Veronica tried to rise to the occasion. Talking to her daughters "woman to woman" was not easy for her, but she said, "I’ll tell you one thing about men. I once took a car trip with your father. Back roads all the way from Chicago to Detroit. It was a blizzard. The snow was coming down like chicken feathers and we got stuck. It was the middle of nowhere. I thought we would freeze to death that night. But you know what he did? He unbuttoned his coat and I got inside with him. We were together in one coat. They said if we hadn’t worn the one coat, we might have died. That’s my advice, find someone like that."
Karen stared at her in amazement. Veronica had said little about our father, who had succumbed to cancer eight years before. I wanted to think that her metaphor could go a different way. In one coat you could put man and wife, or mother and child, or even two sisters, right?
The nurse squad would soon be looking for our mother, so I broiled a lamb chop and carved it into pink snips so Veronica could chew it. I steamed asparagus, only the tips. As Veronica picked at her food, Karen and I tried to tell her what was in our hearts.
I thanked her for small things she’d done for me when I was young. She sewed my first pair of bell-bottom jeans. She taught me how to speak correctly. She made a peach pie for an English teacher I had a crush on. Only later, I recognized that Veronica might have had a crush on him, too.
Veronica asked Karen, "Do you want some of this dinner? You look like you’ve lost some weight."
"I look thinner, really?" Karen said, pleased by the compliment. She took a fork-full from Veronica’s untouched plate, just to be polite. I felt the magnitude of the instant when Veronica offered nourishment to the daughter she’d once given diet pills.
Veronica looked directly at Karen and said, "You know, I loved you." The past tense was confusing, but Karen nodded.
"Me, too," Karen said. That was going to be the sum total. Maybe it was good enough.
Then Veronica said, "You know what I need?"
"What?" Karen said.
"I need a new Maidenform or Vassarette."
"You want a bra?" Karen said, her voice cracking with a compressed laugh.
"Mine are all ratty. Do you think you could go to Wanamaker’s and get me something nice?"
Karen looked at me. We understood that our mother wouldn’t need any foundation garments for what lay ahead of her. "What size are you now?" I asked, in a tiny voice.
"I’m not what I used to be," Veronica said.
"They have nice things in all sizes," Karen said encouragingly. "Underwire, push-up, Cuddleskin, whatever you want."
"I saw an ad, what was it called? Wonderbra? It’s that showy push-up that’s all the rage," Veronica said.
I saw she was getting weaker. We wheeled her back to the Life Care unit.
One Last Gift
In the lingerie department at Wanamaker’s, I flipped through the tiny plastic hangers holding hundreds of diaphanous bras and panties. Karen found a pretty set and held it up to show me.
"Too pink," I said. "She’s not into pink."
"How’s this one?" Karen said, holding a Bali creation of creamy white satin. Tiny cups with a plunging front closure. Karen seemed suddenly animated, as if she might find the perfect balm or succor in just an ounce of nylon. Our excursion to a department store to shop for a failing sex kitten, an incorrigible temptress — our mother — was funny and heartbreaking all at once. Karen’s eyes were brimming.
We sorted silky items, holding them up against our own bodies, trying to choose one. Karen said, "At the funeral home, do you think they bother to put underwear on people?"
"I don’t know. I guess they do what the family tells them to do. It all goes into the urn."
Karen and I stopped to imagine our mother no longer with us. Despite the harsh decades of silence and the different reasons Karen and I shouldn’t miss her in our lives, we would. We left Wanamaker’s with a tiny paper sack, as light as a dandelion puff.