I was with my mother when she bought the cardigan, about a year before she died. We went on a ‘girls shopping trip’ – my mother, my daughter and I, to the Trafford Centre. I had planned it carefully, to take account of her limited mobility combined with her refusal to acknowledge her physical limitations. So we parked directly outside one of the main entrances in a disabled parking place, using her newly (and begrudgingly) acquired blue badge and only took in one shop.
The cardigan caught my mother’s eye almost immediately. Baby soft cashmere, with coloured stripes over a gentle cream background. Her fingers stroked it, feeling its softness, but she moved on after checking the price and then shortly afterwards said that she would have to sit down. My daughter and I dashed around the shop whilst she sat, fulfilling our ostensible purpose of finding a swimming costume that my mother could buy for my daughter.
When we arrived back at the bench, she glanced quickly back in the direction of the cardigan and commented casually ‘I could just try it on here I suppose?’. It was duly fetched and she tried it on at her seat. We looked around for a mirror and saw one on the wall about ten metres away. She stood up slowly, finding her balance and set off on the short walk to the mirror with her characteristic lurching start as she launched herself on her mission.
As she glanced in the mirror, I saw her appraise herself from the front and then, very briefly, turned to at a side angle, whereupon she grimaced at her bent and broken back and commented that she couldn’t get used to seeing herself look that way.
I was despatched to pay for the cardigan for her and my mother and daughter sat together back on the bench whilst I dashed through the shopping centre to buy us all ice creams. My mother always prided herself on being an ice cream connoisseur and I can remember very many occasions when ice creams purchased at various venues around the country fell below her exacting standards. But this day, she gave a nod of satisfaction and pronounced ‘now that is a good ice cream’ and I felt proud and happy at the resounding success of the trip.
The cardigan remained a big hit with my mother, quickly becoming a wardrobe staple. Light enough to be worn the rest of that summer, warm enough to be of use during the Scottish winter, and gentle on increasingly tormented bones and skin.
And a year on, it was one of the few items of clothing which came to the hospice with her. As she fell asleep whilst we watched the Wimbledon final together on her television in her room during my first visit, I laid it over her. When we took her out in the wheelchair into the hospice garden on my last visit, it was light and soft, tucked around her shoulders.
So after she had gone and my father invited me and my sisters to ‘claim’ any items of clothing which held significance for us, I asked for the striped cashmere cardigan. My father brought it to my house in a plastic bag, tied at the handles. As I opened it, the sweet, characteristic smell of the hospice seeped out and overwhelmed me and I quickly resealed the bag, unable to open it again for a few weeks. When I did, the same thing happened. I decided I had two options: keep it in the bag forever, or wash it and wear it.
I decided on the latter. So far, I have only put it on once or twice, in the house. This year, I found myself back at the same shopping centre on Remembrance Sunday, delivering my youngest child to a birthday party. After dropping him off, I took my place amongst the crowds gathering to watch the television pictures transmitted from the Cenotaph in London on the big screen. As the poignant strains of Elgar filled the hall, followed by the cannon and then the silence, I was undone, suddenly and unexpectedly, by grief. I was not crying for the soldiers or the families, or for my ancestors affected by wars. I was crying for my mother, a war baby, and I was crying for myself and the renewed shock of realising what bereavement feels like. It’s the little things, like the cardigan. And it’s the big things, like knowing you will never see them again.