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Cleaning Out

We never imagined we could be quite like her, but she was everything we hoped to be. Honora and I adored our much-older sister, Mary, our somewhat-surrogate mother. She taught us how to pray and disco dance, wrote us detailed, descriptive, loving letters from college, sketched us pictures of her professors. We held her on a pedestal, both envying and celebrating every one of her accomplishments.

“Mary! Mary! Mary!” we nagged, pulling on her sweater sleeve as she, fresh home from college, talked to our mother. “Mary! Mary! Mary!” Her attention was our endless desire. We cried every time she left home and went crazy with excitement every time she returned.

Mary died in July. It is now November, almost her 61st birthday - the first one she won’t celebrate here on Earth. Her husband, Marc, asked Honora and I to clean out her closet. “I can’t even open it,” he said sadly.

As children, the youngest of seven, Honora and I were professional snoops of the five “big kids.” They were so much older and such a mystery. We had to get our information wherever we could, through their artifacts. Mary’s room was of particular interest. Her door at the end of the hall, a destination. Inside, our fingers traced the talcum powder shimmering on the surface of her dresser, our noses inhaled the faint scent of Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Her braided rug scratched beneath our feet. Her closet door creaked open at our command, revealing a space bursting with a teenager life.

Hangers jutting out, boney shoulders emulating their owner, Mary’s clothes invited and inspired, revealed what comes next. Green and white plaid school uniforms, summer ones in pastels. The seventies’ groovy rainbow colors, form-fitting shapes. Peasant style and midriff tops, gingham dresses, tiered gowns in bone, rose. Her hems dragged around us, trailing our stocking feet, picking up dust. We posed and practiced with her field hockey stick, laced and unlaced her well-worn basketball sneakers, examined the muddy spikes of her golf shoes, held her bell bottoms up against our frames, the waist matching up to our chests. We slipped our feet inside her high-heeled sandals and platform shoes, strutted around, wobbled, laughing.

There was always a reason to return, to open the door again, to see what was moved, what was different, what she had taken with her. We noted every change, addition, or subtraction. Each one told us there were things still to know about our sister, about life, the world.

Now, adults, we open her closet door, stale air offering familiar smells. Her bathrobe, the cloak of illness, is humped on a hook at the closet’s edge. Peering deeper inside, we recognize the other side of the story of Mary’s life. Of course, there is the bruise of color, the pulsation of greens and pinks and purples and reds, bursts of yellow. Then there are patterns-stripes and florals- and textures - velvet and lace. Her oldest clothes, representing the eighties and nineties - much more conservative, preppy - they are the before-cancer clothes, baggy, square, padded. The frilly, feminine clothes -her 18- years -of- stage- four- cancer clothes- they represent the style we know, the final version of the living Mary, some combination of all she was before and all she wanted to be. In the deepest recesses, long-time residents, steadfast soldiers, the immoveable milestone clothes: her communion and wedding dresses, her academic robes in blue and red. Tossed to the side are the shoes, many pairs not worn, shoes her broken, nail-less feet could not tolerate.

As it goes with this process, grief, we cry, but we laugh too. We try everything on. For some reason, everything fits me. We pour bubbly, Mary’s favorite. Her adult sons and Marc merely observe us from the other side of the room, looking at their phones, making small talk. When the time comes to haul out, our nephews fill the car for the thrift store. What’s left: an empty closet and some large reusable grocery bags stuffed with treasures to keep and disperse. We get a broom and sweep the last dust bunnies out. Then, we stare into the closet again, this time processing the emptiness. Perhaps we were expecting a different feeling, a task complete, but no.

No amount of experience could prepare us for this, this final job, a duty we would never have guessed would be ours. Honora and I, two women in our fifties, forever little sisters, sorting through what once was gold, but now is just cloth, leather, plastic, straw, wool. She is gone. We can only take what we can, learn what is left to learn, shed our tears of sadness and joy, move on.


Maggie Nerz Iribarne is fifty-two and lives with her husband and son, Jose and Pedro, in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. Her stories have appeared most recently in Every Day Fiction, Gateway Review, and Reflex Press, among others. She keeps a portfolio of her work at

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