The follow story is a guest post by Dennis Milam Bensie. Dennis is a widely published author. If you enjoyed this story, you can find more of his work at his blog: DennisMilamBensie.com. Dennis is the author of two books: One Gay American and Shorn: Toys to Men. You can pick up copies of both books over at Coffeetown Press.
Peach Polyester Pantsuit
Every Monday I sit in a circle with eight strangers. The room’s stuffy: no windows and very bad lighting. And the chairs are deathly uncomfortable.
The demographic of my grief group is an odd mix. I’ve privately nicknamed each member in my head according to their fashion sense: cowboy, lawyer, journalist, hippie, housewife, dancer, and student. I’m sure everyone has tagged me the snobby, homosexual fashion designer. It’s almost true: my clothes and a fancy degree from FIT label me. But I’m really more shy than a snob. It’s always been hard for me to share my feelings. If they only knew that I grew up on a dairy farm in Indiana.
I’m mourning the death of my mother. The group leader has helped by offering different topics and assignments that are meant to help us cope with our loss. This is our last meeting and the group’s assignment was to bring in something that belonged to our loved one.
“Who wants to do their show and tell first?” the leader asks.
I don’t want to go first, so I sit quietly and listen to presentations about a wife’s pillow; a son’s toy; and a friend’s favorite coffee mug.
My mother would get a kick out of this. She enjoyed get togethers, but I can’t say that I do. She and I loved each other like crazy but we didn’t have as much in common as we used to. But I still owe who I am to her. I wouldn’t say that we grew apart; I’d say that she allowed me to blossom. She was always there for me and taught me to be proud of who am, especially after I came out. I wouldn’t have had the guts to go into fashion if she hadn’t taught me how to sew when I was a little boy.
It’s my turn to share, I stand up and unzip my eight hundred dollar Louis Vuitton garment bag. I carefully reach in and pull out my mom’s favorite outfit: a homemade peach colored polyester double-knit pantsuit. I’m still not sure why I kept the ugly thing. Seeing the monstrosity again makes my stomach cramp a bit.
“Would you like to tell the group a little about what you brought?” the group leader asks.
It would be rude for me to say that I fucking hate this tacky, ill-made pantsuit. I pause and find better words.
“My mother wore this a lot. She bought the fabric at Wal-Mart and made it herself several years ago.”
The room’s very still.
“I offered to take her clothes shopping in the city but she wouldn’t go. I even offered to have my staff make her a whole wardrobe out of nice fabric from the garment district. She wasn’t interested.”
A woman in the group asks if she can touch it. I’m kind of weirded out by the thought that anyone would want to examine the jacket and pants. Mom was nothing more than a home sewer. She never finished her seams on anything she made and her top stitching was always crooked. I’m embarrassed by a stain that’s been on the jacket for years.
“Why didn’t you bury your mom in this pantsuit?” someone asks.
“There was no funeral. She was cremated.”
“Do you have a picture of her in the pantsuit?”
I reach into my pocket and pull out my phone and scroll to a picture of Mom and me when I took her to see her first and only Broadway play. That was a fun night. I had just moved her here so we could be together after she was diagnosed. You can only see the jacket and a little bit of the pants in the picture because she’s sitting in her wheelchair. My phone is making its way around the circle.
“She looks very happy. I can tell in the picture that she’s very proud of you.”
I explain to my group how angry the pantsuit has made me for the last several months. She wasn’t that sick when I first got her to New York City. My mother proudly wore that peach number to the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Yankee Stadium. We always had a great time, but I wanted to shake her and tell her to put on a better outfit. It was easier to get mad at her clothes than it was to be mad at her for dying. We never talked about the fact she was going to be taken away from me very soon.
I get it now. She’s was a seventy three-years-old widow who’d never even been on an airplane until she got cancer. She was free to wear whatever she wanted to wear. But as a fashion designer, it was hard for me to think: it’s just clothes.
Fair is fair. I remember her begging me a few times not to wear my Prada and Gucci into the Wal-Mart in Indiana when I came home to visit.
The group says some nice things that I can’t even process. I start to put the suit back into the garment bag and it hits me: I can smell my mom. I’ve never cleaned the pantsuit and I just got a good whiff of her that hits me hard. My mother’s scent has taken over my Louis Vuitton bag.
The grief group is over. At home alone, I put the peach polyester jacket on myself, just like her, one sleeve at a time. In some crude way, wearing it is like being hugged by my mom. It’s a genuine and beautiful moment.
It’s obvious to me that Mom’s homemade peach polyester double-knit pantsuit must always live in my Louis Vuitton garment bag. That’s exactly where it belongs.