, Orange Coast Review, and Unbroken. She mentors at WriteGirl, cooks when she’s not writing, and lives hilltop in Laguna Beach, California. She has a daughter and a son.

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