Sharing clothes feels like sharing a secret, the same way being someone’s child does.
In the fall of 2016, I was a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an idyllic campus of 40,000 students situated on an isthmus––lakes on either side of the narrow strip of land that makes up downtown. Madison is liberal by mainstream definitions, especially compared to the rest of the state, and comes with a pejorative: “thirty square-miles surrounded by reality.”
By November, Madison had been cold for weeks. The trees lining campus had long shed their gold and pink leaves. A sharp draft knifed under the front door of my apartment, which could only be described as a super-sized storage unit, all metal siding and industrial pillars. Outside, sorority girls and international students strolled to class in giant Canada Goose jackets, the fur-trimmed hoods bobbing uselessly behind them.
I was twenty-one, watching the first presidential election in which I could vote as it unfolded with increasing chaos. Graduation was around the corner, and I was scared shitless of the prospect of having not just to make life decisions, but to create those very options for myself through whatever talent or luck I could muster or fake. My anxiety was exacerbated by the disorientation in the journalism industry, in which I wanted a job. The media’s predictions were annihilated. Everyone was left to pick up the pieces. By the end, college felt like a balloon constantly inflating, making the world seem a bit wider but within limits, and finally I was nearing its translucent walls.
In photos from that time, I’m noticeably tired; drinking and following politics were typical pastimes at UW-Madison and I did both, often at the same time. My shoulder-length hair is always pulled out of my face in a ponytail. Most striking is that I’m usually wearing the same red sweater given to me by my mother the year before.
My mom claims she “got it from Santa” thirty years ago without offering any more details on its origins. I know she wore it fashionably, with plaid wool skirts, matching red accessories. I wore it mostly with black running leggings that were threadbare by graduation, or a pair of jeans if I felt ambitious.
You notice the color first—a near-unearthly shade of cherry red—and then the details: the oversized turtleneck, the variegated knit patterns, the thick protective wool that seems to swallow the wearer. I wore it to hockey games, to class, to dinner with my dad, to karaoke bars. I remember being home for the holidays and walking downstairs in the morning, cocooned in it.
“You need to wear something other than my sweater,” my mom laughed.
I’ve used clothes in many ways—to build or hide myself, to tell the truth, to pretend—but never carelessly. So it puzzled me to look back on how instinctively and often I wore that red sweater, in the way a cartoon character owns just one outfit.
If clothes are meant to be a reflection of the self, then that’s what the sweater was for me: In a period of uncertainty, as I worried about finding my footing in the world I was soon supposed to inhabit, wearing the red pullover was the emotional equivalent of white noise, a comforting hum of normalcy amid the whiplash of each day. Nothing in life was promised, but at least when I went to get dressed, there was something tangibly constant.
The red sweater was a refuge, but now it’s inextricably linked to the period when I truly became an adult. The sweater that had only ever been my mom’s was shape-shifting and taking on a new life—my life—that I was decidedly less prepared to navigate. Just as she lived in the sweater, I too was beginning to imprint upon it, and so prismatic and multivalent were my own uncertainties that all I could do was stretch my hand toward something I knew.
My mother was twenty-six when she left her hometown for Tokyo. She did the one thing she’s always made me swear I wouldn’t do: move somewhere for a boyfriend. She couldn’t speak Japanese and knew nobody except my father, her then-boyfriend, who didn’t even live in the city at the time––he visited her via the train from his home prefecture of Iwate. When they first met, they barely shared a common language and came from diametrically different places, but somehow found each other. And even more improbably, the relationship stuck; across continents, families, languages and biannual moves.
She did the one thing she’s always made me swear I wouldn’t do: move somewhere for a boyfriend.
My parents’ unlikely life together is a linchpin of our family epic, the foundation upon which so much of our collective identity is built. The luck of it all perhaps accentuates my own adolescent struggles, and the questions that linger even into adulthood:about being mixed-race when your parents are not; how to navigate being first-generation anything; the abject difficulty of balancing your parents’ lived realities with your own that are also true and often at odds.
I know only fragments of my mother’s early days in Japan: the tiny apartment she rented in 1992 that didn’t have a shower, much less hot water (she went to sentoaround her apartment). The bout of food poisoning within the first few weeks of her arrival that left her bedridden. How she worked at a school teaching young women practical and professional skills before they moved to America. I only recently realized I’ve never asked her the logical questions: Was she scared to go? Did her parents agree with her decision? Was she lonely?
When I was little, strangers, seeing me and my white mother, would ask her where she got me. But I didn’t feel all that different from her until I was twelve or thirteen, when years of society’s racial prejudice began to calcify and emerge from my peers. By college, when I finally meaningfully engaged with my identities, no amount of theory or vocabulary I had learned in class could viscerally convey what it felt like to be me—not to friends, not to strangers, and not to my parents.
I don’t know many details about those first years in Japan, but I have my mom’s wardrobe from the time: the very ’90s graphic t-shirt from a ski resort our family would later visit; the floral-printed shorts she wore that wouldn’t billow up when the train rushed by; the turquoise and pink plaid blazer and matching skirt, an outfit I imagine as being in the middle of a Venn diagram comparing Clueless and Malibu Barbie.
Wearing her clothes removed from their original context allows for a personal processing of the hardest questions I carry within myself. I wear the wool skirts and silk blouses she bought in Japan, a foreign place for her, but what would become a home country for me. And I think of how two people can be so different, yet still move in parallel; how she looks at the clothing and sees herself, flush with fabulous fashion in a country so far from home, while I see myself, with a legacy so divergent yet immovably linked.
Sharing clothes feels like sharing a secret, the same way being someone’s child does. I have known my mother longer than anyone else, connected in sacred, unknowable ways. But even in our closeness, wearing her clothes puts a distance between us. Mostly, I think about what she might have done in them, long before she had even the concept of being a mother. I fill in the gaps of her life with the artifacts she passes on, the sweaters and dresses and trousers and jumpsuits that remind me of who I am and who I’m not.
I’ve never felt entitled to know everything about anyone, including my mom. But the physical relics of her life are my own reminder: She was someone before me. I wear her clothes and both feel her, a part of me as ever, and am faced with the knowledge that I will never know the fullness of her. The clothes are a veil and a lifeline, what separates us and what binds us, forever. The past is obfuscated, written over anew. But the heart of it––the heart of our clothes––never dies.
Most mornings I stagger out of bed, stand in the middle of my closet and try to decide what to wear. The clothes are mine, but have seen lives beyond the one I am laughably lucky to occupy. I see places, and people, and mistakes, and grace. And everywhere, I see her.