A couple of months ago, I sent my friend Carlin a paddled envelope with several ragged shirts inside. I knew they would fit her, and that she would wear them. I included a note. “These belonged to my grandma. Her name is Bernice. She is 91* and living in a home.”
Since claiming several dozen of them a few years ago, I’ve outgrown a number of my Gram’s blouses. I know some hipster in a thrift shop would have appreciated the ones I sent to my pal, but I couldn’t bear to put them in a donation bag, destination unknown. I wasn’t ready to part with them yet.
I inherited the shirts by chance when my dad called one autumn with predictable news and a surprising request.
“We’re moving Gram down to CrownPointe,” he told me.
Her mind had been failing, and he’d been planning to move her into a local assisted living facility for years. Then he asked, “Do you want to come home and help go through her stuff?”
At the time, attending grad school in Boston, I lived a thousand miles away from my Indiana hometown. My father lives five minutes from Gram’s condo. Did he actually need my help? Do grandchildren typically come home for such rituals? Maybe they do, coupled with a funeral visit.
But my Gram is very much alive, if quite senile. She’s got a weird, dark sense of humor, and she’s an incredible packrat. I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
You see, I’m enamored with my grandparents. I regularly talk to my three living grandparents, including my Gram. In fact, I’m the only grandchild Gram has. She calls me Little Doll, and in a way, she helped raise me. She and my grandpa, who died when I was 18, lived in the same small town as my parents and acted as default babysitters.
Growing up, I had my own room at their house filled with mismatched dolls, comfy play clothes and makeshift bookcases from rummage sales. As a child, I spent countless afternoons sprawled on their blue shag living room rug, listening to Gram read aloud from chapter books by Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
As I got older, it was trickier to navigate my feelings for my Gram. I began reading books she found objectionable (Judy Blume) and wearing clothing that, while modest, she thought was too revealing (yoga pants). We grew apart as her wholesome values felt stifling.
When Grandpa died a few months before I left for college, our collective loss was the one thing Gram and I still shared. We longed to hear his bad jokes and his slow steady footsteps coming down the hall. We laughed and cried about his penchant for bargain shopping and his impossibly humble demeanor despite his formidable education and tenured professorship.
A decade after his death, our phone calls are often still about him. Sometimes, it seems like we’re the two people in the world who miss him the most. Our protracted grief is our common denominator.
By the time I arrived in Indiana the summer of her relocation, Gram was already adjusting to her first home sans Grandpa. She’d taken the basic necessities; someone had promised to go back for the rest of her things.
In her wake, she’d left a closet full of clothes, a pantry full of food, shelves crammed with yellowing paperbacks, and file folders brimming with sewing patterns. Under her bed, I found an entire crate of nothing but knitting needles in every imaginable color and shape.
In a move partly motivated by nostalgia and partly by thrift, I opted to sleep in her abandoned apartment as I struggled to empty it of memories, tangible and otherwise.
My grandparents, both born at the end of the Great Depression, had what might be considered hoarding tendencies by today’s reality TV standards. I armed myself with heavy-duty garbage bags and boxes to fill with items for charity and settled in.
For three days, I worked around the clock. I combed through every room in the house, sorting closets packed floor-to-ceiling with old fabric and sifting through boxes of magazines stacked eight high in the garage. I debated over what to do with 12 perfectly good Easy Spirit shoeboxes and the pumps inside them, a size too large for my small feet. I jumped whenever the phone’s noisy clang reverberated through the condo once inhabited by my hearing-impaired Gram.
At night, alone in the increasingly empty time capsule with her favorite classical radio station to keep me company, I pawed through dresser drawers. I padded around at odd hours, wearing my grandpa’s old nightshirts as I bagged up food bank donations. I put on Gram’s old bathrobe and slippers she’d always referred to as “house shoes,” trying to feel closer to her even though she was just down the street.
As I sorted her things, I started claiming stuff, too. I grabbed the pink sweater with round pearl buttons that she used to carry everywhere “in case it gets cold.” I tried on a few of her vintage slips, perfect for layering as summer skirts, and placed them gently in my carry-on. Her garish green flip flops, with enormous yellow and white plastic flowers on top, also came back east with me. I didn’t know if I’d have another chance to take a few keepsakes, and the clothes I packed would likely be worthless to anyone else.
Opening my suitcases a few days later in my Boston apartment, my stunned roommates crowded around.
“What is this stuff?” one asked, gently shaking an antique porcelain shampoo jar full of buttons. (Fair question; a TSA official had wondered the same thing.) My other roommate picked up a handful of scarves.
“Don’t you already have a lot of these?”
That wasn’t the point.
Perhaps because they were now unavoidable, taking up so much closet space, I started wearing Gram’s clothes on a regular basis. On days I felt insecure, I wore her big faded tunics because they camouflaged my shape from leering men. I wore her satin blouses to temp jobs, convinced I looked like an unemployed grad student who had raided a rack at the Salvation Army. (Then again, I was an unemployed grad student.)
When I was feeling brave and the weather was warm, I wore hand-sewn button-up shirts so old they were practically transparent. I wondered how many decades ago Gram had stopped making her own clothes, when I’d last heard the familiar clacking of her sewing machine’s pedal.
Shopping at H&M one afternoon, wearing a pink silk blouse with white polka dots and a big bow around the neck, a woman sidled up to my dressing room door.
“Did you get that shirt here?” She grinned at me in the mirror as though we shared a fashionable secret.
“No,” I said, returning the smile. “It belonged to my grandma.”
It seems like a cliché, but wearing Gram’s clothes has brought me closer to her. In a way, it also closed the circle between her, my grandpa and myself.
In high school, smitten with his wooly elbow-patched sweaters, Grandpa had given me the two he wore most often. After hauling the brown and green cardigans with me between apartments in four cities on two continents, it seemed only natural to pair them with Gram’s well-worn blouses. Add a pair of her clip-on earrings or a rhinestone brooch, and I’m ready to hit the town.
When I visited her this fall, I wore my favorite Gram shirt. She spotted it immediately but was confused.
“Why would you want to wear that old rag? It’s faded!” She let out one of her awkward trademark cackles. “You’re such a funny child!”
She may not remember that I came to visit or understand why I was wearing her hand-me-downs. But every time I pull on the brown blouse with the tiny blue flowers that she sewed by hand decades ago, I think about our long, bittersweet history and the complicated memories her clothes, now fully integrated into my wardrobe, will always conjure.
Occasionally, I get a random mid-day email from my friend Carlin. “Wearing Bernice’s shirt!”
Sometimes, I’m wearing one, too.
* Gram turned 92 since I sent her shirts to my pal. And she still doesn’t look a day over 85.