The Color Red, My Mother, & Me

In my mind, she is always just coming in from outside. She has been spreading mulch, watering flower beds, popping weeds from the sidewalk cracks with a flathead screwdriver. It’s hot and her hair is frizzy, sticking to her neck in snaky coils. She’s wearing cut-offs and a men’s dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. No shoes — I have always thought her bare feet are elegant, tanned brown and polished in a shade of crimson I can never find at a nail salon. Maybe they don’t make it anymore, or maybe I’m remembering wrong. But when I think about my mother, what comes up first is that color red.

She is the one who taught me the red lipstick trick: that when you have it on, whatever else you’re wearing is suddenly more pulled together. My mom adds a red lip to blue jeans and an old chambray button-up and looks like a movie star on a low-key visit to a flyover state. She is effortless French girl chic by way of the American Midwest. I try to look like her when I don’t want to look like I’m trying.

Each time she visits New York City she always asks me what she should pack. I tell her to dress for comfort, to bring walking shoes and layers in case the weather changes quickly. I tell her that anything she doesn’t have she can borrow from my closet, some of which was stolen from hers.

What I should also tell her is she is the one who taught me that if I walked with my head high, it wouldn’t matter what I was wearing. What I should say is: Mom, you could not be more beautiful.

Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Kiefer.

It’s 2013 and we are in Brooklyn, popping into one little storefront after the next, picking things up and putting them down, over and over again. We are taking our time. That is a luxury. I relish the act of examining: stitches and seams, material between my fingertips, stiffened washing machine tags — I get this from my mother. Neither of us likes to shop online; it’s the tactile experience we’re after. We pet the sleeves of fur coats, like they are sleeping cats. We rub fabric against our thumbs to determine if it is cheap.

Sometimes, I see my mom searching in the mirror, a stranger to herself, trying to place her own face. Her black hair is streaked with with white, which has been true since she was my age, her early thirties, but has only recently come to the surface. For decades she colored it once a month in the basemen with a hotel shower cap on her head, ironing while waiting for the timer to ding. It was my sister who convinced mom to go natural a few years back. Now strangers stop her on street to gush about her hair. She was worried about looking old, but the truth is, she only looks lovelier and more brave.

My mother and I could browse for hours, a square foot at a time, never hurrying one another along, and be just fine. We share things we think the other will like, a continuation of a ritual we’ve been enacting since I was a kid, when we’d spend Saturdays stopping off at garage sales.

Garage sailing, as I thought of it then, was a land voyage made by station wagon. This was long enough ago that people still mended and fixed things like undone hems and broken vacuum cleaners, instead of ordering something new on Amazon that would arrive the next day. This is a place where people have enough extra space to think, sometimes for years, about whether or not they want to let something go.

For a nickel, a dime, or a dollar, my mom bought old metal floor fans, tin watering cans, hand-embroidered pillowcases, patio furniture, silver platters that needed a good shine up. Look at this, she’d say to me. Did you see that? I’d say back, dragging her across the yard, until we moved on to the next.

The best tag sales were the ones that refilled our dress-up box: outgrown figure skating outfits, polyester prom dresses, Halloween costumes, long silky nightgowns that looked like they had never been worn would get sold for a song, tossed into a plastic bag and then into the washing machine. Armed with a cup full of Borax and a needle and thread, mom could turn the dustiest old thing into a shimmering prize. My childhood glitters with straw she spun into gold.

But there are no bargains left in New York City, at least not in the carefully-curated shops along Bedford Avenue, and it’s getting late. As we slide into a darkened booth, I look at my mom, who is wearing a perfectly beat up ‘90s era Calvin Klein jean jacket — once hers, now mine — and the only thing we bought all day: an oversized, gorgeously textured, heavily fringed scarf. It is the deepest, darkest red, and my mom looks beautiful in the candlelight. This time, I’m pretty sure I said it out loud.

Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Kiefer.

It’s 2017 and I am home in Illinois for the first time in a long time, out in the yard with my mom and the dog, each of us carrying a cup of coffee. She gives me a tour of the flowers, pointing out the new perennials, where the tall grasses have been trimmed back, which ones attract butterflies. The summer is young enough that the chickens, babbling in their coop, are still in the awkward teenage phase, balding in some places, leaving feathers everywhere. They settle when they hear my mom pad closer. The morning is cool and a little damp under my feet. Neither one of us is wearing shoes.

The night before, we had both put on long white cotton nightgowns and headed down to the basement to go through new treasures lining the shelves. My mom visits fewer garage sales these days, though more auctions — she and my stepfather still collect old tin watering cans, and now farm equipment, too.

But she has other things to show me: a lamp shaped like a bowling pin, a full set of 1930s vintage dinner China, a mint condition collection of National Geographic magazines. She eventually finds a little white lace top, obviously handmade, with little pearl buttons and a ribbon that ties at the waist.

Put it on, she says, lifting it out of the box. I do, turning circles in the mirror, catching her reflection and my own as I go. My hair is starting to go white, strand by strand, and I think I’m just going to let it happen. I don’t know when I started looking so much like my mother, but I suddenly realize I do.

It’s perfect, she says, looking not at the top, but at my eyes, in the mirror. And I don’t say this out loud, but I should: Mom, so are you.

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