My Mother’s Dresses

Searching for the unattainable amid the comforting chaos of a bargain basement

I'VE been known of an afternoon to set off on a walk -- to clear my head, take a break from my desk -- and eventually find myself at Filene's Basement. The Basement, Boston's famous discount store, the first of its kind in the world, accommodates a peculiar mood of mine: a jumble of dreaminess, despair, and distraction. At the office such a cluttered malaise is unbearable. But at the Basement my mood seems to find its reflection in the store's carnival of disorder, and something like calm takes over.

All those piles of turtlenecks, their arms splayed like the arms of supplicants. All those unabashed bras. Two floors of racks jam-packed with motley decadence: corduroy vests, linen shirts, satin pants, velvet skirts. Bins of suede gloves, walls of straw hats. The store nearly vibrates with commotion -- elbows elbowing, purses slinging, while silently, here and there, silky shirts slip from hangers to the floor. And everything is discounted.

Filene's Basement is, after all, what it is: a bargain basement. Yet to go there and buy an iridescent emerald shirt with silver cufflinks marked down from $79.99 to $14.99 is not about acquisition, or even consumption. It is about immersing oneself in a bedlam laced with promise.

Such a place leaves little room for self-indulgent melancholy. So utterly obvious, so literally out-on-the-table, the store's offerings seem a monument to forthrightness. Even the main fitting room is blatant, a communal space crowded with half-dressed women stepping in and out of skirts, sticking arms through sleeves. Among them I feel closer to my own sex than at any other time, and I am hard-pressed not to turn to the matron beside me who is tugging at a stubborn zipper to ask if she thinks my pants fit right. Sometimes I do ask, with a warm rush of embarrassment over my surely transparent neediness (I am reduced to a motherless duckling in this room), but I am always dismayed by the reply. What I am asking for, I realize, is an echo of my mother's voice, not the opinion of a stranger.

MY mother would be chagrined to know that I feel closest to her when I'm at Filene's Basement. She was not "a shopper." She did not "like clothes." Year-round she favored a certain kind of pastel-colored cotton/polyester-blend polo shirt emblazoned over the left breast with a crestlike insignia. She had many such shirts and wore them with pleated khakis, nondescript sneakers, and a drugstore watch. The watches were forever breaking. When, as I was growing up, I would ask her to drive me down Route 1 into Boston for back-to-school shopping (we were partial to discount outlets such as Marshalls and TJ Maxx, which lined the route), she would occasionally supplement her shirt supply with one in winter navy and indulge in a new pair of khakis, but that was usually it. Her bras she cared about, but only because she needed to have a pocket sewn in one cup to hold a synthetic breast -- a smooth, jiggly pear half boasting the lifelike bump of a nipple; she'd had a mastectomy when she was forty. True to character, her underwear was a practical, modest affair -- baggy nylon balloons.

Our retreat to the fitting room was her first defeat. Basement veterans both (she had shopped there with her own mother), we were accustomed to simply parking ourselves next to a mirror amid the clothing racks and the other shoppers and trying things on in the open. We wore outfits suited to this -- slip-on shoes, and skirts under which we could pull on a pair of pants. When one of us was caught contorted in an ill-fitting garment, at risk of exposing more than mere shoulders, the other would stand with her coat spread wide as a shield.

But after my mother's second mastectomy -- she was fifty this time -- the gymnastics necessary for discreet public changing tugged at her scars. It hurt too much. So we started waiting in line with the tourists and the faint of heart, and we grew used to the averted eyes and territorial vigor that were customary in the fitting room. Neither of us much liked the new routine; changing clothes out on the open floor had been intrinsic to our Basement experience. But for her the retreat was more than distasteful; it was a capitulation. Dispirited, she would wait impatiently as I modeled yet another sweater. At the time, I couldn't see defeat in the fitting room. In fact, I viewed all those mirrors as some repeated promise, an affirmation of our familiar selves reflected twenty times over.

ONE shopping trip -- one of our last outings together, it turned out -- really seemed to gain us some ground, to give us back something stolen. For all her indifference to matters of appearance, my mother was proud, even vain, of her narrow waist, and had refused to acknowledge that the more than twenty pounds she'd gained as a side effect of her many medications was there to stay. "Oh, my pants are so tight," she'd complain. I had just finished college and was living across the country, in Oregon. "Get some new ones," I'd tell her. "No, no," she'd say.

It was Christmas, and I was home for the holidays, and I had persuaded her to drive with me down Route 1 to the Basement. I was determined to find her some clothes that would fit. I had in mind full, roomy frocks, the sort that would both flatter her new shape and feel good to wear -- bright, comfortable, feminine. I was giddy with the mission. She was graciously complying. At the Basement I gave the petite racks -- our old domain -- a wide berth and guided her toward the larger sizes. She protested, still not willing to admit that she was no longer a size 8. She seemed embarrassed even to be in this new territory, where the dresses hung from their hangers like tents.

The racks were fertile with dresses. I decided on size 12 and started pulling out dresses. There seemed to be hundreds. When I plucked one, five more would crowd into the gap. My mother stood by, silent, hands at her sides, and then, slowly, she began to warm to the game. "That one looks nice, don't you think?" she said, pointing. The pile on my arm mounted past my shoulder.

By the time we made it to the fitting room, carrying fourteen dresses between us, she was almost excited to try them on. Surely the fitting room was crowded, but I can recall only our optimistic, intimate sphere -- and who is here to dispute my memory? We had a mirror to ourselves, two hooks on which to hang the dresses, and just enough space to indulge in the ritual preening: look at the front, turn, look at the side, turn, look at the back. As she unbuttoned and wriggled out of her khakis, revealing a red crease encircling her swollen belly, and pulled her shirt gently over her head, exposing her age-old Bali bra that still managed to make her look flat-chested and girlish, even with the synthetic slip-ins, I unzipped a dress from its hanger and readied it for her. She stepped into it. I zipped her up and stood aside, and together we looked at her reflection.

Bigger, yes. Fuller, yes. But without a tight pinch to her face. For the first time in ages she looked loose and expansive, in her body and in her expression, and the dress itself was so pretty -- a blue check, reminiscent of summer picnics. She smiled. She loved it. She loved dress after dress after dress -- corduroy, cotton, velvet, wool. As she tried on one after another, winter gave way to spring, which gave way to summer, to fall, and then to winter again -- pages torn from a calendar to reveal an endless future. Through it all she stood smartly in each comfortable dress, breathing breaths that filled her body. We would never have believed that in five months' time that body's secret agenda would assert itself, and she wouldn't make it to summer.

When I returned home again, in May, most of the dresses hung in the closet unworn, tags still attached like tiny false promises.