The Red Dress

Gina Harlow

Editorial note from Sara Siddiqui: Sometimes, after the death of a loved one, you might hear things about them from others, things that might cast a sliver of doubt in your mind—whether you really knew the person you are grieving for. With time, you accept it’s impossible to know everything about a person, no matter how close you are to them. In this non-fiction piece, Gina Harlow writes how after her mother’s death, she realized there might be pieces of her mother she never knew but her sister did. I’m honored Gina chose to share this tender piece with me. I’ve read this many times now and loved it a little more each time. Thrilled to share this stunning work by Gina Harlow, a writer of exceptional caliber.

              In this field of limestone, planted in flowers that will never die, the lumbering oak reminds me where you are. Or are not. Mostly I don’t come here, lovely as it is. I never know where to walk, stand, or sit. So much sacred ground. Rather it’s more in places so everyday and times so unsuspecting when grief intrudes and the question of where you are comes in a rush. Still, if some essence of you is under this oak, you must love the way its rangy boughs cover you.

              I know you don’t hold this absence against me, Mama. You never held one thing against anyone. You used to, though, call every night, to ask about my day, tell me of yours. It felt like a lot, like what would we talk about from yesterday? Your days growing shorter and longer at once. Mine like vapor. Me tired from my own kids, only half listening. But you always found something to talk about. I see that now. So maybe you do feel neglected that I don’t visit here more often. Even if it’s like I believe, that here is only the brittle bone and rice paper shroud of you in this ground, in that dress. Which I can only imagine. Because the funeral home asked if I wanted to see you after they put it on you and I said, no. I would not be looking at your dead body, especially in that dress. And I don’t know if that was you or me talking. Because you were terrible with death, had to be forced to go to your mother’s funeral.

              But Jeanette said that was the dress you would have wanted. She went to Macy’s and bought two, as if you were still here to pick. There was the red one, a color not of roses, but of lights, and signs, and costumes. And the other a cream, with dainty peach flowers, which looked more like you to me. But she said you’d always wanted a red dress and decided on it without asking me. I wonder about that, because even though she knew you longer, I knew you better. And I never saw you in anything like that dress. Not once. I should know what color dress you’d like. Only you and me for so long after Jeanette and Randy were grown and off with their own kids. Me coming to you late, an only child at that point. Especially with no man in the house. It was hard for either of us to have secrets.

              I have come under this oak with questions, not just of where you are.

              A while ago, Jeanette and I sat together, brought together I thought, in our loss. Driving to see her I imagined our singular pain would cancel the many grievances we’d had. That seeing her would be like coming here, like going to an alter of you, which like this grave, I realize now, is a feeble attempt to hold on to that which is no longer.

              But that day, instead of realizing those fictive longings, Jeanette told me things about you that were as if they were of someone else’s mother, someone else’s life. Things you are not here to dispute or clarify.  I was there, though. I should know. I was little, yes, I realize that. And when I go through my scraps of memory, it’s as if all of the grown-ups knew I was watching but considered me like the family pet. Which we did not have, but you know what I mean. As if I wouldn’t be able to figure and parse the agonies of your lives, so there was nothing to try to hide.  

              I saw you, though, Mama. I saw how you trudged off to sling hash, as you called it, to pay our bills. How you made sure I had everything I needed. How you always left me those little notes addressed to Dollface. How you made my baloney sandwiches and vanilla milk. No one else at school had vanilla milk. I watched how you cared for Jeanette’s kids, then mine. How everyone—your exes, your kids exes, wayward relatives, no matter their sins—was welcome in your home.

              “You never know what’s inside a person,” you always said.

              Hearing those things after you’d gone to wherever you are, I felt like a dandelion bloom floating in ghostly bits. What could Jeanette know of your marriage to my father who was not hers? Of promises kept and unkept. It ended. In that alone, promises were not kept. And I wondered, Why am I left with this? Along with your sapphire birthstone ring, which you rarely wore because jewelry and trinkets, the things we keep as placeholders for those we’ve lost, meant so little to you. And what is true?

              Now Jeanette is also gone. Maybe she is where you are. Maybe there she is forgiven.

              I have no garish silk flowers for you, Mama. Under the shade of this tree and in this silence that will forever be, I stand grown with my own agonies. I see how shadows fall. Yet through the branches light slips in, so clean, so radiant. I also see what is true. And I think about you in that red dress, Mama, and realize how most women want one.

Gina Harlow is a writer who makes her home in Texas and California. Her essays have appeared at Narratively, Entropy, The Hunger, Austin American Statesman and elsewhere. Her poetry was published in Janus Literary in early 2021. She is currently working on a memoir; the story of her time with a young, wild horse. Links to most of her work can be found at