My Mother’s Gowns


At some point a few months after my mother’s death I’d become edgy at home, slipping into argumentative fits followed by apology and abjection. I didn’t understand the pain and weakness in my arms. I’d been sleeping only a few hours a night, and when I slept long enough to dream, I looked down into a roofless dollhouse, the house I grew up in and couldn’t lift anyone out of: two tiny bedrooms and bathroom not to be locked; kitchen-dining-living room all one room; dim, cold garage with stairs down to the basement, where young men like my uncle Norm’s friend Mousy rented rooms beneath ours. There were hollow steps I was afraid of falling under at the halfway point, at the step that had no riser, just a dark opening for filling the oil tank beneath, where years of things had fallen to the dead bugs and dirt: a Ginny doll, a flip-flop, my brother’s favorite truck, the newborn kitten never heard from again, maybe devoured by something living down there. I wasn’t telling my husband about the dreams, or about my difficulty driving home evenings after teaching—straining to block out the thought of swerving on an overpass and sailing off. It was too self-dramatizing to say out loud. More than once after class I’d sat in my car in the parking lot, exhausted, thinking of excuses for why I would be late getting home, closing my eyes after tilting the seat far back so that colleagues walking by wouldn’t notice and wonder about me. Other times I started out, then worried I couldn’t get as far as our house, though it wasn’t much of a distance across town. I’d drive partway, then have to park along a random street to rest awhile, opening my eyes again later, unsure if I was looking at dusk or dawn. 

On a Saturday afternoon I was folding and putting away laundry, and I faintly heard Disney music from my daughter’s bedroom, which recalled old tunes my mother used to sing or play by ear on the handed-down piano, when she thought nobody was listening—“Mr. Sandman,” “Blue Moon,” “My Buddy”—and how she marveled when I learned to read notes, after starting the lessons she’d scrimped to set up for me. In this daydream, I opened my underwear drawer and stared, puzzled for a moment, then enraged at half-used bottles of shampoo and conditioner jammed in there. My daughter and her pal Beth—probably Beth’s idea—had apparently thought this a good prank. Maybe they hadn’t expected the tipped-over containers to leak milky fluid across everything, but I screamed Mia’s name, kept screaming down the hall, banging into her room, breaking the spell of the tape player’s Little Mermaid song, yelling on and on, not stopping as I saw one and then the other girl hide her eyes, even while I was horrified at my threats, the feeling of my face transforming to someone else’s—then Dan was there, having heard from his study. He was talking me slowly into the hall again, walking me back to our bedroom, suggesting I lie down for a while, saying, “I know you’ve been so tired,” then quietly closing the door behind him. I heard him go to calm the girls, find a way to explain me to them. 

I sobbed into the blanket I’d pulled over myself, unable to imagine ever leaving the room again, wanting only to be gone. Later, I woke in the dark with the memory of a game from when I was small: dragging myself across the living room carpet as if half-paralyzed, asking my mother to make me a sling, pretending my arm had been broken. Mom played along as nurse, tying my arm inside a dish towel hung around my neck, never wondering, it seemed, nor did I, what self-pitying story I was enacting—little bird dropped out of the sky, maybe. But now it was Mom who’d disappeared from her element. 

At bedtime a few nights later, Mia finally told me she didn’t want to hear me apologize anymore. She turned over beneath her sheet and quilt, facing the wall, saying good night. “I just want to sleep now,” she said. I knew every apology had been asking more than she could understand or should have to give. The streetlight outside her window cast a faint glow against the shade, and I thought of the night she was born, Dan carrying her tiny wrapped self over to the hospital window and raising the blinds to sudden snow coming down outside, seeming to quiet everything. 

Weeks after her request for no more apologies, as I was dressing, opening a drawer, coaching myself to get ready for the day, it occurred to me that as a kid I used my underwear and sock drawer to hide years of things I wanted no one, including me, to remember I had. I thought nobody would look there. Stuffed at the back of that bottom drawer were expensive gifts from Uncle Norm, like the white fur muff and stole and hat, and the zipped-up, unused manicure set, and a red-fringed cowgirl outfit; later I’d pushed back there the menstruation pamphlet handed out to girls after school and the Sermon on the Mount booklet from my friend’s church, given to me by the Baptist minister who’d said I could be saved. 



I, too, invaded my mother’s private space—who doesn’t, it’s where we come from. Before I started going to school, I found, at the back of Mom’s half of the closet she shared with Dad, two long dresses I’d never seen her wear, each hung in transparent dry-cleaners’ film, the kind now printed with warnings to be kept away from children. The two gowns were utterly unlike the practical skirts and blouses and pants Mom wore, the clothes that hung at the front. I pictured her dancing in the gowns to music I couldn’t quite hear—they seemed to have come from some other world, one dress satin, one gossamer—but when I asked Mom about them, she said Grandma Hazel had sewn them for her some years before. The longest one—light pink and drapey, stitched all over with tiny iridescent sequins, like a shimmery cirrus cloud passing across a sunset, the stars beginning to come out—must have taken Grandma’s hands countless hours to make. Those were hours and weeks of worrying about her son, Mom’s twin brother, Bud, who lay gravely ill in a Navy hospital in Japan, Mom told me, in that same winter that Mom was nominated for the Miss South Dakota pageant. Mom said she chose to withdraw from the contest in the end and never wore that gown. As the family waited for news of Bud, her father—only fifty—died of a heart attack. The other dress Mom did wear, once, a few months after losing her dad. Its deep-blue satin with squared neckline and flared skirt reaching to calf length glimmered at the center of Mom and Dad’s wedding picture, at just my height on the shelf below the wall phone where our kitchen became the dining-living room. Sometimes I’d hide in the closet between the two gowns—one light, one dark—pulling up the plastic and smoothing their different fabrics along my face, waiting for Dad’s anger over something or other to pass, or for Mom to wake from one of her long naps, while I disappeared between the gowns, imagining my mother curtseying, gliding down a winding stair in some other place and time. 

Mom’s father’s death happened the year before I was born. “Sweet man—he never raised his voice”—a characterization, every time she said it, that contained rebuke of Dad. Her brother returned, recovered, from Japan; Dad missed the homecoming celebration Mom and Grandma threw for him in Eagle Butte, where Bud and Mom had grown up. But I imagined watching there, in a cinderblock church basement, clapping with everyone else as the twins revived the jitterbug they’d won a high-school contest for. Mom was never happier, never more full of laughter than with Bud. His visits down from their parents’ farm that he took over up north were usually in the daytime, when he’d come to Pierre for supplies or a cattle auction, stopping by the house while Dad was at work or out helping his brother and father at his own parents’ farm. Bud arrived right away after the birth of my brother, Brad, whose name Mom often confused with Bud’s. Mom and Brad were just home from the hospital; Dad was still off in the Badlands at National Guard camp, where no one could get through with a call. Grandma, who’d moved in with us when I was one, opened the door to a hug from Bud, and he leaned down, ruffled my hair, then made his way quickly across the room to Mom in the rocking chair—kissing her forehead and saying hello to the baby she lifted into his arms. I never had any question about who Mom’s first love had been. Bud passed away a year before Mom. Waking from one of her last morphine dreams, looking over at the colorful patterns on the hospital wallpaper behind Brad, she said to my brother and me, “Bud’s gonna have a party; Bud’s getting ready,” then closed her eyes again.

I keep my wedding dress at the back of my closet as well, and next to it hangs the tiny velvet dress my grandmother sewed when I was a contestant. Here too, a contrast of light and dark: the intricate cream lace made by some machine somewhere, set against the dark purple outfit I loved when I was five. With its dark purple jacket and purple hand-knotted buttons, it was fashioned for the occasion, the local Little Miss Snow Queen Pageant, which a second cousin’s clothing store entered me in. On the night itself, I couldn’t wear the dress Grandma had made for me; instead I had to put on a scratchy peach extra-full-skirted thing with a stiff flower stitched at the waist—an outfit provided by Cousin Henry’s store, who wanted their dress on the stage. Theirs was too short, too pale a color for the season, with puffy short sleeves, too chilly for January in the basement of the National Guard Auditorium where we little girls sat huddled along a cold metal bench waiting for things to start, as the lady in charge came down the row with her eyeliner pencil to give us each a beauty mark on the cheek, like Marilyn Monroe’s. I remember shivery bare legs, my shiny black patent shoes swinging back and forth, the dress-sleeves’ elastic squeezing my upper arms that seemed like someone else’s arms. High, excited voices echoed up and down the shadowy hall that smelled of boot polish and dust. I stared at the posters along the wall across from us: official crests and regiment seals and hand signals communicating a code my father knew. Then the woman with her eyeliner finished the last beauty mark and hushed us all, told us to follow her up the narrow back stair. I remember wanting to be chosen by whoever was choosing, but don’t remember it happening. In the photo taken later that evening on the stage upstairs, I wear a tall cardboard crown covered with tinfoil and glitter, holding the crown with one hand as it tips sideways and looking away, not really smiling, as if puzzled at something outside the picture—though Mom would tell me many times afterward, amused by my odd expression, that what I said that night was “I’m so happy I can’t get unhappy.” Maybe, in spite of Mom’s chuckling, I knew from her that any claim to happiness, or feared threat to it, had to be kept private. Watching her, I had learned how to stay quiet when necessary, find alternative ways to speak, or else fade out. When I was small, I’d imagined that my mother’s voice hid inside the flowers she grew. She dragged hoses, cleared and coaxed countless hours in the patch north of the house, fighting parched air to nurture columbine and gladiolus, violet-veined irises and moss roses like secrets blown in from a sea she’d never seen. I loved the peonies that burst open overnight, fireworks flung from tight-fisted, ant-crawly buds. And by the back door, the yellow and red snapdragons leaning out from the siding: she’d shown me how to pinch them so they’d open like silent, fierce little mouths. 



Before I started kindergarten, as soon as I could wander, I wandered around our neighborhood—up to the end of the block, to Marcy Johnson’s house full of toys, or across the street to the wild Warner kids’, to Susan Hanson’s swing set across the other street, or down the alley to Jannie Moore’s yard, where for a while she and her older brothers created carnivals and served popcorn every week. Ours wasn’t a busy street, but it was wide, a broad expanse to a four- or five-year-old. There were no busy streets in our town except for the avenue along the State Capitol and the highway several blocks down from our house—and even the highway I crossed with my cousin Donny, who was eight the summer he walked his brother Les and me several times, with our dimes and towels, down to the city swimming pool. I marvel that my mother didn’t wonder if we’d be safe all that way, but she had grown up on a farm in Dewey County, where unknowable danger, to five-year-olds and grown-ups alike, came from weather you’d see moving across the plains miles away. She wandered with her twin brother there, and rooster-bites or skunk-sprays or coiled rattlesnakes were as likely encountered right outside the door of the house as anywhere distant. When she married and had children, Mom, in spite of where she came from, was still naive, tiny and cute. Almost every day she added to a list of words new to her, the perfect cursive letters connecting to one another, leaning toward another word yet to be discovered. Brad had arrived when I was four, and she joked to me then, bending over the arm of the rocking chair, whispering conspiratorially while Brad slept on her shoulder, “If you’d known how little I knew about babies when you were born, you’d never have come home from the hospital with me.” 

I was always looking for someone else, some other relative, maybe a big brother, someone reliable, with more authority than Mom, or even Grandma, who was often away for days at a time. Sometimes Dad’s family farm, where we went most weekends, felt safer than home; sometimes it didn’t. Donny was a cousin on Mom’s side, so he was often at our house in town, but never out at the farm outside of town—and before I started first grade, he and Les moved with their parents to Montana, so Donny was no longer a candidate for a big brother. At the farm, Uncle Norman, who still lived in his parents’ home, taught me how to whistle through a blade of grass and skip stones over the river I’d been told by Mom to stay away from; how to hold still so an animal would come near—skittish barn-kitten, squirrel, even deer. Once I crept up with him to a matted-down spot of prairie grass in the windbreak, where a doe had hidden her fawn. It lay still, hardly breathing, hardly alive, it seemed, only faintly quivering. For a moment I worried that Norman might do something cruel, but he didn’t; he just looked at me watching, then slowly stepped back away. Norm knew secrets to reveal, but I didn’t always want to be around him; I was afraid of his gripping my arms, taking me down to the dirt cellar that smelled like river-water. I learned to stay in the kitchen or garden with Grandma Elsie or Mom, or to lie inside Shep’s dog house, where nobody ever found me, my hand settling into Shep’s long fur. Sometimes I fell asleep there, as if home in bed with Grandma Hazel. 

When I began school, I found not only more older kids and grown-ups to look to, but an ordered realm wholly separate from home or farm. No wonder Brad was drawn there within a few years, even before he was old enough for school. He found the way down Erskine Street one afternoon with his little friend Junior, the two of them slipping through the gate and across the scorched playground to peer into a classroom window. As they watched kids busy in rows of desks, the teacher stepped outside to take Brad’s and Junior’s hands, bring them in and down to the office to sit and wait while the principal called Mom—maybe interrupting a valium haze, maybe after a sleepless night wondering when Dad would get home from poker and how much he might’ve won or lost. 

On the day Mom had taken me to start school, I’d asked whether she was planning to wear her high heels, so she’d look tall enough. I felt sorry for my little mother, not yet grown to adulthood, it seemed. I felt sorry in some ways for Dad and Norman too—they knew that Mom and I quietly laughed at them sometimes, over the things we had to mollify Dad about, and how it showed that Norm had barely finished school himself. But if I could’ve magically given the two of them a calmer home as kids, more sustenance, steadier upbringing, one that might’ve made them less domineering or strange, I still wouldn’t have wanted to be a classmate of theirs. 

The summer before, as Donny and Les and their folks were packing for Montana, before Les and I would begin first grade in different states, Mom and her sister Arlene and Grandma Hazel gave a birthday party for Les and me, down at Riverside Park. Some girls and boys from kindergarten and our neighborhoods came, brought by mothers who chatted and tended babies and toddlers near the picnic tables we kids scattered away from after our cake, to climb the steep slide’s ladder and swoop down, or fly back and forth on wide metal swings hung side by side. Les, who was three weeks older than me, said that before he moved away he needed to show me how to pump my legs to get sailing higher on the swings—I remember reaching the wide view over the tall cottonwoods, down to the Missouri, the feeling of inhabiting sky for a moment, and wanting that moment over and over, yet falling back, watching the others to see who could go up farthest, until someone’s chains began buckling and a mother called out for us all to slow down. Les and I tried for a while to get ourselves swinging evenly, to reach equal height together, like twins—we were almost exactly the same age, after all—feet pointing to clouds far above the blankets and presents. I confided to Les that my smallest birthday gift was the one I liked best, a tiny china treasure-chest for tiny secrets. Even if they felt big, secrets had to be tiny, I told him, maybe only said to one person. That evening I put on my new lace-trimmed birthday pajamas, then set the little chest on the dresser I shared with Grandma and placed inside it the small plastic blue fish Les had given me from his Cracker Jacks box—reminder that under the surface of the river our swings had lifted us above, beneath waves shimmering and fracturing, the catfish and walleye and bullheads knew perfectly well without being told, as Les pointed out to me, how to manage the currents we’d been warned to stay away from. 



Once I knew how to write, I wrote things down that I didn’t want to or couldn’t say. Nearly as far back as I can remember, I kept lists of what I needed to change or make up for, find a way to cancel out—maybe just a thank-you forgotten, a gate left unlatched, an opportunity taken without thinking of someone else, a stray word that might’ve wounded, or betrayed what I really felt. It strikes me now that obsessive daily listing of things gone awry may have kept other things from coming into my mind. After school I sat alone on the back step thinking through the day, watching sun fade in the grass or dim behind late haze. If it was cold I’d wait until I had the bedroom to myself, to try and think through all the hours, go over everything I’d done wrong, or might have that day. There were things I must never do again; others I mustn’t leave dangerously undone. But I knew I was forgetting things unaccounted for, moments inscrutable as frost traceries on the bedroom windows. I kept one list in the back of a school notebook, another hidden inside the back cover of the Bible with my name stamped in gold, on the lower shelf of my bedside table. Even though no one else in the family ever went to church unless it was Christmas or Easter, except Grandma now and then, I did, every week by myself, walking down Capitol Avenue and back home again. I’d been one of the minister’s pets since the first time Grandma dropped me off for Sunday School. I memorized songs and prayers from Sundays and made long inventories of resolutions to start keeping on January first, but I came to dread January, the failure that always accumulated beyond it. No list clarified what it was that most needed changing. 

Until I was twelve or thirteen, I shared a room with my grandmother, except for when she was away visiting cousins. At first, she and Brad and I had all slept in the bedroom right next to Dad and Mom’s room—our room just above the renter guys’ bedroom downstairs. Then after a few years Dad turned the garage at the other end of the house into two more rooms: a family room next to the back door and basement stairs finally closed off, with an inside door that couldn’t be locked, and a new bedroom next to the family room, for Grandma and me. Between our room and the door to the basement, the television in the family room followed our single channel’s news and dialogues and laugh tracks every night. 

Grandma and I had a three-quarter bed, and our room smelled like her powder and lotion. Her quilting and sewing projects and collection of homemade patterns crowded our space. The wall where the wide garage door had been was now transformed to double windows above a long white Formica counter with a space under it for a chair to pull up in the middle, where sometimes I did homework and sometimes Grandma’s portable sewing machine whirred. On either side of the chair we each had a set of drawers beneath the ends of the counter. Every Saturday I changed the sheets on the bed, and moved things around the countertop so that I could dust and wash it clean with dish soap, water, and a rag, then put back in their places Grandma’s and my jewelry boxes, the bottle of white sand our neighbor Eunice had brought me from New Mexico, my schoolbooks and river-smoothed stones, little porcelain treasure-chest, and Grandma’s jar of butterscotch candies, her pile of crosswords, her old china doll named Beulah. My dolls sat in a neat row on the floor. 

When Grandma set out in her little Oldsmobile to see her other children and grandchildren in Eagle Butte or Montana, I always wanted to go along, turn the knobs on the radio for her and roll down the window to rippling air, but I rarely could, because of school. Those nights I tried to leave my lists alone. Even though she knew nothing of my ritual, Grandma’s presence in the house gave me courage to go over the lists at night before she came to bed. When she was gone I knew the uncertainty about what I’d forgotten of the day would keep me awake and even more alert for any noise outside the room that felt, in the dark, far from my parents’ and Brad’s rooms. I’d try to avoid wondering what I couldn’t recall, futilely singing myself to sleep—“You Are My Sunshine” or California Dreamin’.” I’d go to school tired, lose track of things even more. But when Grandma was there I’d lie in bed thinking through the earlier hours, pretending to be dreaming when she came in and undid her corset hook by hook, took out her teeth, pulled on a nightgown, then crawled in with her transistor radio tuned low to the oldies Chicago station she could get at night, to hear the songs from when she was young. I listened too, still straining to remember what I hadn’t remembered that might need altering somehow, before another day could come. Lying on my side, my back to Grandma, feet drawn up under my nightgown, I would watch the dark curtains pulled closed above our counter, in case a set of headlights might cross with a glow, shine quick cracks of brightness around the frame of what I couldn’t see. 



My first attempt at a poem, in sixth grade, was this: “I only like my arms / from the elbows to the wrists / and my legs / from the ankles to the knees.” It came to me as if out of nowhere, meaning I didn’t know what, but it was a sentence whose sound I liked, and so wrote down and kept, with the resolution list, in my Bible on the bed stand. Now I recall it because of the painful neuropathy I’ve developed since Mom’s death, in those areas of my body, my forearms especially. After months of tests finding no clear cause, and finally a medication that helps, the pain is calming down, but while it was bad I read that pain, all pain, occurs in the brain, and that the brain sometimes holds on to pain as a self-perpetuating feedback loop, even if the source of affliction is unknown, or already gone—phantom pain being the most extreme example, agony felt in an arm or a foot that injury has taken away. Until my bout of unexplained neuropathy, I’d forgotten that early poem about my arms and legs. Except for lists, I didn’t write much as a kid; I drew more—mostly faces of girls and young women—pretty, calm, eyes large and gazing steadily, hair perfect, expressions serene, releasing me from the kitchen or classroom where I sketched, concentrating on making those girls real. They were faces without bodies I became while I created them. Eventually, without realizing what drew me to writing, I found that words could manage the same kind of disappearing. 



For a long time after Uncle Norman’s buddy Mousy stopped renting a room in our basement, having Norm over sometimes, I didn’t go downstairs anymore unless Mom or Grandma was down there too, or I was asked to fetch something from the laundry room, or had to go find my cat Tammy, who shot down there if someone left the basement door open. The guys who lived there after Mousy, after I’d started school, never bothered me, but I stayed upstairs anyway, just as out at the farm I’d stopped wandering much beyond kitchen or garden. Sometimes I asked not to go along to the farm evenings and weekends when the family went, saying I had homework, or didn’t feel well—as long as Grandma Hazel was at the house in town. 

Sixth grade was when Mom decided it would be good for me to take piano lessons, since she’d inherited Great-Grandma Insley’s old upright. It had been in the basement amid various renters’ belongings as long as I could remember, maybe set down there before the house was finished. Often when Mom was done with laundry, she went into the downstairs apartment and played for a while, when the boys were out. Music seemed to take her someplace else, maybe where she might have danced in her gowns. She played by ear, always saying she wished she could actually read music—though it seemed to me she could play anything without needing to learn, the way fish and birds simply knew how to move through water and air. But she wanted to grant her wish, and the piano in the basement, to me. 

Now, after several years of piano, Mia’s playing beautiful pieces—Bach inventions, Schumann’s Kinderszenen—she begins each one slowly, absorbing arrangement and dynamics, then gradually, day by day, mastering the whole. Hearing the patterns over and over in the evenings after school is a balm to me, as memorizing songs to sing to myself used to be on nights when Grandma Hazel was away, her radio gone with her. When Grandma was home, she slipped into bed after me, switching off the little lamp and settling in next to me, turning the radio under her pillow to the faint music—no news or ads, just old tunes—some sad, some happy, and occasional predictions of weather far away. 

On Mondays after Mrs. Ramsey’s sixth-grade class was dismissed, I rode my bike over to Mrs. Jensen’s, whose parakeet above her piano hopped up and down a miniature red ladder in its cage, occasionally ringing a bell when I put my hands in my lap to watch from my side of the bench as Mrs. Jensen explained the penciled notes she made in my piano books, for when I’d practice alone in the basement on other days after school, before the renters came home from work. 

Going down with my piano books and Mrs. Jensen’s notes to the guys’ dim apartment, I’d open the door to a cigarette smell more concentrated than Dad’s and Mom’s smoke upstairs, mixed with whatever the guys had fried themselves for dinner the night before. I made my way past newspapers and mail and strewn jackets, vinyl records left out of their sleeves, car- and girlie-magazines, baseball mitts, playing cards, a carousel of poker chips just like Dad’s—moving straight to the piano below the high narrow window, not looking toward the downstairs bedroom or bathroom I’d been inside when I was smaller—pretending that no such rooms or recollections were there to notice, carrying my piano books across and switching on the little light Mom had mounted above the keyboard, making the rest of the place disappear in afternoon shadows that grew darker as I practiced. I started with scales—one key, then the next and the next—repeating like waves until the cinderblock room vanished into nothing but sound, then moving through my pieces, resolving gradually how each was meant to go—right hand, left hand, then hands together, each melody eventually more fluid as difficult passages smoothed, until the whole carried through without stopping—no thought by then of where I was but inside the music, as in a spell of notes bestowed by Mom, a shield around the circle of light above my hands and the sounds they made, sounds that no one else could step into, tight hypnotic sphere separate from flickers of phantoms and dust and tingling, terror of basement and the cellar out at the farm and even the self playing, who was hardly there anymore—maybe never had been, never heard the words if you tell anyone, you mother could die, words dissolved by song continuing even after clicking off the light again and blinking, the music carrying on up the stairs, surprise at the face in the hall mirror who’d been forgotten, as she had in learning to swing higher than trees, erasing face, body, suffocating memory of panic and hated crotch-tingling that there had been no words to name before it was possible to distinguish real from dream, self from not-self, sunlight from shade from nightmare from yesterday or tomorrow, or what made such things take place—maybe they hadn’t—swinging above the river and what the river held inside as sky can hold birds, and might briefly hold a child, or a woman’s car veering, driving off an embankment, aiming for clouds. 


Debra Nystrom has published four books of poems, Night Sky Frequencies (Sheep Meadow Press, 2016); Bad River Road (2009) and Torn Sky (2003), both from Sarabande Books; and A Quarter Turn (Sheep Meadow Press, 1991). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Slate, The American Poetry Review, Narrative, Conjunctions, and Yale Review, among others. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Virginia.