When I Miss My Mother, I Slip On Her Teal Dress

It's one of the few items that has stayed with me since her death, close to me always.

Teal Dress
(Image credit: Vasilina Popova / Getty Images)

When my aunts selected the outfit my mother was to be buried in, they really only had one option. They picked a purple suit with big shoulder pads and sharply structured lapels, with a matching paisley scarf that covered the chest. That suit had never been my favorite—I was twelve and I thought it was too businesslike, too boring. But even I could see that it was the perfect choice for the last outfit she would ever wear: the purple complemented her red hair, and the paisley covered a body that had been damaged in the stabbing that killed her. A man had come to our house in the night, thinking he was entitled to sex, and then raped her, and then ended her life. As the Maine state prosecutor would say many years later, “she was killed for her beauty.”

Men whistled at my mother on the street; women’s gazes followed her with envy. Many daughters believe their mother to be very beautiful, but fewer grow up with an awareness that men think so, too. I remember being happy for her—there is pleasure in being beautiful, and a kind of power. I felt proud walking next to her, even when disgusted by the attitude or appearance of a specific man. My mother and father divorced when I was very young, so there were boyfriends. She was always looking for The One, and it would be false to deny that she used her beauty to try to find him. It’s a common sort of magic-trick attempt: using the ephemeral to catch the permanent.

She had an innate sense of style that no circumstance could have suppressed.

Mom and I lived in a small town in rural Maine, and she worked in a factory, handsewing shoes all day long. For twelve years, she stood at a tall work bench pushing dull needles into sturdy leather. It was loud, dirty, unending work, and it paid per unit, so there was little to keep a determined young mother from working herself to exhaustion. Still, she had an innate sense of style that no circumstance could have suppressed. She wore denim-blue eyeliner nearly every day I ever saw her, focusing her soft blue gaze. From small-town stores and crumbling rural malls she assembled an unusual and glorious wardrobe. When she went out—once a month or so—she dressed up as though headed somewhere much more glamorous than a dark bar or a town hall dance. She favored white, gauzy shirts with big collars and French cuffs, fitted cotton dresses with cheerful floral patterns, black satin skirts with tiers rustling down to her knees. Her jewelry box was filled with costume pieces—faux gold earrings in the shape of cats, faceted glass hearts on silver hooks, tiny shells strung together on fishing line, which we bought together at the beach. She had a small collection of thin gold rings with semiprecious stones—amethyst was her favorite—bought from Kmart and Ames. On her dresser stood a city skyline of perfumes—Exclamation, Baby Soft, Xia Xlang, Tabu. Gentle, crisp scents she found at the pharmacy, next to the holiday cards.

Mom often let me hang out with her while she got ready to go out. I’d lie on her waterbed, patting the smooth peach satin of her comforter while I watched her pull on first one dress, then another. She’d look in the white-framed mirror on the back of her door, angle her head thoughtfully, turn to me and ask my opinion. I probably wasn’t really much help. I didn’t yet understand that you can’t wear the short skirt with the tight shirt, that you have to balance these things out. I didn’t yet know that there were rules, limits to how much you could stand out before you were in danger of judgment. I just picked the colors and shapes I liked best, told her to wear all the prettiest things at once. My favorite was a shining teal party dress.

I didn’t yet know that there were rules, limits to how much you could stand out before you were in d

That teal dress captivated me. It glowed in Mom’s closet among her sundresses and sensible winter coats, a strapless affair with a sweetheart neckline and two tiers of tropical satin. It was supported from below by one modest layer of netting, and it nearly covered her knees, perfect cocktail length. I only saw her wear it a handful of times, but when she did, the contrast between the bright fabric and her pale skin was stunning, and her red hair was a trail of flame that just touched the back zipper.

On those cozy nights when Mom was getting ready to go out and had extra time, I would stroke the silky folds of this dress, and she would take it down for me, unzip it, and pool it onto the floor so I could step in. She’d pull it up and zip, and the boned bodice would tent around me, held up by the bulk of my corduroys and sweatshirt. I would spin, right, left, right, left, throwing the skirt around me like water. “I’m going to wear this to prom!” I vowed, at six, seven, ten years old. She’d laugh, “I don’t know. I think it will be out of style by then.” I was eleven the last time she handed it to me to try on. I was child-height but chubby; we could barely get the zipper up. Tears welled in my eyes as I breathed in sharply, looking past myself to my mother in the mirror: her fluted collarbones, her elegant neck, her slender arms. I would always be the kid the other kids called Heifer, I thought, and she would always be thin and young and beautiful. She died a year later, so the latter, at least, has proven true. She is frozen in time, forever radiant. Her name was Crystal.

The last time I saw her in the dress she was on her way to a concert, a date with the one who was ultimately the one who got away, the one with whom she was on and off for years, the one who looked at her like she meant everything to him, but who was incapable of saying “I love you.” The dress is flamboyant but not sexy; that night, she looked cute, full of fun energy. She wore it more to celebrate what the two of them had than to try to snag him into something more.

A few weeks after the funeral, Mom’s sisters sifted through her belongings, donating some things, keeping some for me. No one’s quite sure how we decided to keep what we did, but we held on to her favorites, and mine, and things that seemed unique, irreplaceable. I helped out, but I still lost many things when she died, and so many others disappeared as the years went on, gradually, like stardust slowly streaming off a comet. The teal dress is one of the few items that has stayed with me, close to me always. It seems never to have gone into hiding, into attic boxes or forgotten closets, where some of her other nicer items landed after her death: her white skirt suit, her fringed black suede jacket. When I was sixteen, living at my aunt Carol’s, I pulled the teal dress out one secret night and stepped in. I reached back and grabbed the zipper pull, and was surprised when it flowed smoothly all the way up. I put my arms down at my sides. I breathed in, breathed out. It fit perfectly. I have my mother’s small chest, and this dress remains the only strapless one I have ever been able to wear comfortably, the only one that will not fall or gap or slide.

When prom came, it turned out Mom was right: the teal dress had gone out of style. I would have worn it anyway, but it was ‘80s ostentatious; I couldn’t stand the thought of being teased for it, even playfully, and then explaining how much the dress meant to me, or not explaining. Instead, I wore a purple, floor-length gown with a petticoat, supported by a ray of spider-thin straps. The tastefully shimmering fabric was eggplant at the top, fading swiftly to pale lavender along the hem. It was perfectly of the moment and I’ve had no use for it since.

In my late twenties, I moved to Louisiana, following love when my partner got accepted to graduate school. I discovered that the festival spirit, the Mardi Gras aura of celebration and colorful looseness, pervaded year-round, and I was free to wear the teal dress as often as I pleased—there, it’s not rare to pull on a pink or blue wig before heading out to the bar, just for the hell of it. In the land of the dress-up theme party, I did not have to explain. But I was cautious. The nights out lined up one after another, a gauntlet of drunken spills and sweat and cigarette smoke, and I didn’t want the dress to come to harm. So mostly it stayed neatly hung in my closet, as always, a slim shimmer of blue-green peeking out from my charcoals and blacks. As though by keeping it untouched in the cool darkness I could halt this one bright fragment of time, keep that beauty safe forever.

When I moved to New York a few years later, alone, I was older, my life calmer and cleaner. I had the confidence to wear whatever I wanted, and I rarely went places where you could count on your clothes getting ruined. And it was 2010, when the fashion cycle was entering the ‘80s once more. So I slipped the teal dress on a few times, to go out dancing, or to celebrate with friends: their birthdays, the end of our interminable graduate school semesters. It looked like many contemporary dresses, only somehow better, cut without irony. It can’t have been expensive, but it has a certain age and grace to it, a thickness to the satin. It’s just shiny enough; it doesn’t have to insist. During those years, wearing the dress felt like a secret equally transgressive and important, like kissing a friend and telling no one. Finally, I felt as I had always wished to feel in it: beautiful, powerful, and like I was carrying my mother with me, her joy, her resilience, her determination to bring light into the everyday.

Sarah Perry's memoir, After the Eclipse: A Mother's Murder, a Daughter's Searchwas released on September 26, 2017.