I inherited many things from my mother beyond common physical traits like wavy gypsy girl hair, big brown eyes, and short legs. By osmosis alone, I adopted her wholesome idioms like the fake swears we all once made fun of: “fudge” and “sugar”—no one was allowed to cuss in our home. Eventually, I took on some of her personality traits, like her no-nonsense view of family life and her selfless habit of suffering in silence. After Dad died at sixty-five of an anticipated heart attack, Mom figured she would soon follow despite a healthy lifestyle. She started giving me her belongings: assorted jewelry, creative writings, old photos. I read her poignant short stories and poems. Apparently, she had a tough childhood I knew little about. She decided the best cure for that was making a home filled with children and love; I was the youngest. Much to our surprise, Mom outlived Dad by thirty-plus years. Meanwhile, my inheritance kept trickling in.
During one of our last visits, my mother handed me a bag full of silk scarves. She often donated castoffs to charity like belts and handbags, but never her silk scarves. I thanked her, although they seemed too dressy for me. I grew up in the casual era of cotton bandanas. When I got home, I stored the scarves in a closet. Mom died alone in a nursing home on April 16, 2020, from Covid-19. She was ninety-seven and still in possession of all her faculties. My mother got an abbreviated funeral with no friends in attendance, which were many.
Recently I rediscovered the bag of scarves and resisted the urge to toss them aside, examining each one closely. Someone had given Mom a scarf intended to keep makeup off her overcoat, though she only ever wore lipstick. The brooches Mom gave me with the jewelry assortment once held long narrow scarves below her throat, helping hide openings in her button-down blouses. Her image appeared in high school yearbooks wearing these.
Mom worked as a secretary there, witnessing eight of her nine children go through the same school system. Some of us excelled at academics, while others struggled and stumbled along. She let us sort it out for ourselves. Her youngest son, Tommy, was a special needs child from birth who stayed in a state-run hospital. I was Mom’s baby girl. We did not always get along. There was a long bitter stretch of friction between us when I could not meet her high standards, but Mom was at odds with all three of her daughters for one reason or another. Luckily, I got her stamp of approval later in life, and we became close.
Mom traveled abroad with like-minded girlfriends from work during summer school breaks. Dad took over the housework while she was away. Having already seen the world during his WWII stint in the Coast Guard, Dad was glad she had the opportunity to get out. In Italy, Mom wore a new scarf over her head when she met the Pope. She bought scarves while in Spain, Holland, and Greece. Her only previous knowledge of these places came from books. Mom was an avid reader of fiction, set in exotic locations as a means of escaping day-to-day life, although her trips abroad were far less adventurous or romantic. For one thing, she was a diehard teetotaler due to the fact that her own mother was a mean alcoholic. Also, Mom always went to bed at a “respectable” hour—no nightlife for her. Naturally, when she got her fanny pinched in Italy, it made her mad as heck.
Even Mom’s everyday scarves had interesting stories to tell. I found a photograph of my mother wearing a slimming dress and a small square scarf with the side knot, like those airline attendants wear. One scarf had a brown smudge on it. Instinctively, I knew it was chocolate. Mom struggled with her weight. Insisting we eat everything on our plates despite being full may have contributed greatly to that problem we all had—yet another inheritance. Mom’s weakness was chocolate. She tried hiding the evidence in unused car ashtrays, as if not seeing wrappers made any difference to her hips. Crumbs would inevitably fall onto her scarves.
Mom’s scarves told part of my own life story as well as hers. I wore kerchiefs over my long hair when climbing pine trees in our backyard. If enough pine pitch got in my hair, it resulted in a trip to the barbershop, not a salon. My childhood was spent as a tomboy, preferring the company of my six older brothers over that of my two older sisters. When I wasn‘t sticking worms onto fishing hooks, I wished I could customize my own muscle car.
Mom once gave me a large linen scarf for playing dress-up. Unlike other little girls who see themselves as princesses, I pretended to be an old peasant woman who collected tree buds to garnish my mud pies. I sat in my hovel, built from scraps from the trash shed to eat them. As a quirky kid I was content for hours role-playing as that peasant woman, thanks in part to a scarf.
Maturity caught up to me, I guess, since I now wear more feminine clothing. When I tie a scarf around my neck, it’s clear to me that the things I inherited from my mother are ever-present. Her face can be seen in my reflection. Her voice can be heard when I use particular phrases. I often ask myself, “What would Mom do in this situation?” Quite unexpectedly, I discovered family history waiting within a simple bag of cloth swatches, my mother’s many scarves.