I inherited my mother’s clothing when she died. Most of the blouses were wrinkled, the sweaters flecked with tiny moth holes. She hadn’t kept her clothing in pristine condition as others do, anticipating their departure from this world. Wealthy families install temperature-controlled walk-in closets or hire professionals to inspect their garments for pests or mould. My mother had died suddenly and so she hadn’t made the usual preparations, designating who would get her wedding dress, her favourite pair of heels, the clothing she’d worn on ordinary days. Or maybe because I was her only daughter it was obvious that I would inherit the items infused with her memories, and it would fall to me to remember her past selves from an earlier life.
I sorted the dresses and skirts bundled at the back of the closet into piles to donate and piles I planned to take with me back to Toronto. After a few hours, I’d set aside a pair of jeans, a purple blouse, and a red velvet nursing gown she’d worn in photographs, with her hair in an eighties perm. I brought the gown downstairs, but my father told me it had been passed down from a friend she’d feuded with. Any of my mother’s memories would be mixed with hers, and the resulting spectre would appear blurry at best. I didn’t want my first encounter with my mother’s memories to be tainted with resentment.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” my father said. My grandfather had died a year earlier, and my father had burned his clothing. Not everyone wanted to inherit their loved ones’ memories, and my grandfather had lived a difficult life.
“I know,” I said.
I was in high school when my Great-Aunt Olga died, and I’d snuck an old pink blouse of hers from the bag of her belongings my mother had brought home. I’d only visited Aunt Olga a handful of times in the care facility where she had spent most of her life. My mother had alluded to some tragedy in her youth, an engagement that had abruptly ended, prompting a nervous breakdown. Was it morbid curiosity or had I simply wanted to see if I could summon her? The memories were strongest with direct relations—parents, children, or siblings—but Aunt Olga had few family members. Maybe our connection was enough. In the school bathroom, I pulled the blouse over my t-shirt. I sat anxiously through class, my gaze darting to the doorway every few minutes, anticipating Olga’s arrival.
At first, I couldn’t place the dull thud. It sounded like a tree branch knocking against the window. The building was old, the same high school my mother and her mother before her had attended, and the radiators were prone to making loud clanking noises. It was my classmate who pointed to the aquariums that looked out onto the hallway. On the other side of the coral and zebrafish was a girl who looked my age, with a bobbed haircut and thick plastic frames. She was beating her forehead against the glass window again and again. I watched in horror as the thudding resounded through the classroom, our teacher frowning at the disruption.
By the time I rushed to the hallway, the spectre of my great-aunt had vanished. I changed out of the blouse, my hands shaking as I unfastened the buttons. I returned the blouse to the place where I’d found it, but the dull knocking stayed in my head for weeks.
The next day, I walked around the lake with my brother. At the migratory bird sanctuary, new signs instructed visitors to feed the waterfowl peas and dried oats instead of bread. If my mother were alive, she would have scoffed at the sign. The geese were going to eat whatever she fed them, she might have declared. My brother suggested I wear a sweater of hers to summon her and find out.
“Shouldn’t I save it for a special occasion?” I asked.
“It’s up to you,” he said. “To be honest, I find the whole thing a bit creepy.”
We paused in front of a picnic area, where a family was posing for photographs with a spectre. Videographers filmed as the family gathered around the matriarch, who flickered in and out of sight. She and her granddaughter were dressed in matching convocation gowns. It wasn’t unusual to find a camera crew following someone in ill-fitting clothing since you couldn’t predict when the visit might occur, and you might react with shock when it did. Psychologists recommended being as present as possible during the encounter, which could last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. This family had ostensibly planned ahead, with picnic blankets and coolers of food.
“Sure, they’re having a nice time,” my brother said. “But what if you catch Mom on a bad day?”
I’d heard stories of widowers dressing in their dead spouse’s clothing, only to trigger the spirit’s wrath or confusion, or lost siblings angry after seeing their younger brothers wearing their prized jerseys. Or parents, tiny socks stretched over their thumbs, horrified by the anguished images of wailing infants they were helpless to console.
My personal belief was that the kind of visit you received had to do with your state of mind. It was better to wait until the early days of grief had passed, so you wouldn’t expect too much from the encounter. More than one bride had worn her mother’s dress on her wedding day only to find herself upstaged by the ethereal image of her mother. Someone else had worn his father’s blazer as a good luck charm for his bar exam and had been greeted by the old man chastising him for not going to medical school instead.
“Are you really going to do it?” my brother asked.
“Not right away,” I said. “But one day I might want to.”
“You know it’s just an optical illusion, right?”
I’d read it was closer to a hologram, an imprint of your loved one from when they wore the item of clothing, whenever their emotions were strongest. Somehow, this moment of joy, or anger, or despair was preserved in the fibres and summoned when you wore the item.
“I just don’t want you to feel disappointed.”
I thought of the last conversation I’d had with my mother. We’d spoken over FaceTime, and the connection had been poor. The video kept breaking up. The call dropped and then I called back to say goodbye, not knowing it was the last time we’d see one another. How could her ghost bring any more disappointment than our fractured farewell?
Back at home, all that remained at the back of my mom’s closet was a heavy black garment bag, which I suspected held her wedding dress and homecoming gown. I was afraid of wearing these in public for the attention they might attract. Even though most people understood visitations were part of the grieving process, a few interactions had gone viral, and I didn’t want to come across a video of myself crying on social media, blabbering to a ghost-image of my mom.
The bag released a musty smell as I unzipped it, and a corsage crumbled in my hands. There were more dresses than I’d expected, ones she’d worn to friends’ weddings or Christmas parties. I wondered if my mother had felt young and carefree in her youth, or if she was filled with anxiety as I’d known her to be. As I examined one lace dress, I made out dark red blotches on the sleeve, as though my mother had been picking her cuticles. The blood had soaked through the thin fabric. I found similar red dots on half a dozen of the dresses. I felt a mix of panic and excitement. The presence of her DNA woven into the fibres of the clothing meant that wearing the pieces would summon a particularly evocative memory. My mother’s image would be unusually vivid, and I might even be able to speak to her. While it was frowned upon to wear a loved one’s death clothes, and police routinely confiscated clothing associated with more violent ends, many were desperate to summon any memory of their loved one, however unsettling. I didn’t think these dresses were associated with negative memories, but my father’s recollections were shaky at best.
I zipped the dresses back into the bag, hopeful that if I kept the clothing in good shape, I could summon her a dozen times or more. I was luckier than those who had lost their loved ones’ garments in flooded basements, or misplaced them in a cross-country move. It was a comfort having the items in one place, even if I never wore them.
I waited a few weeks after flying back to Toronto before I opened the garment bag. It wasn’t a special occasion; it was an ordinary day like any other. I had woken up crying and simply wanted to feel close to my mother. Ignoring my own rules, I carefully unfolded the purple blouse she had worn on her honeymoon to Hawaii, the first and only time she flew. Like the other garments, this one had been dotted with her blood.
I felt a rush of nervous excitement as I left the house, walking to a coffee shop. Maybe I should have called a friend to accompany me. What if I saw an image of my mother consumed by anxiety, crouched down on the sidewalk, chewing her cuticles? Or what if my brother was right, and I felt even more distant from her after encountering her ghost? As I made my way through the ravine, I scanned the pathway for a flickering image of a woman who resembled my mother a few decades ago. I was disappointed to see only joggers and families with strollers, yapping dogs on long leashes. As I emerged on the other side of the ravine, I became frantic over the fact that it hadn’t worked. Maybe none of the clothes would summon her.
Then, half a block ahead, I saw a woman dressed in the same blouse I was wearing. She had long brown hair, shinier than my own.
I was too afraid to call out to her. Instead, I trailed behind, watching the carefree way she brushed her fingers along the lilac branches. I admired her with the curiosity and affection of a new friend. She turned the corner, and when I reached the intersection, she was gone. I wondered if I’d done something wrong—whether I should have raced ahead to speak with her. In the cafe, I kept waiting for her to stand behind me, or ask the barista for the bathroom key, but she didn’t reappear.
I barely slept that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about the image of my mother. I woke early the next day and wore her blouse again. This time, I summoned a faded image of her at the drug store, a serene expression on her face as she flipped through the sunglasses rack, a pair clasped in each hand.
Her image flickered as I drew close, and I felt overcome with an urgent desire to tell her how much I missed her.
I called her name and she looked up at me with surprise, dropping the sunglasses. She stared at me, reaching out as though I were a fluttering bird she wanted to hold in place. I thought of the sparrow that had been trapped between the panes of my bedroom window when I was a teenager. My mother had coaxed the trembling bird into her hands, but just when she turned from the window to take it from my bedroom, the bird flew away, and our cat pounced, killing it.
As her hand passed through my sternum, a loud whirring entered my head. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, she was gone.
I walked home in a daze. Physicists maintain that spectres are only a memory of the deceased, but this had felt real. For the first time, I wondered about the experiences of those who are summoned. How did this version of my mother feel, encountering someone who resembled her, dressed in her same clothes? I couldn’t silence the nagging thought that I’d flickered in and out of focus in the same way she had, and that somehow, she’d experienced a premonition of the future, a sensation not dissimilar to déjà vu.
Back at my apartment, I changed into a t-shirt, folding the blouse back into the garment bag. The next time I wore the blouse, the image would be even more fractured. I wanted to preserve the possibility of my mother walking on the street ahead of me. Memory was a place I might find her, plucking a bough of lilacs from a branch before drawing the tiny flowers to her face and breathing in. ⁂
Cassidy McFadzean studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and fiction at Brooklyn College. She is the author of two books of poetry and a new chapbook, Third State of Being (Gaspereau Press, 2022). Her fiction has appeared in carte blanche, the Malahat Review, Prism International and Best Canadian Stories 2020.