I sit in the dining room, alone, in the dark, weeding through my youngest daughter Ella’s outgrown clothing. I wonder where she wore this orange top, and with which bottom? The brown corduroy fringed skirt? The embroidered jeans? I unfold each piece, then hold it, arms outstretched against the small stream of light filtering in through the picture window, refold and move on to the next item. With growing children, sorting through clothes is a regular task. This time, though, it feels as if I’m performing some forbidden act, best done in secret. Better done before my daughter returns home tomorrow. She’s away for the weekend visiting her father. Ella isn’t her real name, by the way, but the one I’m using here.
After my husband left, the children toted their clothing back and forth when they visited him, constantly packing and unpacking. I remember watching them as they sat beside their suitcases in the vestibule on Friday nights. Looking like little foster children about to be shuttled off to the next family willing to take them in. Until I could no longer stand it and suggested my husband buy the kids clothes to leave at his place.
For years I’ve been shipping their outgrown clothes to old friends who had unexpected twin girls. Somehow my husband must have gotten wind of my recycling project; a few minutes ago he brought Ella by to drop off the bag of outgrown clothing from his place that I’m looking through. Most of the clothes I’ve never seen Ella wear. And now I have my karmic retribution for suggesting the whole matter of separate clothes for each of our residences in the first place.
I never wanted this separation, and would have worked as long and hard as it took to try to fix things. Anything to avoid whole chunks of memories with my children that now go unaccounted for. But divorce and separation create new zones of privacy, all ripe to be invaded.
“How was your weekend at Dad’s?” I ask.
“Does his girlfriend treat you all right?”
“So what did you do?”
Nothing much. That response a weekend Ella saw “West Side Story.”
I hardly know if it’s OK to ask these questions. Whether certain parts of my children’s lives are supposed to be off-limits to me now that the family has broken up. A whole new code of political correctness to figure out and follow on my own. Frankly, I’m sick to death of reading articles about how fractured families can all get along better, the term “blended families” so often in print that I’ve forgotten what they call the other kind. You know, the ones where the mom, dad and kids all live together?
For me, the clothes I’m looking through permit a small peek into the nooks and crannies of my daughters’ secret lives. An attempt to fill in the missing pieces of our family jigsaw. Holding on to that nook is a scrap of shelter in the vast wasteland of places gone, smiles posed, bikes ridden, sleep slept, meals eaten and laughter laughed, all without me.
From time to time my mind gets carried away. Scenes of the imagined separate lives my daughters lead flash before me at times when I close my eyes at night. One time I saw Ella floating in a blue airy dress, dancing in the moonlight. In a different dream, her sister stood shyly beside her date, bulbs flashing, people chattering. There was laughter in the background. A woman’s voice, not mine, could be heard outside the frame. Waking up in cold, sweat-soaked sheets, I wondered if the web of silence that had begun to spin around all of us would one day break apart.
Looking in on this other world as I do now sorting through Ella’s clothes, however, does not always dispel my discomfort. A month after my husband left he flew to France with her. After a few days went by, I began to fantasize that he was gone for good. My daughters and I baked cookies. One night, one of Ella’s classmates and her mom came for dinner. After dessert the girls put on a dancing show in the living room, and we all clapped. Two days later, my husband dashed my hopes and left the sound of his voice on our answering machine.
“I’m on the French Riviera,” he said cheerfully. “Buying you girls presents and having a great time.” He closed by sending his love to our daughters. When I replayed the message for them, I got to feel the pain twice.
A few days later, he returned in the flesh. I smiled as the children showed me their designer loot, unable to shake the feeling that my husband’s girlfriend had hand-picked each item entering my home. My skin crawled as I adjusted the new Sonia Rykiel beret Ella insisted on wearing to school.
Here and there I come across a few items I’ve seen Ella dressed in on Monday afternoons when I pick her up in the schoolyard after she’s been with her dad for the weekend. Her once familiar yellow nightgown with the bear wearing a party hat slips out from the middle of the pile. When my husband first left, I sent along some sleepwear for the children. I hold the comfort cloth I haven’t seen in years up against my cheek. Most things, though, I’ve never seen her wear before, like the brown fringed skirt I hold up to the light next.
Just before handing me her bag of clothes a few minutes ago, Ella whisked the hair off her shoulders, unwrapped her shawl and modeled the green sheath her father bought in Paris last month. A blond curl scraped the nape of her neck as she blushed in her inimitable way, a look I often see float across her face in the unspoken understanding between us that she is indeed becoming a woman.
Last month she’d gone to Paris on vacation with her other family. She told me about her father’s plans on the walk home from school one day before she left, delicately unleashing the words.
“I always thought we’d see the ‘Mona Lisa’ together,” I confessed, immediately wanting to reel my comment back in.
“I know,” she said.
When Ella was a toddler, she became smitten with the “Mona Lisa” after seeing her portrait in a picture book we’d been reading together. For months she ran around the house calling after “Mona, Mona.” I searched high and low, found a larger-than-life-size poster, and had it framed and wrapped for Christmas when Ella was 4. It has hung in the entryway to her bedroom ever since. “It’s OK, Mom,” Ella assured me that day during our walk home. “Everything we do together is special. Sitting on the couch with you is as good as going to Paris, so it doesn’t matter if you’re not there when I see her.”
“Oh, but I’ll be with you,” I said. “Right there in your heart. Remember that the moment you see the ‘Mona Lisa.’”
“I will,” Ella promised. And she did. When she returned home, she laid a postcard of “La Gioconda” on the kitchen table between us. The flip side bore the inscription, “I love you, Mom.”
“And I won’t go to Venice without you,” Ella added. “Not if I can help it.” I’d often told her about my favorite place in the whole wide world, and how exciting it would be if we could go there together one day. In that moment, however, whether we ever made it or not became secondary. I worshiped my daughter all the more for the earnestness of a promise I knew she had no power to necessarily keep.
Two weeks after I look through the clothes, Ella’s schoolmate and her mom stop by. The girls put on a pretend fashion show. After I’d gone through the bag of outgrown clothing, something made me put them downstairs instead of mailing them right off. I hadn’t intended on having a second look, though maybe I was just fooling myself again. Anyway, the girls spy the clothes, and Ella’s friend, who is a size smaller than she is, comes upstairs modeling the orange top with the brown suede laces.
“I never got to see this on Ella,” I say to my girlfriend as I hand her the shirt to take home. “But now I’ll get to see your daughter in it at the playground.” We exchange a knowing look. My girlfriend is separated, too.
Four years come and go, and it’s Memorial Day weekend and my daughters and I have been listening to a radio countdown. “Do you love me? Now do you love me?” Ella and I ask each other as we sing along to the Contours’ 1962 hit. It’s a game we’ve played constantly over the years, singing those words back and forth to each other, Ella in her bedroom doing homework, me one flight below tending dinner at the stove. But after each stanza, we’ve always rebounded with some additional lyrics of our own — “yes, I love you.” Just as we do this weekend when I also cash in the frequent flier miles I’d been saving for nearly a decade.
Next spring, when Ella turns 16, we’ve got interlocking seats on a jet plane to Venice. Ella had a part-time job this summer and wanted to save some of her money. She thinks it will be cool for us to go shopping together in Italy for some new clothes. I think so, too.
Beverly Willett writes for national magazines and newspapers and is a contributor to the Huffington Post’s new Divorce page. Visit her website at www.beverlywillett.com.