My Beautiful Ugly Sweater

I have always had a special appreciation for beautiful sweaters, so much so that late in life I even learned to knit in order to create my own. The passion started in my early teens, when I began to earn my own money by doing odd jobs and saving for something that I wanted badly. While shopping for back to school clothes on too measly a budget, I stopped into Halle Brothers Department Store in downtown Cleveland just to look. We seldom shopped there because my mother only had a charge account at Higbees but more importantly, Halles was a high-end retailer – Cleveland’s answer to Lord and Taylor. There on a mannequin in the middle of the men’s department was this incredible Fair Isle patterned cardigan of Shetland wool with metal buttons that absolutely took my breath away, as did the $29.95 price tag. This is at a time when a well made pair of men’s shoes could be had for under twenty dollars. My mother could get me two pairs of slacks and an Oxford shirt for what this sweater cost. But I already had half that much money saved, so I claimed the sweater as soon to be my very own.

Several weeks later on a solo trip downtown, I breezed through Halles to make sure they still had the sweater in my size. It was no longer on the display form, but there were several sweaters folded artfully on the wooden table. While checking for my size, I noticed the price had been reduced to $24.95. The following week I went without buying lunch at school, saving the stipend and together with allowance, spare change and whatever I could manage to hoard, I was at the store the following Saturday morning. Once home to show off my prize, my mother declared she thought I had wasted my money and that I was totally out of my mind. “You could have gotten a perfectly nice acrylic sweater for under ten dollars”. I didn’t even begin to argue with her, because I understood she shopped purely for bargains and we would not even go near the subject of taste in clothing. She herself often commented, when looking through her closet for something to wear, “I have taste where I sit!”. I was thrilled with my wonderful find and didn’t care what anyone else thought about it.  Shortly after its purchase, I wore it to a junior high dance and a few people I didn’t even dare speak to in school commented on what a gorgeous thing it was.

I wore it for Thanksgiving dinner at Grammas, for my birthday in early December and several Christmas outings. I felt like a million bucks in it, because it was classic quality and I’d bought it with my own money. The first few times I finally wore it to school, I fancied myself somewhere else – a really cool school in a wealthy east side Cleveland neighborhood. It made me feel I was better than the assholes who continually looked down on me, the uncoordinated geek (now with horrid black framed eyeglasses), who couldn’t catch or throw a ball and therefore, a non person in their estimation. My sweater became a costume that transformed me into an exotic character who’d been dropped into this truly bad play that I would eventually act my way out of, finding myself in another more refined milieu. I would prove the adage wrong; clothes could make the man.

A month or so passed and on a weekend, while doing chores, I went down the basement to put in a load of laundry. On top of the dryer lay my metal-buttoned Fair Isle cardigan, shrunken to one-third its size. Unbelievingly, I grabbed the woolen aberration and flew up the stairs. Clutching it with clenched paws, I waved it into my mother’s face literally millimeters away from her nose, screaming at her in full voice. “You ruined my sweater! You washed it in the washer?!? A Shetland wool sweater in the washing machine? How goddamn stupid are you?” I raged at the woman just like all the times I’d heard my father berate her, using every curse word I knew strung together in garlands of profanity. She remained silent. She sheepishly offered to replace it, but she had ruined everything for me and I wanted to make her suffer just a dollop of the guilt she had been heaping on me all my life. “Don’t bother!”, I roared at her. It was at this point in my life that I ceased to be the good boy and our maternal/filial love-hate relationship was born.

I no longer blindly followed her bidding. I challenged her whenever her irrational behavior stood in the way of my life or if my well-being was affected. “Because I said so” no longer served as a valid answer in any argument and there were arguments galore, even after I had reached adulthood and moved five hundred miles away. The older each of us became, the more hot and cold, mild and wild was the ride. We battled each other and took each other’s side when the world was battling us. We dealt with family crises, giving strength to whichever of us needed it more. At times we would take turns creating problems for the other to work through. There was an intervention I was forced to perform to save her in her later years and when I ended my first relationship, it was more difficult to face my mother than it was my partner of over a dozen years. She backed me in every crazy venture I ever attempted and was the one who wildly applauded me whether my attempts were worthy of it or not. She was my mother – who else is ever gonna’ care about you as much?

Fast forward to Christmas, 1996 and my spouse David’s first trip to Cleveland. We spent a few days between Christmas and New Years with my mother in her house in West Buttfok. We exchanged small gifts. When I opened my box, there was this sweater staring back at me. It wasn’t the ugliest sweater in the world, but a close second and certainly not anything I would ever have chosen to wear. I am a winter person: olive skin, greenish hazel eyes and once dark brown hair (now grey). The sweater was striped khaki green and burnt orange and of course, acrylic. I feigned an “Oh wow, I love it ” response, but my acting days were long over and you can’t fool moms anyway. She made a comment about knowing I didn’t like synthetics, but she thought it looked very mannish and that I’d like it. I took it home with me and put it away in the closet in the same Christmas box, not having the heart to give it to Goodwill so quickly. A while later I was looking for something to put on one evening and decided to wear the sweater to appease my mother and assuage my guilt. It wasn’t too uncomfortable and I smirked throughout the evening thinking about our sweater history together.

The following year she turned eighty and we went home for a big family get together to celebrate. At the party we could all begin to see she was not her usual self. Something was going on, or perhaps NOT going on. It wasn’t long after that she was diagnosed with dementia and the downward spiral accelerated so that she needed to sell her house and move in with my younger brother. It was sad visiting her diminished self, the long silences and sometimes empty stares. When we’d visit, she always knew all of us there and put up a brave front, but she was present in body yet absent in spirit. Her fire was going out and try as hard as I might, there was no engaging her in much of a conversation, let alone in a good fight together like the old days. Not five years before, she had become so incensed about some ridiculous thing we chose to spar about that she hurled an empty wine bottle into the room where I was watching tv and I laughed so hard it spoiled our battle. Now a conversation with her consisted of two or three sentences from me and “yes”, “no” or “really?” from her. No, this was not my gabby, run at the mouth mother anymore. That Christmas someone shopped and wrapped for her. She was as surprised as we were when we opened our gifts from her.

Suddenly my ugly sweater began taking on a special beauty all its own. I still hated it, aesthetically speaking. The colors were down right awful and there is something about the plastic-ness of acrylic fiber that is hard and stiff and makes me cringe when it’s wrapped around me. Yet she had picked it out for me, knowing I was a fiber snob, perhaps as a provocation to get my dander up one more time. There wasn’t much of a Christmas for us the following year. On my birthday, my sister-in-law bought a card for her to sign to send me. She said my mother must have asked her three or four times whose birthday it was, yet she had signed her full name, including middle initial. It was the saddest of sad realities in my life. Yes, now this sweater had become priceless.

It is many years now that she is gone. I do not miss the fighting, but there are days I yearn for a long, catch-up chat around her kitchen table, the site of so many of our grand spats. I wear the sweater a few times every winter, on really cold days, because the goddamn thing doesn’t breathe at all like good wool does. Sometimes I’ll wear it when it’s not so cold, when I’m feeling a bit down and I need a little TLC – the kind of morale boost that can only come from your mom.

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