by Sarah Abenaim
The bathrobe was the ugly color of unripened watermelon, the color that probably was first to hit the sales racks, after all the pinks, whites, and baby blues were sold out. It was a Chanukah gift from my father to mother, given in the days before they had any children, when they used to have only each other to think about. My father claimed it was expensive.
When my mother wore it, it made her skin look pale and washed out, her cheeks, ruddy and flushed. She usually put it on on Friday night, rushing from her shower to light the Shabbat candles, always seventeen minutes late, and she would be running down the stairs, tying the long belt and kicking the front open with each step of her slippered feet.
The robe was mid-calf length, but when she walked, we could see the bulging veins in her lower legs, the aftermath of her multiple pregnancies. It was accidentally revealing, but she only wore it around us.
Often, after lighting the candles, she would sit on the couch with us, curled up, reading book after book, sometimes dozing mid-sentence as the week’s exhaustion caught up with her. We would clamber for a seat closest to her, nestling into her warmth, her freshly shampooed hair wet against our clean skin, two of us at her sides, two behind each shoulder, one in her lap, and one perched on the back of the couch. I would rest my head on her arm, safe at her side, feeling the soft terry against my face. I could draw pictures on it with my finger, a contrast of light on dark, a smiley face, my initials S.I., or occasionally even a game of tic-tac-toe.
Sometimes she would run back upstairs to change before my father came home from shul, but other times, she wore the robe to the table, over a nightgown or pajama shirt. After dinner, my mother would put her six children to bed, still in the bathrobe, and she would take turns lying with each of us, saying Shema and singing songs, until she’d end up in the bottom mattress of the bunkbed I shared with my sister. On Friday nights, my sister and I would sleep together in my bed, my mother sandwiched between us, each of us wrapped in the warmth of the robe. When I closed my eyes, I could smell the robe, my mother, and in the morning, when I’d awaken entangled with just my sister, I could feel the terry traces on my blankets.
The robe and I were not always on such good terms. It was late in my college years that I grew bored with seeing it all the time. It was like a vestigial structure; an appendix that was there and needed to be removed, a pinky toe that just tinkered around inside pointy-shoes. I wanted to donate it, but thought there would probably be no takers. I contemplated buying a replacement for my mother, but knew it would go unworn, like the new “Yom Kippur Hat” I had purchased a few years before. It was an attempt to replace the white beret, bedazzled with oversized disco-ball jewels, that she wore annually on Yom Kippur, to keep in the tradition of the day of wearing head-to-toe white. When I brought home the new beret that wasn’t quite white, but was a subtle rose with gold thread woven in the stitches, resembling a dirty-white, she tried it on. “Nice,” she said, “but I think it might hurt my head.” And she continued to wear the white beret every Yom Kippur then-after.
In the mornings, the robe would sit lifeless on the floor, crumpled next to my mother’s bed, where it was haphazardly discarded the night before. Next to it was always a pair of worn flip-flops, their foam pressed thin around the toes, sometimes even with holes. “I think you need some new flip-flops!” we used to tell her, but she would just smile, and say, “But I like these.” I tried them on one day, slipping my toes into the rubber, wedging the hard plastic between my big toe and the second one, curious what was so great about them, that she couldn’t possibly give them away. I had to curl my toes to keep them on, and the soles were so thin, I could feel the strands of carpet under my feet as I walked. They had an appeal that I couldn’t understand. There was something that connected them to their owner, that went beyond my comprehension. I glanced at the robe, curious, too, about what made my mother love it, but didn’t try it on, knowing that it too had a captivating quality which drew her in, one which I longed to know.
She wore the robe throughout my years in college, and even after I got married and moved out, she wears it still. When I come back home to visit, it is there, unchanged and un-aged, a picture, frozen in time, retaining its ugly color, wrapping my mother in its depths. As she comes running down the stairs, she is a butterfly in flight, her thin, boney hands poking from beneath the large outstretched sleeves, flapping and weightless. Her skin has become thin and translucent; she wears a halo of gray crowning her years, and her eyes seem tired, older. But the robe, it is always the same. It has retained its youth and remembers mine.
“When you die, can I get your silver candlesticks?” my sister asks my mother, nodding in the direction of the candelabra with eight ornate limbs. It is a late Friday night, and their flames have dwindled down to a puddle of wax, as my siblings and I sit and talk to my mother, while she finishes up the dishes. Some of us are married, some of us in college, and some of us have jobs. Some of us have children of our own, and after a recent death in the family, we are on the topic of heirlooms.
“I get those diamond earrings your mom left you,” a sister says.
“Shoot, I wanted those,” says another. “I’ll take the house!”
“I call the rings!” Our boisterous voices are laughing and enthusiastic, as we go on, trying to list items of value, and claiming them. My mother is enjoying the banter, smiling and auctioning off her personal items to the first daughter to raise her hand. There is not much left for me to demand.
“I’ll take your robe.” I say, after a moment of silence, when the bidding has died down. My mother laughs.
“This?” she asks, pulling at her sleeve with a gloved hand, wet and sudsy. “It’s yours.”
I am worried that she might take it off now, handing it over to me, but I am not ready to receive it.
“Yes,” I say. “Please put it in your will for me.”
One day, I’ll try on the robe. I’ll dip my arms into its sleeves, cloak myself in the soft, worn cloth, and as I tie the belt tight around my waist, I’ll be able to feel my mother hugging me. Each breath will be invigorated by the vibrancy of its scent. Each fiber of the terry will dance and sway in the Friday night songs, and I’ll remember the words. I will remember every Shabbat spent in her house, loving and hating and then loving the robe. I will feel light and airy, hovering on the staircase, rushing, a few minutes late, to light the candles.