Mourning My Mom Helped Me Find Myself

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I can only remember fragments of my mom from my childhood. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my dad raised me. Over the years, my mother’s presence was little to none. Sometimes I’d see her on weekends.

Then, when I was 13, my mom moved to Florida. I was devastated but not shocked by the sense of abandonment I felt. That 20-minute farewell in the airport would be one of the last times I’d see her until I was 23 years old, when a simple text from her came through on my phone.

“Can U call me,” the message from last June read. She was sick; she wanted me to come visit her. I swallowed the lingering resentment I felt about her missing my college graduation two months prior and let her book me a flight from Missouri.

When I showed up, she was in hospice care. It didn’t dawn on me that the trip was both a reunion and permanent goodbye. I returned home, and she passed away four days later.

When someone dies, we tend to cling to their belongings. Our hands linger on the hairbrush they used, we drive the car that was once theirs, smell their scent on the clothing they left behind. Personal items have sentimental value.

Seeing rainbow bubble gum balls at the gas station might trigger faint memories of hearing my mom chew gum; a walk through the fragrance section of any department store puts me back on our couch — suddenly I’m five years old, wrapped in her arms, taking in the lingering scent of her Issey Miyake. But the fact remains: My mother only left me with fragmented and disjointed memories about who she was, and I’ve always struggled to identify parts of her within myself. After she passed away, that struggle became even more pronounced.

“Dad, do you see any parts of my mom in me?” I asked one night. It had been a little more than a year since her passing, and we were speaking intimately of her death for the first time.

“Oh absolutely,” he said. “It’s in the way you look now that you’re older. You laugh like her, parts of your personality, and the way you dress. That’s all your mom.”

I never thought my personal style resembled hers. I had to see for myself.

One afternoon, I ventured into my grandparents’ basement searching for some sort of relief. What I found were pieces of my mother that had apparently lived in that house for as long as my grandparents. Each photo of my her, taken with a disposable camera, reawakened memories in the furthest corners of my mind.

There she was at 21, looking proud in a fur shawl and heavy costume jewelry as she graduated from cosmetology school in St. Louis. A picture of us together took me back to a graduation of my own — from pre-k. Her blond hair was cut low, and I imagine that she relaxed, bleached and dyed it all in the same day. (As a beautician I’m sure she knew better than to use so many chemicals in one sitting — but she played by her own rules.)

Looking at these photos, I saw that my mother’s personal taste was that of a 90’s fashion inspiration board — her wardrobe was never short on oversize sweaters stolen from my father, military boots, leather, peacoats, off-the-shoulder tops, or Levi’s jeans. She was all about gold herringbone necklaces, door-knocker earrings, and her pendant necklace that spelled “Mary” in cursive — she presented herself as a woman so confident, so self-assured in what she wanted, that people needed to know her name.

When I discovered the photographs, I thought I was looking for fashion inspiration. What I got was a reminder of who my mother was beyond her aesthetics. She was passionate, complicated, beautiful and ambitious — the pictures helped me remember that. And now, imitating parts of her style has ignited new confidence in me.

My mom understood that clothes did not define her, but whatever she wore oozed the confidence she displayed to the world. I am discovering that about myself these days. I notice it in the casualness of throwing on a pair of men’s jeans — and the success of pulling the look off, or the comfort of wearing fuzzy, off-the-shoulder sweaters and a herringbone necklace. It’s in wearing whatever shapes and silhouettes I want, and knowing that only I can define my femininity — just like my mom did. She wore what she liked rather than what was expected. I do too. My dad was right.

I’ve missed my mom my entire life, and in her death, I’ll miss her forever. That’s the reality of losing someone. But I’m okay with not having anything of my mom’s as a physical reminder of her. I have my style, my confidence, my sense of self. All extensions of Mary Ann Rice.

Photos courtesy of Ymani Wince.

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