When I sold my deceased parents’ small rowhome in Philadelphia and moved to New York 22 years ago, I took very little with me for two reasons---one, I didn’t have much worth taking and two, I had little space available to fill my new life. My husband and I were beginning our marriage in hospital housing where he was a resident. He had already decorated the place with his leopard sofa, platform bed, kilim, and an inherited mid-Century desk. There was room for me in his heart, but not my parent’s rickety Formica kitchen table.
I knew that once I settled in New York, I would become assimilated into his family---a large, Jewish, Ivy League educated, highly bonded collection of people with no shortage of opinions or emotions. By contrast, I had two brothers, each addicted to their own brand of drugs and a widowed sister. My mother had gotten as far as fifth grade; my father, who died of alcoholic cirrhosis, was a graduate of trade school. I was ready to move on, begin a new life with nothing but a stuffed suitcase.
Still, I wanted something besides photographs by which to remember my parents. I found it in my mother’s messy bureau—a white sweatshirt, washed, worn, stained, with a tacky picture of a teddy bear under the words “I Am Loved.” She had worn it frequently after her mastectomy noting how soft it was; she wore it after chemo when her skin had felt itchy and flushed. After she died, my father, began to wear it around the house. He looked ridiculous, but I knew it was his official suit of mourning. He puttered around the house in it, sipped his beer and worked on the backyard roses. It was his way of holding on---which he could only do for a few more years.
So when the time came for me to select a single item on the day I left, I took the sweatshirt to New York and moved it from our small subsidized apartment to our larger rent-controlled one, to our brownstone where there is more than enough space. It’s folded on a shelf next to Sephora shopping bags, designer scarves, above my daughter Isabelle’s artwork. The shirt is comical to Isabelle, who was born 15 years after my mother died.
Two months ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I took the sweatshirt down and considered trying it on---just to see how comfortable it felt after the surgery. I placed it against my chest, regarded myself in the mirror and knew I didn’t have the nerve. Sentiments and comfiness aside, it was plain ugly. I then considered throwing it away, a vestige of a time past when women like my mother weren’t even offered the option of reconstruction.
I was happy in my snug jog bra and a v-neck Splendid t-shirt, grateful I had only a small incision and a guarantee of long-term survival.
I put back the sweatshirt, the teddy bear’s smile, the worn words. If I ever need it, I know where to find it.