In the spring of 2012, my mother was dying. She knew it. She looked death right in the eyes. Never one to like untucked corners, my mom was determined to “say it all” before she met her maker. In the last four months of her life, she was constantly calling me in the middle of the day with “really important life advice”— which was really code for fashion advice I needed to know before she died. She’d tell me I should write this down— “You think you’ll remember, but you won’t”— her words like an invitation. I wonder all the time if she knew I would be a writer someday.
On the surface, this advice seems trite. But on the underside of the obvious, I have found sage wisdom in the seemingly superficial. Maturity, grief, and time have revealed a softer and more metaphoric interpretation that have stayed with me a decade north of her death.
Time has this funny way of playing tricks with your memory once someone is gone. The things I thought I would remember about her are a distant memory, at best, while the innocuous and most unusual aspects of her have remained untouched.
I hope you find the literal and metaphoric meaning for your life, too, in these little pieces of advice.
1) “Sometime after 40, you’ll need a good pair of high-waisted jeans, no matter how slim your waist is.”
I was 36 at the time and could not imagine what she was prophesizing. She made me promise I would remember this one.
“Sarah, there is nothing worse than trying to outrun time,” she said with such irony it made both of us laugh and cry.
Sure enough, at 42, slim waisted and all, I heard her voice in my head and promptly bought a pair of high-waisted jeans. Turns out, time catches up with all of us eventually. No use trying to outrun time.
I know now that on the underside of this advice was her personal anthem about aging. My mom was someone who aged gracefully. She didn’t use her body to wage war on the past; she didn’t chase an outdated version of herself in order to stay youthful. She got wrinkles and gray hair and she bought the high-waisted jeans (P.S.: This was way back when high waisted jeans were not the rage. Think three fingers below the belly button at the time).
The high waisted jeans are a metaphor for the deeper message— Aging is a privilege; embrace it. Don’t hold onto outdated clothes that fit an outdated version of yourself.
Now, in my mid-forties – like a prophet from the past— I can hear my mom saying, “I told you you’d need those jeans.” Indeed, you did, Mom. Indeed, you did.
2) “Always own one pair of red shoes. Wear them like they are black.”
In the months before my mom died, she went on a cyber spending frenzy. It was not uncommon to receive three or four packages a day from her towards the end. One particular day, multiple pairs of red shoes arrived for me: high heels, wedges, and a pair of sneakers. The card read: Always own a pair of red shoes. Wear them like they are black. Love, Mom xoxox
It still makes me cry to this day when I see someone wearing a splash of red on their feet. Many an outfit has gone from good to great just by wearing red shoes instead the “safer” color.
I see now that this was her attempt to remind me to stay wild and free. “Don’t let them tame you, Sarah,” she would repeat throughout my academic training in psychology. I can appreciate now how hard my mom must have fought to un-domesticate parts of herself, especially as a woman born in 1940. The red shoes are a reminder to fight like hell for those parts of myself that won’t conform, submit, or ever be fully domesticated. I hope you keep a part of yourself feral and free, too. I also hope you buy red shoes and wear them like they are black.
3) “Never let anyone tell you you can’t wear white after Labor Day.”
This was a mantra she said my whole life growing up in a New England town steeped in rules and regulations that made my mom itch.
But towards the end of her life, she really doubled down on this one. She grew even more mistrusting of rules and her fashion sense did not suffer fools lightly. She didn’t live to see Labor Day 2012, but I wore white for months afterwards in proud rebellion. I knew she would appreciate it.
Don’t let other people dictate your boundaries. And when they do, observe that intersection. Start with white after Labor Day. See what it feels like to rebel against a rule. I appreciate that my mother encouraged me to question authority, to test boundaries, and to go against the grain, even if it’s just white jeans in October.