Monday, August 9, 2010

The Marabou Shrug

I couldn't fall asleep last night. No matter how many times I went over it in my mind, I couldn't remember what I had done with the marabou shrug - and that's what kept me from falling asleep.

Just a few months earlier, like most people I suppose, I had no idea what a marabou shrug was or that one would soon come into my possession. Now that it is gone, its whereabouts have bedeviled me and filled me with guilt.

Trying to remember what I had done with it wasn't like trying to remember the lyrics of a song - or where I was the first time I smelled a smell that I had just smelled again after many years of not smelling it. It wasn't ticking through the dusty leaves of my mental Rolodex trying to bring up some long forgotten fact. The marabou shrug had come and gone recently. I had held it and then let it go. My impetuosity made me sad. I felt I had to get it back. But, of course, I couldn't get it back if I couldn't remember what I had done with it.

What was I thinking? A marabou shrug. Where would I ever find another one? And even if I did, it wouldn't be the one I had gotten rid of. And that was the only one that mattered.

I found it in a small, flat box tucked away on a shelf in her closet. The closet that was her original closet. After my brothers and I grew up and moved away, all of our closets became her closets. And then when Dad died, his closet became hers as well. But I found the box in what was her original closet, the one two rows deep with hangers. The one I can remember hiding in as a child, looking up at the belts and the scarves and the blouses while making fortresses from all her boxes of shoes.

The box I found the marabou shrug in was the type fine clothing stores used to send men's shirts home in, protected by a few sheaves of white tissue paper. A box that was almost guaranteed to make some sort of crinkling sound when opened. This was, of course, before the advent of plastic wrap.

Though the box was tucked away just next to the closet door, I doubt it had been touched, or even opened, since she moved in. That was 51 years ago. Embossed in gold on the top of the box was "Garfinkels, Chicago." Written just next to that, in pencil, in my mother's unmistakable hand, was "Marabou Shrug."

There was never any mistaking my mother's handwriting. It's been exactly the same for seventy years, maybe longer. Full of grand swirls and tiny loops, it's entirely feminine but somehow in no way frilly. Every letter was always precisely the same, whether written in the 1930s or in the 1990s. It's so uncannily consistent, it could have been a font. The typographer could have called it "Betty." I don't know why, but her capital G, the first letter of her maiden name, always reminded me of a treble clef while not looking anything like a treble clef but more like the prow of one of Columbus' ships. How did she come up with this style, unlike anything anyone was ever taught in school? She must have first spent weeks devising it and then many more practicing it over and over and over again. I asked her not long ago where the "Betty" font had come from.

"I don't know," she said.

This is the problem with not asking questions until a parent approaches her tenth decade, everything starts to fade.

"Marabou Shrug?" I wondered to myself during the brief moment between the time I found the box and the time I opened it. "What is a Marabou Shrug?"

As expected, inside the box were the layers of crinkly tissue paper now gone yellow with age. And inside them, folded as neatly as my mother's handwriting was always exact, was what? A bunch of feathers. I reached in and with two hands gently lifted up a tiny piece of clothing, smaller and shorter than the vests toreadors wear. Lined with white satin, the outside was nothing but long, white feathers stitched to the backing by the thick end of their quills.

"Oh, that's my marabou shrug," my mother said as though she had been looking for it yesterday.

"A marabou shrug," she said wistfully, as though only to herself. "Can you imagine anyone wearing one today?"

We were on day number two of going through my mother's clothes. On day one we had worked our way to the back of her closet and dealt with blouses, skirts, coats and dresses. We were about to open a second front and begin the attack on her shoes.

Mom had moved out of her house, the house I grew up in and the house she had spent 51 years in, three months earlier. She didn't go far. Just a mile or so up the street to an independent living facility called The Oaks at Menorah Park which was a new addition to what used to be called The Jewish Home for the Aged. My brothers helped her make the initial move from house to home. At the time, she took with her only those clothes she thought she would need immediately, following our advice to leave everything else at the house, taking what more she needed as she got established in her new place.

That turned out to be about twelve linear feet of clothing. Left behind, in the old house, the rest of her clothes lined another perhaps 20, maybe 30, feet.

There was her original closet with the two long crossbars for hangers plus the double shelves and the stacks of shoes that we had mainly gone through already. There was Dad's closet, much smaller, but still enough to have accommodated his several suits and dozens of wing-collar powder-blue dress shirts. There was my brothers' closet, about the same size. Then there was my closet which she had appropriated right after I left for college. Those were the closets on the second floor.

In the basement, there was another closet, that one filled with winter clothes and orphaned zip-in liners from old coats that had been given away years ago. Then there was the front hall closet, no longer accommodating the outerwear of guests, who were less and less frequent, but given over to Mom's rain coats, winter coats, various rubbery things with which to protect shoes, umbrellas, more scarves, more shawls, a few hats that hadn't been worn in years (Did my mother ever wear a beret?), a pair of crutches, a bamboo cane - the type a vaudevillian might have used in a soft-shoe act, and a plastic bag filled with those small, fold-up, plastic hair protectors that expand from the size of a credit card to that of a small geodesic dome.

And then there was the faux-cedar closet in the attic, a three bar walk-in that held the whites in winter and the wools in summer as well as outfits with sequins, boxes from B. Altman's, Lord & Taylor's, Marshall Field's, and all the now long gone department stores of my Syracuse youth; Dey Bros., Flah's, Addis's, Sibley's and even Madame Netter's, the milliner. Nearly all of Mom's outfits in the attic were protected by the flimsy plastic sheaths used by dry cleaners, many of which still had the receipts, from the 1960s and the 1970s, stapled on. In absolute ready-to-wear condition was her first lieutenant's uniform from the Second World War, complete with matching cap protector and wet-weather cape, from when she served in the Navy.

What caused Mom to hang on to all these things she would never wear again? Nostalgia? Depression-era mentality? I don't know. But unlike most women, my mother's size never varied more than a percent or two from the 115 pounds she carried on her 5' 5" frame since adolescence - so purging her closets to accommodate the ups and downs of weight gain and loss was something she never had to do.

Taken altogether her wardrobe was a like an uncurated collection that stretched from the 1930s to the 21st century and across all four floors of her home. Its arc connected nearly all the points of fashion in the last 70 years, from the natural fabrics of her youth, to the first synthetics of the fifties to the 1970s ne plus ultra of Halston's Ultra-Suede, which some day historians, together with the first moon landing, may identify as the apogee of the American Era, after which it was all downhill.

In among the hundreds of items of clothing - the dresses, belts, blouses, slacks, suits, sashes, Bermudas, flats, pumps, mules, and heels - we didn't find anything terribly outlandish. Mom's was a wardrobe defined by a childhood of going to the movies during the 1930s and by her first job out of the University of Chicago, at Warner Bros in Chicago, with everything closely tailored for the educated career girl with a svelte figure.

Mom liked bright colors - daisy yellow, farmhouse red, golf course green, glaring winter white and wore them all well. For years, the carpet in her living room was the color of a fairway in spring. Sometimes I thought she selected her clothes to go with that carpet.

After three days of trying on and taking off clothes, Mom was completely exhausted. She didn't really want to go through every item. She wanted to take every item with her. But that wasn't possible. Her apartment at The Oaks is probably 8 or 900 square feet. Her house was 2,200. And she had a full basement and a full attic. I'm sure her house had more space for storage than her apartment at The Oaks has total space.

For my part, I wanted her to try on every item and approve its retention or deaccession. In fact, I insisted on it. Weeks or months later, when I was certain she would ask, "Where's my Burberry jacket?" I wanted to be able to say, "Mom, remember, it had gotten too big for you. We agreed to get rid of it." Of course, the clothes weren't growing. Mom was shrinking. And now that she had been gently nudged out of her house, I didn't want her thinking that we were unilaterally getting rid of still more of her things.

Trying on the clothes wasn't only tiring for Mom but for all of us. For the keepers, I put up a portable rolling rack. The items that were stained, didn't fit, or eternally out of fashion went on her bed to be donated or sold.

"But I want it," Mom would plead over the tenth, fifteenth and twentieth white blouse that I had put in the donate pile.

"Mom, it's got a stain. See? And the collar is starting to fray."

"But I need it."

"Mom, you don't need it," I would say. "You have six others just like it."

I don't know exactly when it started to happen, but sometime in the past decade my mother started to buy multiples of the same item. I understood this with shoes. She wears a 10 AAAA, a "canoe" in the trade, and if the shoes fits, and you like it, you'd better buy several pairs.

But why three and four pairs of the same lace-up walking shoes? Why four, five and six of the same LeSportsac purses? Why thirty or forty white turtlenecks, all with zippers custom sewn into the back of the neck so that she could take them on and off without mussing her hair?

"What can I say?" she once told one of my brothers. "I love beautiful clothes. I always have."

But the multiples weren't of beautiful clothes. They were of everyday items. I'm going to attribute it to the Depression and the same sense of childhood loss that always had a freezer in the basement full of bread - "Just in case" - as she would say. I think she never lost the fear that one day you could have everything and the next day you could wind up with nothing.

Early on during the winnowing, we struck a bargain; Mom could keep not more than two of any of one item.

She was not happy about this.

"Robert, I need it."

"Mom, your closets at The Oaks are almost full already."

"But I need it. I want it. Please."

"Mom, we've just put two aside here and there are already two in your apartment."

"But I like it."

"I know you do, Mom. Someone else will, too."

Somehow I wish I had been more ruthless with my mother years earlier. Now, with her tired and elderly and struggling to remember things, it just didn't seem right. Her pleas made me feel like an involuntary sadist. Her clothes were one of the few obvious things that still gave her pleasure - and I was forcing her to forego even that. It had to be done, I told myself, though now, in reflection, I'm not entirely sure why.

We had Mom try on wonderfully tailored pantsuits that I couldn't remember seeing her ever wear but that Barbara Stanwyck or Katherine Hepburn could have worn straight on to the set. Some of the slacks were so long I wondered how much Mom had shrunk over the years or if maybe once she had been taller than 5' 5".

Lately Mom's been struggling to keep her weight between 95 and 100. Despite the drop of 15 or more pounds, she couldn't fit into her Navy uniform. It was too tight. "I want it anyway," she said. I didn't argue. My mother's service in the military represents, I think, one of her proudest achievements and one of the happiest times of her life. Her uniform went on the keeper rack.

For the scarves and the shawls, she sat on the edge of her old bed and nodded yes or no as Nina and I held them up for her to inspect. There wasn't one that she didn't want. They were small. They wouldn't take up much space. We didn't argue and took 50 or 60 of them out to The Oaks.

After Mom finished trying everything on, we loaded the car with the keepers and drove them out to The Oaks where we rearranged her closets - winter clothes here, summer clothes there, "nostalgia" clothes on the shelves above the racks or in zippered plastic, portable, hanging wardrobes.

Back at her old place, I went on-line and posted two ads on Craigslist/Syracuse. The first read:

Large collection of stylish, classic women's clothing from 1940 - 1995. Casual to formal to evening wear.

The second read:

Large assortment of women's shoes in sizes 9 and 10 AAA to AAAAA. Heels to mules to pumps to flats from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Both concluded with

Call Robert at (315) 436-5496 to arrange an appointment.

I waited a week. I didn't get one call. This in a world in which t-shirts, exposed midriffs, and "no-wrinkle" clothes that contain not one warp nor one weft of natural fiber represent fashion.

I got out the Yellow Pages and called the one vintage store left in Syracuse. It's owned by the girlfriend of the son of a long-term family friend. She was always out. She was always busy. I left message after message and couldn't reach her. I even called her common-law mother-in-law to ask for help. Finally, after intimating that the Salvation Army would be getting everything, she came by the house with an assistant.

They quickly let their fingers do the walking, picking out a suit here, a blouse there while flicking past 90% of what I had assumed was vintage and collectible. Quickly we realized that they weren't about to take everything as I had hoped. Or even very much at all. After half an hour of watching them overlook what I assumed were classics, I found myself selling THEM, trying to convince THEM that the things they were skipping past were indeed worth taking, the selections of a woman with a good figure and the good taste to match, someone who knew how to carry classic lines and colors while never broaching the avant garde.

Yes, it's wonderful, they would tell me. But it's not what people are buying. It won't sell. A few years ago, sure. A couple of years from now, maybe. But not right now. The shop is full. Sorry, we can't carry inventory that won't sell.

What about these? I pleaded, You've got to take these. A 1950s clutch covered in a unicorn-motif brocade with three-inch high heels to match. Can't. Won't sell. Plus who wears a 10AAAAA? What about this, an alligator bag with the clasp made from the baby alligator's head? Look, the sales tag is still inside. And the receipt. She bought it in The Bahamas. 1948. Nope. Sorry. No one's going out with that today. But it's got the matching compact inside, I insisted. Nope. Can't do it. They don't make stuff like that anymore. But it won't sell.

After two hours of rummaging through the things that had taken us three days to cull, they settled on just half a rack. They found the little back-of-the-head pin-on hat made of bright red parrot feathers that no one has worn since Jackie Kennedy left the White House irresistible. They took the lambskin stole, the one with the missing mink collar. That one was a bit tough to let go. I vaguely recall that it had been passed down from a grandmother. Someone had had "Betty" hand-embroidered into the lining.

"Does $210 sound about right?" the girlfriend of the son of the family friend asked while getting out her checkbook.

My God, I thought, some of those outfits cost more than that 20 - 30 years ago.

"I know," she said. "But they might stay on the rack for another five years. They might never sell. I'll wind up giving them away."

I took the check.

The next buyers we contacted were a mother and daughter team. They were more interested. We told them what we had. "Thirties, forties, fifties. Things in the box. Some of it never worn. Things with the tags still on them." They came right over.

Just as quickly as the first couple of buyers, they quickly flicked through the racks. They agreed that Mom had had wonderful taste. We just can't sell it they said over and over again, shaking their heads and moving on to the next hanger.

"It comes to $119. Will that be all right?" the daughter asked.

After Mom had culled her collection, after two dealers had gone through it, we were still left with 15 feet of clothes and boxes and boxes of shoes. What do we do now, I asked the mother-daughter team. I just didn't think we had reached the point where the Salvation Army was the only remaining option.

Did you call so and so, another dealer, they asked. I had - and she hadn't returned my call.

The daughter got on her cell and began to sell the third dealer who I could tell must have been just as overstocked as everyone else. Finally the daughter pulled out all the stops regarding the remnants of Mom's wardrobe. "It's very Talbot's," the daughter said over her cell. "It's very Anne Klein-ish."

The third dealer came over that evening.

"I wish you had called me six months ago," she said. But now, she explained, she was stuck in between seasons, too late for summer and too early for Christmas. She couldn't afford to take much and have it just sit on the racks.

"It comes to $85. Will that be okay?"

And what does one say to that? No? Those clothes cost thousands of dollars. Nineteen fifties dollars, nineteen sixties and seventies and eighties dollars. That outfit cost two hundred dollars when gas was selling for twenty-six cents a gallon?

No, that's not what we said. We wanted it to be done. We took the check.

The following morning Nina and I loaded my mother's car. A late-model Impala, smaller than full-size cars of old, but still with comfortable seating for six. Layer upon layer of clothes, all on hangers, many still in bags from the dry cleaners, went into the truck until it was so full the lid bounced when I tried to slam it shut. Then we filled the back seat from floor to ceiling. Dozens of pairs of shoes, all in their original boxes, filled the foot wells. Nina got in the front seat and I piled her lap so high that I couldn't see out the side window nor she out the front.

The Salvation Army in Syracuse is a wonder. A vast, K-Mart like building with glaring fluorescent lighting over what must be several thousand feet of racks. It's down on Erie Boulevard, one of America's ugliest streets. It's less than a mile away from Mom's house, at the bottom of the very steep Seeley Avenue hill. We were there in six minutes.

I supposed I expected the receiving clerk to be awed by this car full of impeccably maintained clothes. But he wasn't. Several other cars that had been just as full as ours were pulling away while still others were lining up behind.

A lot has been written by economists and others about the multi-trillion dollar windfall that Baby Boomers will inherit in the next 15 years from The Greatest Generation. I wonder if anyone has calculated the trillions of tons of stuff they will also be inheriting - and what on Earth they are going to do with it all.

Mom said she was thrilled that someone had finally helped her go through all her stuff. But I'm not so sure. Things had given her meaning, whether she used them or not. And now the things were gone.

With Nina leading the charge, we finally braced ourselves and entered the large basement room where my dad had tossed his eclectic collection of antique and modern toys, old typewriters, Edison phonographs, medical quackery, antique radios and radio tubes, his mother's household furniture and all the stuff that had once filled his office and labs at the university. I don't know if he ever truly planned to get around to it, but he died 21 years ago without ever going through anything. Since then, it all sat there, dozens and dozens of corroding batteries attesting to the benign neglect. My mother always said she wanted to deal with the basement room, but that she didn't know where to start. With Nina it was like a chapter out of "Get Things Done." She started in the far corner and over three full days worked her way to the other side of the room. The room that had once been difficult to enter was now barren.

In six weeks of ten and twelve hour days, we completely emptied the house it had taken my mother more than 50 years to fill. I still have a hard time believing it.

We donated dozens of items to the university. Hundreds more were taken away by an auctioneering house. Every Tuesday night for six weeks I dragged up to 16 garbage cans of stuff out to the curb to be thrown away. In Syracuse, every household is limited to two cans a week, so for a month and a half I parceled out our excess up and down the block in front of the households that weren't using their quota.

It was amazing how much stuff there was to be thrown away; carpet remnants, plastic hangers, metal hangers, shredded bank statements and bags and bags of cancelled checks. Out of the thousands of old checks, one fell out of the stack, like the sought after card in a magic trick. The check was made out by my Dad to Henry Cramer, the dentist, long retired, who still lived directly across the street. It was for $75 and dated 1948. I took it over to Dr. Cramer, now 89, and we both wondered why anyone had hung on to a check for nearly 60 years.

Someone directed us to Mr. Gilbert, the local ironmonger who came by with his son and hauled the chest freezer Mom had brought to Syracuse from Chicago in 1954 out of the basement. It had been broken for years and she used it to store light bulbs. He also dragged out the extra range Mom had also brought from Chicago, and which still worked but hadn't been used since a particularly large Thanksgiving dinner sometime in the 1960s. And later he came back again to take the large, broken upright freezer that stank terribly after someone had turned it off but left the door closed. How he makes any money from hauling this stuff away for free and then breaking it up for recycling, I have no idea. But he saved us the $500 others wanted to take it all away.

An "end lots" man came by to take stuff the auctioneer didn't want and the Salvation Army wouldn't take. He filled up his rusting Econo-Van twice and gave us $40. We heard he sells the stuff at weekend flea markets.

Someone else agreed to take all the old radios and phonographs and auction them for us on eBay.

The 61-year old daughter of the dentist across the street bought my brothers' childhood bunk beds and dressers. She now lives in Florida but wanted them for the three-bedroom home she recently bought in Syracuse for $37,000 so she could have a place to stay when she visits her father.

And every day for weeks I put stuff out on the curb - mattresses, broken furniture, an Encyclopaedia Britannica - that no one would buy and that no one would take. In the grand tradition, all day long passing cars would slow and sometimes stop, their owners getting out to grab a rusted lawn chair with broken weaving or the three-legged wing chair that sat unrepaired in the attic for at least 45 years.

And still we had a couple dozen bankers boxes filled with memorabilia and photos to take to The Oaks where we stacked them on the racks above Mom's clothes in the closets.

But among the thousands of items that once filled my mother's house, it was the clothes that were the most emotional. At the Salvation Army, the clerk, Nina and I began carrying armfuls inside where we found ourselves at the base of an immense mound that rose nearly to the ceiling of a large warehouse type building.

"We got a little behind at Christmas," the clerk told us.

It was late July.

With no ceremony whatsoever, the receiving clerk started throwing the clothes up as high as he could onto the mound. At the far end, other Salvation Army workers were prying clothes loose and sorting them out into the saleable and the not.

Nina and I looked at each other with disbelief. All those years of buying. All the fittings and the tailoring. The dry cleaning. The pressing and preserving. And now, like a doll discarded by a child, the clerk was simply tossing Mom's cherished clothes willy-nilly among old jeans, t-shirts, soiled winter clothes, mismatched shoes, crushed hats, random pieces of underwear and who knows what.

We stood there with our arms full.

Then we began to toss.

Like the tails of kites, the items in dry cleaning bags fluttered to the top of the heap and then slid right back to the bottom where they came to a stop in a jellyroll like lump of plastic.

It took the three of us four or five trips to the car to unload it completely. As I heaved the last item onto the pile, I thought of the final scene in "Citizen Kane," when Rosebud gets tossed into the incinerator. Meaningless to the worker, it was the kernel of Kane's psyche - as perhaps my mother's wardrobe was to her - and both wound up in a pile of rubble of no value or meaning to anyone else.

Now, several months later, it seems to me that I had pleaded with the various clothes dealers to take the marabou shrug, but that none of them wanted it. Who could fit in it? they had wondered. Who would wear it. Maybe one of the dealers did take it. I don't remember it floating up and then settling back down on the heap of castoffs at the Salvation Army.

And now that it's gone, probably forever, I want it back. And that's why I couldn't sleep last night.

In my mind's eye, I see a photograph of my mother wearing the marabou shrug when she was a Wave in the Navy, stationed in San Francisco, where she had the possibility of a dozen dates every night with sailors and soldiers on shore leave. The photo is a big 8 by 10 in black and white taken with a Speed Graphic like Weegee used and the loud "pop" of a disposable flash bulb.

In the photo, Mom is smiling broadly, men in uniform on either side of her, as they make their way into The Top of the Mark, or The Starlight Ballroom, or The Tonga Room, or Bimbo's 365, which was then at 365 Market Street and not down on lower Columbus Avenue as it is today. In the photo, Mom's posture is great. She's slender and pretty and happy. She's not made up much, a little lipstick maybe. But she didn't need to be made up because she's wearing the marabou shrug and so make-up would have been gilding the lily, as she might have said about someone else. The marabou shrug follows her shape so closely it's as though they were her feathers and not those of some poor and rather ugly and awkward African stork. With her head high and shoulders back, the marabou shrug holds her form in such a way that every man in the place must have wanted to be the one to help her slip it off and onto the back of a cocktail chair.

Four months have passed since we cleaned out Mom's house and she's probably not remembering all the things that she once had. She's probably forgotten about the marabou shrug. But I haven't. I'd like to get it back. Maybe it's on the racks at that vintage store in Syracuse.

But if it isn't, I'd like to think that somewhere in Syracuse, there is a 16 or 17 or 18 year-old high-school girl with a slender figure who stands about 5' 5" and who's thinking about her prom, imaging how wonderful her bare arms will feel as they slip along the satin lining of the marabou shrug. And that when the time comes, she will gently yet firmly pull it onto her shoulders where it will settle in a way that will lift her spirits and the heart beats of all the young men who see her. She is going to go out feeling wonderful.

I hope that she wears the marabou shrug with pride and bearing, and that it stays in her closet, and with her children, for a long, long time.

I wrote this story in December 2007. My mother died yesterday. She was 92.

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