Auntie Ellen’s overstuffed walk-in closet might as well have been as big as the Atlanta Falcons football stadium downtown. Michael would have had pretty much the same chance of picking out the right dress for her last big party.
He felt like he’d stepped into the vast Easter section at Davison’s, that revered Atlanta shopping institution down on Peachtree Street, circa 1983. Except everything here was better organized than any clothing store he’d ever seen. All the dresses hung at his eye level since Auntie Ellen had been a touch over six feet tall. And those dresses covered all of the available shades of the pastel spectrum, from barely there yellow to scandalously close to red.
Arranged by color, of course.
On a rack above each color grouping sat a selection of hats that came closest to matching. Any modern hat maker would be dazzled by the variety of fabrics, textures, and embellishments on display. Hardly any fake flowers or feathers here, not unless they were dyed a truly unnatural hue. There were, however, rhinestones and sparkles and strange angles and sharp edges enough to outfit the biggest church pew in the South on Retro Celebration Sunday.
Under the always appropriate below-the-knee hemlines, a pale rainbow of shoes waited within easy reach of the dresses they matched. Flats, low wedge heels, shiny patent leather. A selection of bare toe models for those extra sassy days that called for matching nail polish.
Michael’s sinuses thanked his lucky stars and the gods of allergies that Auntie Ellen never missed getting her treasured outfits cleaned just about every time she wore them. No traces of her equally Eighties collection of overly sweet perfume lingered. Only the musty smell of the closed off closet, neglected while his auntie had been busy dying.
Michael shook his head and sighed, wishing yet again that someone else in the family lived close enough to help him with this last duty of a doting nephew. Sure, a bunch of them would make it down to Atlanta in time for the funeral in a couple of days. They’d be there for the big shindig Auntie Ellen had mandated—no moping and mourning nonsense allowed.
He was the proudest husband on the face of the earth that his wife Trish was currently out in St. Louis, leading a seminar about the latest advances in forensic genetics at Washington University. And he was counting the minutes until she got back home for the funeral. He needed her solid understanding of his auntie’s fashion sense almost as much a tight hug and her soft, reassuring voice.
But the funeral director wanted the dress this afternoon, or he was threatening to bury Auntie Ellen in that awful hospital gown that made her look even more pale and washed out than she had these last few long weeks.
Michael brushed his too-long brown hair away from his face and stared into the closet with renewed determination. Just pick one!
And failed yet again to make a choice.
The only thing Auntie Ellen had asked of him—besides making sure no one droned on and on about how much they’d miss her—was to be buried in her peach dress. Michael had foolishly agreed without asking any questions.
Maybe questions like what did one eighty-year-old woman need with at least thirty dresses that could easily be called peach? Or why had she insisted on keeping every single Easter frock she’d ever treated herself to going all the way back to 1959, not to mention all her little girl and baby dresses folded carefully into a drawer?
She’d even rolled up and kept her collection of cheery springtime colored beanies and scarves and snoods that helped her through a bout with cancer back in the early nineties, when her beautiful silver hair had fallen out before growing back in thicker and curlier than ever.
Michael was a good Southern boy, so he knew Auntie Ellen would have never committed the deep and lasting sin of being seen twice in the same fancy dress or hat on Easter Sunday. But still, so many.
Maybe the most important question was how was he supposed to know which peach dress she’d meant?
He wandered over to the extra-tall white dressing table she’d had made years ago at the back of the closet, with special jewelry holders that bristled like an old-fashioned rooftop TV antenna all around the sides and back. Everything from sparkling costume pieces from her own teenaged years through her favorite big and bright Eighties plastic baubles, all the way up to simpler chains and single stones from recent years.
Once he managed to pick the dress, the jewelry part would be a lot easier. He hoped.
Michael sat heavily on the chair upholstered in (what else?) shimmering peach fabric. Or at least he thought it was peach.
Maybe that was blush? Or did it slide too far toward some particular shade of yellow he didn’t know the name for?
He stared down at the black denim of his jeans, trying to clear his visual palate enough to at least narrow the dresses down to a handful. Like a light lemon sorbet between courses of an overly elaborate meal. When he looked back up, the colors blended together even worse.
This was as bad as saying or reading a word over and over again, enough times that it started to look and sound strange.
“Peach, peach,” he said under his breath, not sure why he was worried about the empty house hearing his shaky voice. “Peeeeeeeach. A simple peach dress.”
Maybe if he said it enough he’d find a way around the giant roadblock in his mind, in his heart. The one that kept reminding him that no matter which dress he chose, it would be the last one she ever wore.
He was perilously close to fifty himself, and felt stable and sane most days. He didn’t exactly need his auntie to wipe his little boy tears when he escaped from his stern parents, all too often confused by their overly sensitive youngest son. Or from the school and church that were determined to shove him into the correct social and career box, no matter badly his misfit edges pinched and scraped.
But the reality of the loss of one of the most important people in his life, barely twenty-four hours ago, still clenched up his chest and made his throat ache.
How his auntie would have laughed at his indecision. Not in a mean way like kids at school or his rotten cousins, but in a comforting way that somehow made Michael calm down and see how silly he was acting.
Then she’d pop up a gigantic bowl of popcorn with extra butter, and bring out an ice cold Coke for him and a more-pink-than-peach can of Tab for herself. They’d snuggle on the flowery overstuffed sofa and watch bad movies together on the VCR while Uncle Tommy worked the nightshift down at that crazy new CNN network that everyone was convinced wouldn’t make it past 1990.
Michael glanced to the other side of the closet, away from the overwhelming pastel paradise. Uncle Tommy’s far more sedate wardrobe hung there still, missing only the charcoal gray suit he’d been laid to rest in.
That decision may not have been easy for Auntie Ellen nine long years ago, but it had been simple. Much like her smaller selection of at-home clothes folded and waiting in the chest-of-drawers under all those suits.
For a brief second, Michael considered pulling out the latest version of the pink sweatshirt and sweatpants she’d often worn during their all-night movie marathons, always consistent as they’d switched from VCR to cable to DVD to on-demand to streaming. Trish had helped him pick the last one out for Mother’s Day only a few short months ago.
Pink was awfully close to peach, right?
But no. The color might have been unclear, but a dress was a dress. Non-dreary or not, Auntie Ellen’s funeral would be in church, not in the cozy living room. And the funeral director’s deadline of three o’clock was hanging over his head with the weight of all that pale fabric.
Michael glanced at his watch to see how close the deadline was just in time to see a text message pop in from Trish.
Holding up okay, Sweetie?
He smiled and laughed to himself in the quiet closet. If anyone still drawing breath would know how much hell he was putting himself through over what seemed like a chore that should only last a couple of minutes, Trish was the one.
Still trying to pick out the perfect peach dress. At lunch?
While he waited for a reply, Michael stood and snapped a picture of the wall of Fort Pastel. He sent it to Trish, with the one-word caption “Help!”
He hoped comparing the far end of the color wheel to his wife’s sensible black and darker shades of blue and green and purple would make her smile, too.
But deep down inside, he knew he’d stumble across this photo someday.
Maybe while backing up his phone, or scrolling through looking for something else. By then, the closet and the bedrooms and the living room and the kitchen and everything else would be empty of his aunt and uncle’s things. Hopefully home to a new family that would make their own lifetimes of memories where Michael had spent so many comforting hours.
A family far too young and new to understand about VCRs and real buttered popcorn and Tab. Hopefully too close and happy to understand how much he’d needed his auntie then.
How much he missed her now.
He hoped that random photo would make him smile by then rather than making him as sad as he was when he took it.
At faculty lunch-and-learn, Trish finally replied. Wish I could be there, or at least call. Just pick your favorite? Your best memory with her? Love you.
Michael sent her a series of heart emojis, then settled back down on the dressing table chair.
His best memory of his Auntie Ellen wearing peach.
That might be the only thing harder to narrow down than all those dresses.
Was it her grinning fit-to-split at his high school graduation? Dancing with Uncle Tommy at their fortieth anniversary party? Maybe wiping her tears at his own wedding, or was it all the way back to her laughing up a storm at some silly play he did in grade school?
It seemed all Michael’s favorite memories of his life and his favorite memories of his aunt overlapped more than he knew.
He got up and walked over to the wall of color again, reaching out to touch the fabric. Sturdy cotton, slippery silk. Rough velvet, delicate lace.
He glanced up toward the hat parade, and his eyes went right to the collection of what she’d called her chemo caps. That was the last time he’d felt so lost and scared and alone—the night she’d told him about her diagnosis and the surgery and chemotherapy on the horizon. He’d been dating Trish by then, but the idea of not being able to talk to his beloved auntie was too much to take.
And all at once he had it.
Michael reached up and pulled out the very first chemo cap, and the nubby texture of the hat knitted to look like dozens of perfectly peach flowers made him smile.
He’d hunted all over the city for it, back when a quick online shopping search was only a gleam in some West Coast programmer’s eye. She’d cried when he gave it to her, but they were the happy kind of tears that made everyone feel better.
The first time he’d seen her wear it was Easter Sunday that same year. She’d found the sweetest dress in exactly the same color with a row of dainty lace flowers along the neckline and cuffs and the waistline of the skirt. Down at the Peachtree Street shopping mecca that had long-since changed its name to Macy’s, but she always called it Davison’s.
His Auntie Ellen had pulled him aside at the traditional Easter Sunday after-church feed with a wink and a grin. Just had to show him, she’d said. Then she tugged the cap off to reveal her nearly smooth head.
“Nothing but peach fuzz, honey. Ain’t I a sight?”
From that day on until her hair started to grow back—and as other friends and family members joined in and her collection of chemo caps grew—she’d always giggled and told folks about her peach fuzz.
She wore the delightful caps more to keep warm and comfortable than to hide. Nothing could have suited her better.
Michael laughed and smiled at the memory, and just like that long-ago Sunday, a little crack of happy opened up in his sadness.
He gathered up that first chemo cap, along with the dress and shoes and even the fancy hat that matched. A quick trip back to his auntie’s vast array of fabulous jewelry for the perfect earrings and necklace.
The last thing he needed was a small framed picture out in the living room with all the family photos. A picture of him and Auntie Ellen from that Easter, his arm around her and their heads together. She wore her peach chemo cap and the wonderful smile he wanted to remember forever.
Michael knew he never would have been able to repay her if she’d lived to be a hundred or more.
And he was proud to have his memories, and everything he needed to see her off in style.
And with love.