In her room, my mother has a small vanity. A large round mirror hangs above and attaches to the vanity; two drawers on either side and a long narrow drawer stand below the mirror. The vanity is covered in paper, made to look like wood. Some corners curl up, ready to be pulled and peeled back. I pick at the edge and pull loose a sliver of paper above the right drawer.
In the right drawer, among her colorful silk scarves, gloves, and sashes, I find a white handkerchief with lacey scalloped edges and small flowers delicately embroidered on each corner. I lift the handkerchief. The scent of my mother’s perfume splashes across my face. I cover my nose and inhale long and hard, hoping to erase the memory of antiseptic hope and sour disease. But I can’t stop thinking that as the medics rolled my mother away, I did not say goodbye.
In the middle drawer, she keeps all her make-up and some of her jewelry. I pick up her Mary Kay lip color palate: Tawny Beige, Frosted Melon, and Frosted Poppy. Using her lip applique, I paint the Frosted Poppy on my lips. I look in the mirror to see past my own to my mother’s reflection. She sat on her hospital bed, smiling a painted smile, because even after surgery, she wanted to look and feel good. She wanted me to look and feel good, too. “Never leave the house without your makeup,” she told me. But now I’m only 15, and I’ve painted on my lips more Frosted Poppy than I need.
The drawer on the left houses my mother’s silky stockings in nude, black, and white, each rolled up into a neat ball. She would make me wear stockings with my dress to church every Sunday. I didn’t like it then, becoming a woman, squeezing my soft parts into the stretchy tubes. But I don’t mind it now, unrolling the shear black silky nylon and slipping my right foot into it, pulling it up past my knee. I’ll assume my mother’s mantle, even though I have no one to show me how. I’ll carry that load, as if it’s the world, for the rest of my life.
I pick up the handkerchief, again. That’s the smell I want to remember: the floral fragrance of Sweet Honesty. I need it to blanket the memories that hurt the most: the coffin opened before us, my family standing behind me, my sister clutching my hand. She let go for a moment to step closer, reached out hesitantly to touch our mother’s hand, but pulled it away quickly. “She’s cold,” my sister whispered and buried her face in my stomach. I’m crying now, gasping for breath, drowning in the ocean of what will never be.
When I am done, I fold the handkerchief in half, then in quarters, then in small triangles. I trap it, its smells and its memories, in a plastic baggy and slip it under my mattress for when I need to remember, again.
Joelle Hannah lives in Moorpark, CA with her husband and 5 children. She teaches composition classes at Moorpark College. She has been writing and performing poetry since 2005. Her poems have appeared in The Scribbler, The Night Goes On All Night, Bridges of Fate Anthology, Chaparral, Two Words For, Where I Live, Mothers Always Write, and A Quiet Courage. She has performed in various venues throughout Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, including Hollywood Book Fair, Artist Union Gallery, Pat Pincus Poetry Festival, and Personal Stories at Center Theater in Santa Barabara.