Firsts have the benefit of self-awareness. That is to say, when we experience a First, we acknowledge, at the time, that it is a First. A first kiss, a first love, a first breakup, a first job. We have the benefit, even the power over the situation to take a step back and look at it, even somewhat objectively, and know, deep in our hearts, that it marks a momentous occasion.
I remember my First kiss. It was stolen, on Space Mountain in Disneyworld, with a boy I had just met. He was an odd but sweet boy, and when I told him it was my first kiss, he followed me around the park the rest of the day, apologizing for stealing it. Like I said. Sweet.
I remember my First love, and my First breakup, my first job, and my first despair. And I remember, during each of these times, thinking to myself that this, this was a First. I was able to mark the occasion as something special.
We do not have that same awareness with Lasts.
We may think we know a situation is a Last, but truly, do we? I remember leaving Texas, thinking to myself, “I will never see this State again.” But can I say that with certainty? Academia brings me to conferences flung near and far; certainly one will be in Texas before long.
The one Last I am certain of, however, is my Last conversation with my Mother.
It was, surprisingly, about fashion.
My mother was not the fashion lover I am. In fact, just two days ago, I packed up her clothing to bring to a senior center for charity. All of her clothes and coats and shoes fit inside of three plastic garbage bags. Back in May, before my mother died, I did some spring cleaning and brought eight—yes, eight—bags of clothes to Goodwill for donations. I assure you, I am still well-clothed and well-stocked, probably more than necessary.
I love clothes. I love clothes the way, perhaps, only a woman overweight her entire life, told by almost everyone, including the media, that she shouldn’t love clothes would love them. I have made my life’s career out of them, studying fashion of the nineteenth century, pouring over that of the twentieth and twenty-first, publishing articles on Fashion in The Hunger Games, or Fashion among the British Suffragettes, or Fashion in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Clothes make me happy, and I adore them, putting them together on myself, or, one of my favorite activities, bringing friends shopping and dressing them up. I buy special outfits for momentous occasions; just last night, I purchased my Fall 2014 First Day of School Dress. I have a closet of them by now, First Day of School Outfits. Again, another First, self-aware, planned, perfect.
The conversation with my mother was about one such momentous First, and even, Only: my 20th high-school reunion. I wanted to have a new, cute outfit to wear to the cocktail hour, and I spent one early Monday morning at the tail end of April shopping at the mall in my town in Evansville.
The situation ended up farcical. I found a gorgeous dress (swingy seventies inspired in navy blue with coral and white polka dots) as well as the perfect matching shrug (the exact shade of coral), except the shrug had no tags. It was, not surprisingly, the only one in the store, and the saleswoman spent thirty minutes trying to find its price and SKU number. I was not going to leave the mall without that shrug, and I followed her, like a puppy, throughout the store, as she went from one department to another, trying to find the appropriate information.
By the time we did, I would have bought the shrug if it cost $200, I just wanted to leave and make it to my working lunch date (it didn’t; it was $40). As I half-ran out of the mall, I thought to myself, “I need to call Mom. She’d appreciate this story.”
My mother did love stories. She was a natural storyteller, and a natural embellisher. She loved to exaggerate, to stretch the truth like taffy and taste the changes on her tongue and see the wide eyes of her rapt audience. So I remember, with such vividness that can only come because this is a true Last, walking out of the Mall, on the phone with my mother.
I don’t remember what she said. I remember her saying some version of “Oh, Lord!” when I told her my shopping ordeal. I, too, stretched a bit, the taffy story pulling against the length of time and pushing against the aggravation I felt following the saleswoman around the store. But I do remember her saying, “Take a picture of the dress and post it to Facebook so I can see it.”
Then, we said goodbye. And because this is a Last, I had no idea it would be the Last time I spoke to my mother.
How appropriate it was about fashion, my love, and entailed a story, hers. How appropriate I made her laugh, and how appropriate I remember this so vividly. It was two days later she became so ill, and by that Sunday, she was gone.
When I packed for my rushed trip home to New Orleans for what I did not realize would turn into an entire summer home, I threw the dress, still in the bag, to the side and said, “What a stupid dress.” I was angry, you see, that I had spent such an amount of time on something so ridiculous as a new dress. But then I remembered that it was my last conversation with Mom, so I grabbed the bag, turned to my friend Sunny, who was with me when I received the news, and said, “I could wear this.”
“Yes,” she said. “You could.”
And so I did. And now, that dress that was designated for my reunion (which I did wear it to) will now always be, in my mind, my Mother’s Funeral Dress. Because that was a First, the First time I wore it. Now, when I do wear it, I wear it in her memory.
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