My Mother, My Mirror

A vintage-store find reminded me of how much my mom has influenced me.

Photograph courtesy of Carter Smith. Portraits by Stephen Voss. Photograph of juice by Maren Caruso/Getty Images. Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez. Photographs by Kate Warren. Creative By Design Army/Photography By Kip Dawkins/Styling By Marcie Blough. Photographs by Kip Dawkins. Ceramic elephant bookends with 22-karat-gold accents by Waylande Gregory Studios, $460 at Dalton Pratt (1742 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-3256). Photograph by Jeff Elkins Photograph by Kip Dawkins. Illustrations by Koren Shadmi.

She disappeared through a side door and returned with a small garment bag, which she unzipped slowly, like a burlesque dancer’s reveal. “Ta-da!” she said as the garment bag fell to the ground.

To call the contents of the bag a leather jacket would be an understatement. The garment on the hanger was more like a piece of high art, perfectly shrunken, seamed, and shaped, the placket encrusted with gunme al rhinestones. All the Anna Wintours in the world could not have conceived of something this tough, this delicate, this beautiful. Stepping closer, I noticed the label: Givenchy. As in Hubert de, the monsieur who put the H in haute couture.

“Is it a million dollars?” I asked, removing the jacket from its hanger and slipping it on. It certainly felt like a fortune, lined in silk, exquisitely stitched.

“It fits!” cheered my friend, clasping her hands together.

“How much?” I asked, heading to the bathroom to look in a mirror.

“For you,” said my friend, “a hundred dollars.”

A Givenchy for a Benjamin? I could definitely pull that off. I imagined all the places this jacket and I would go together, how transformed my life would be with it on my back, how velvet ropes would yield and complimentary drinks would be proffered.

And then I saw how I looked in the mirror. With my son, Leo, at home, napping on my husband’s watch, I had dashed off to the vintage store without showering or swapping my pajama bottoms for anything resembling real pants. My hair was a mess, my face an oil slick. Though I was wearing this amazing Technicolor dreamcoat, in my reflection it was merely paper on an old fish.

I slunk out of the bathroom, bumping right into Alan, the store manager, who sized me up. “You need a better bra,” he said coolly. “And for God’s sake, put on some lipstick.”

As I handed the jacket back to my friend, I didn’t hear Alan’s commentary. Instead I heard my mother’s, despite the fact that she hasn’t spoken a clear sentence in years. Across the miles from Washington to a nursing home in Connecticut, she still holds up the most powerful mirror, whether I choose to look in it or not.

Although she is still alive, at 72, she suffers from a progressive form of dementia that has robbed her of speech and, even more painful for me to witness, the ability to dress herself. For more than 40 years, as the owner of our town’s hippest fashion boutique, she told everyone within earshot how to dress—her daughter included. No longer in her trademark Love That Red nail polish and black Giorgio Armani pantsuit, she sits locked in her head and strapped into a wheelchair, most days in sweatpants. Her hair is now braided, off to one side, a look that might be convenient for the aides caring for her but that surely is doing no favors for my mother’s looks. If she could return to her right frame of mind, even for an instant, she would scream bloody murder—and then reach for her lipstick.

Now, I am essentially without a mother and all the advice, solicited or not, that this role implies. For the past four years I haven’t had her to remind me to “floof” my hair (when I don’t, I look like I have, in her words, “cradle cap”). Nor is she there to tell me not to stoop (“You’ll get a hunchback”), not to wear pale lipstick (“You’ll look like a cadaver”), and not to wear boxy shoes (“You’ll look like you have club feet”).

And since Leo came into the picture, I am painfully aware that so many of us who have children later in life are motherless at such a significant time. It’s a uniform I wear daily, even underneath the most beautiful leather jacket on earth—which my mother no doubt would have berated me for leaving behind.

On days when I want to know about my own infancy—whether I, like Leo, disliked green beans as a baby, or how old I was when I stopped napping—I think, How can I do any of this without her? It’s harder still to imagine the greater losses that result from her state of health, like how she won’t be at Leo’s wedding, as my grandmother was at mine. She won’t even have the pleasure of telling Leo stories about his mother when she was his age, the same kind of stories I had loved to hear about my own mother’s precious girlhood.

Although I’m close to my father, I don’t look to him for information. (The first and only time he was left in charge, he attempted—and failed spectacularly—to teach my brother, who was two, how to change his own diaper.) My father doesn’t remember when I took my first step or spoke my first word. And when I asked him if he remembered how old my mother was when she went through menopause, the long hallway I’m about to walk, he looked like he was going to have a coronary.

Lately I’ve been leaning on Joan, my mother’s best friend, who reminds me so much of my mother with her candidness, her bawdy sense of humor, and her bootstrap sensibility. After receiving Alan’s dry appraisal at the consignment shop, I e-mailed her and told her I was feeling a little sorry for myself. “Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together,” she wrote back, stealing a line from Elizabeth Taylor, though she may as well have been quoting my mother.

Still, for weeks I agonized over whether to buy the jacket, not having the heart to march back to the shop and purchase it. I questioned whether I deserved something so chic when I had only the stroller brigade and early-bird diners at Ruby Tuesday to impress. My fashion glory days were behind me, and there were no guarantees of what lay ahead.

Then my birthday arrived, and my husband, the patient witness to all that back-and-forth, presented me with a large box. I don’t need to tell you what was inside; what I will say is that seeing it spurred me into action. An hour later, after fixing my hair and applying some red lipstick, I slipped on the Givenchy and insisted we hit the town. It’s exactly what my mother would have done.