The Pyjama Genie
My pyjamas are white, patterned with blue and yellow teddy bears. They are saggy, and they smell funny.
The smell is not surprising: they are over twenty years old. Plus, when I was a student and did not possess a washing machine, I’d regularly start laundering them in the bath, get bored and leave them sitting in water for a week.
I last wore them around 1998, but I can’t throw them away. They are the last thing that my Mum gave me before she died.
Obviously, she didn’t plan it that way. It wasn’t like there was an emotional deathbed scene during which she ceremoniously presented me with a set of teddy bear jammies. She happened to give them to me, and then she happened to get ill. Life is like that, sometimes.
Mum gave me many other things, none of which I have kept. There was the silver ring that I wore every day for years. The ill-advised sparkly purple dress that I eventually decided not to wear for my twenty-first birthday party (I wore a silver, sequined, even-less-well-advised one instead). The books she bought me for my university course in Scottish Literature. Every term, I’d send Mum the reading list and she’d post each book to me one at a time, always reading them herself first. Each book would be accompanied by a letter in her quirky, sardonic style, telling me what she thought of the book and imparting domestic news about the cat, my dad and the new dishwasher.
Where are all those things? Why didn’t I treasure them? Why didn’t I take each mundane trinket she gave me and wrap it carefully in tissue paper, storing it away against the unimaginable day that she would no longer be there? Because it was unimaginable, that’s why. If I thought about it at all, I assumed that day would come in a distant future in which Mum was very, very old and I was completely equipped to handle her death.
It turns out the future comes sooner than you expect it. She wasn’t old and I wasn’t equipped. I wasn’t equipped at all. You could, of course, argue that the physical items Mum gave me are meaningless. The real gifts she gave me are innate. Mum is in every gesture I make and every word I write. She gave me:
- Her habit of rolling her eyes at unreasonable people
- Her inability to help shouting at politicians on the television
- Her love of words, books and language
- Her tendency to put on a TV Newsreader voice when answering the phone
- Her chronic short-sightedness
I can remember my Mum simply by looking in the mirror, but that’s not enough. I want stuff. I want things I can hold in my hand and be comforted by.
It is odd, this business of remembering people by things. We look at a vase on the mantelpiece and think of Great Aunty Audrey. The item becomes the repository of their being. It is the bottle we rub to make their genie come out. But why? After all, we don’t forget people just because we’ve nothing that they owned. If you want the whole world to remember you, then yes, you probably need to leave behind a monument, an invention or a building with your name on it. But if all you’re after is for your own children to remember you, then bequeathing objects to them shouldn’t matter.
I am filled with memories of my Mum. Some are painful, some make me laugh, some leave me puzzled. I wouldn’t forget any of them if I lost those fousty old pyjamas, so why do I value them so highly? Why do we cling on to these pointless old relics?
I think it’s because they make us feel joined to our loved one again. Looking at something upon which the person we’ve lost has also gazed unites us, in a funny way. It’s a way of sharing space with people once we can never again share time with them.
Mum’s death brought about many “firsts”. My first day back at work after the funeral. The first time I read a book and couldn’t discuss it with her. The first Christmas, when Dad and I tried hard but could find little to celebrate. In the fourteen years since she died there have been so many first times that almost nothing about me is the same as when Mum died.
There are hardly any items in my home that would be familiar to her. She never met my partner and she wouldn’t know my daughter. The truth is, that scares me. The ridiculous, embarrassing truth is, I still don’t believe Mum is not coming back. And I am frightened she might not recognise me if she did.
And that’s why I keep the pyjamas. So that there is something - one tiny, ludicrous object - that mum would find familiar. If I met her again, I could offer her the sour, fading cloth and say look Mum. Look. It’s me.