It was a May midafternoon when Mom called me inside to help her fold the laundry. I pretended not to hear her, because the sun was finally softly brushing the treetops after a strangely long winter, and humidity and the promise of summer vacation hung in the air, and I was spectacularly beating Henry, the boy next door, at a rudimentary game of street hockey.
Mom wasn’t a shouter. Instead she sung my name incessantly, a pleasant incantation I didn’t particularly want to hear, like when waiters chanted “happy birthday” at Chili’s or when Mom prodded me in the back to join in on the church hymns. After the fifth or sixth time she called, a prickle of irritation shot through me. I pounded the hockey stick against the tennis ball. It sailed past Henry into an old garbage bin turned on its side that we were using for a goal. He flinched but pretended it was a maneuver to swipe off his goalie mask. He said, “You should go. I gotta go eat dinner anyway,” although I suspected he was probably just annoyed about losing so bad.
I dragged the garbage bin to the side of my house, peeled off my skates, and tossed my stick aside, leaving it all in a dirty heap before entering the side door. My mom was hovering over the couch, pinching items one by one out of the laundry basket perched on the arm. I slid in the space next to her and plucked out one of my T-shirts.
“This couldn’t have waited?” I grumbled. It was only me, my mom, and my sister Taylor. It’s not like we had a convoy’s worth of laundry to tackle. “I was beating him.”
“I know,” Mom smiled. “Thought I’d give the poor boy a break.”
Mom was always sympathizing with Henry and calling him things like “the poor boy.” This bugged me because I thought my mom should’ve been proud that her daughter could beat a boy at something. And Henry definitely wasn’t poor; his parents had given my mom that old garbage bin when they bought fancy new ones that locked and had wheels.
We sorted and folded in silence for a few minutes. I was itching to go back outside, but I knew Henry was in for the night. Maybe I could go down to the park or climb the tree in my front yard. Last time, I could get about halfway up, but the next-highest branch was just out of my reach.
Mom cleared her throat suddenly. “I want you to have this,” she said. I looked at her arms, over which a pale pink dress was folded. I’d seen her wear it a few times to church. It had a rounded collar and buttons all down the front and the material felt like canvas pulled taut against an easel. My first instinct was to laugh. I couldn’t climb a tree wearing that. And my mom knew I hated pink.
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I just think you should.”
“It’s way too big for me,” I said, in the snarky way 11-year-olds think sounds smart. I held my hand out, palm facing the floor, and pressed it against the top of my head. I drew it across the air in a straight line until it landed on my mom’s bicep. “You’re like a foot taller than me. Your dress would look like a curtain if I wore it.”
“Well, then save it for when you’re older,” my mom said, holding it out to me.
“I don’t want it,” I said.
She looked dismayed, the same way she looked when I’d told her about the C-minus on my math test last week. “Okay,” she said softly, primly pressing the dress on top of her folded jeans. She started tearing up, and I was horrified. The only time I’d seen her cry was when I was 8 and my dad died. It was almost funny to see an adult cry, but it was scary because it was my mom. She had that magical ability to wipe away my tears, tell a joke, make me forget about why I was crying in the first place. I was afraid I didn’t possess the same skill. What if she kept crying, and I couldn’t make her stop?
But at least amid my fear, I’d understood why she was upset. She was possibly the only person in the world who loved Dad more than I did. This dress seemed much less serious than death; how could both of them be the only things in her life worth crying over?
She sat on the couch and patted the space next to her. “Sit down, Allison.” I did, tossing aside a balled-up pair of socks.
My sweaty hand felt foreign and small in hers, with the smooth curve of her fingers and the soft lilac paint on her nails. She took a deep breath. Cancer, she said. Earlier in the afternoon, while I was at school, she saw her doctor. I learned about World War II and she learned she had three months to live.
The first feeling flooding through me was the unfairness of it all. I was only just starting to reconcile with the loss of my dad. We were the poorest family in the neighborhood, and even though Mom tried to shield me from it, to pretend like it didn’t matter, I still felt like an outsider in my thrift-store pants surrounded by girls in mall attire. I was growing up, and out, and sideways, and I felt uncomfortable all the time. I only had one friend, but we didn’t talk on the phone about life the way best friends in the movies do; we just played street hockey. My sister was never home. And now my mom, the one constant in my life, no longer felt like she was mine — like heaven had loaned her out to the world and suddenly decided to stamp a due date on her.
“It’s okay to cry,” my mom said, smoothing back my hair as best she could. I realized I was still wearing my helmet. I wished I could bury my whole head in it.
“I don’t want to.”
“Okay,” she said, in that same quiet voice. She looked down at our hands. I wondered if she, too, saw all the differences between them. I removed mine and stood up. “I’m gonna go back outside.” She nodded.
I went out to the front yard and stood before the tree. It had only been a few weeks since I’d last tried to reach that branch, but maybe those incremental semi-inches I’d gained since then would help push me farther up. I placed my hands on the first branch, smooth from all the bark I’d picked off, and climbed, thinking about nothing, nothing but foot placements and the scent of pine and tree sap.
I reached the troublesome branch. It still looked out of reach, but I steadied myself and raised my arm anyway, slowly and carefully to keep my body in balance. When the stretch became strain, I waved my hand around, trying to catch the branch, but all I grabbed was air. I raised myself on my tiptoes as far as I could and tried again. Still air. Still not tall enough to reach the next branch. I tried again, again, again. But no matter how I maneuvered, how manically I waved my hand, how I arranged my feet, I couldn’t reach it.
I inched my way over to the trunk and punched it.
My knuckles immediately turned red with scrapes and scratches. I slid down until I was sitting on the branch. A weird animal sound came out of my mouth, a dog caught in a fence, a cat cornered by some unknown shadow lurking above it. I held my palms against my face and let the world turn dark and I cried. I didn’t know if my mom was watching me through the kitchen window like she usually did, but I sobbed, “I’m crying now! Are you happy?” anyway.
Later that night, I tiptoed out of my room and across the hall into Mom’s. I listened in the doorway for a moment until I was sure that those even, deep breaths were those of sleep. I dropped to my hands and knees, crawling around like a clumsy overgrown baby until I reached her closet. The pink dress was perched on top in the first drawer I opened, like it had been waiting for me. I snatched it and brought it back to my room. I stuck the dress on a wire hanger, then pushed it behind my church outfit and a small group of sweaters.
I’d wear it to the funeral, a cloud of cotton candy floating among a black mass. I’d bring it to my aunt’s apartment, then to my sister’s, before bringing it to my college dorm. It always hung in the back corner of the closet, an invisible, steady presence. In my darkest moments, losing my scholarship or breaking up with a boy, I’d wedge myself as far into my closet as I could and press my face into the cloth. I could smell my mother’s peony perfume, but I didn’t know whether it was ingrained in the fabric or just my imagination.
I brought it to the townhouse my husband and I purchased. In the midst of unpacking boxes, fighting over furniture, taking a vacation, having a baby — in the chaos and exhilaration of carving out a life I’d earned — the dress stayed in the back of the closet. It was forgotten like an old song once played on repeat, like a dusty box of mementos from an ex-lover: a pleasant surprise when rediscovered, but out of mind when out of sight again.
My 4-year-old daughter, Riley, bursts into the bedroom as I fold laundry. It had been divided into whites and colors, his and hers, dingy flannels and designer jeans, but now they integrate into a lavender-scented pile on my bed.
When I was younger, I’d never pictured myself living a life like this: Sun-drenched townhouse, naughty puppy, supportive husband, little kid, T-ball coach, spending my free time doing chores and reading books. I’d always associated this type of safe domesticity with my mother. I found I didn’t altogether mind it. I’d had my share of unstable, unpredictable years. I’d been the wild child, the troubled teen, the young adult putting together the pieces of my shattered life. Life was an hourglass and for years I’d been the sand struggling to climb up, against the gravity of adversity. I suddenly think of the tree in my front yard all those years back. I never had gotten to climb to the top.
“Mommy, I’m taking this, OK? For dress-up,” Riley says, holding up the dress. With all the years that have gone by, the pink has turned dusty, the white collar yellow at the edges, but one glance at it and I see my mother again. She’s wearing it at church, laughing and clapping to a song. She’s wearing it at Easter dinner, closing her eyes and saying grace. She’s wearing it at my elementary school graduation, the last time she left the house, her thin hair brushing my shoulder as she leaned down to kiss my cheek and tell me I would always make her proud. I feel a stab of guilt for forgetting about the dress, for letting these memories lay dormant. A slash of resentment that my daughter, who is more like my mother than I could have ever hoped to be, is dragging the dress around, oblivious to its significance.
“Where did you get that?”
“Over there.” She points to the closet. Suddenly, her brow furrows, the way it does when she’s worried she’s about to get in trouble.
Riley loves rules — creating them and following them. Her favorite color is rose gold and she wants to be an artist when she grows up. She is calm and centered, two extraordinarily rare traits for a 4-year-old, but especially one who is related to me. Aside from her dark hair, the crease in her cheek when she’s thinking about her next move, the way she says “two” like it rhymes with “chew,” she’s nothing like me. I couldn’t love her more.
“That’s a special dress, you know,” I say.
Her eyes widen and she looks at the dress with newfound interest. “Why?”
“It belonged to a real-life princess.”
I gather her in my lap and hold her sticky, small hand in mine, feel the pink and plump flesh in my calloused palm. I know now that even if my mother did see all the differences between her hand and mine that day, they didn’t matter to her. What mattered was that I’d held it in the first place. We were different ages, sizes, personalities, people, but we were there for each other. I grip my daughter’s hand tighter and tell her about the day I got the dress.