Sitting in her kitchen on a sunny midmorning, Amy Sklar radiates Silver Lake working-mom cool. In jeans and a white T-shirt and flats, her hair pulled back, she looks crisp and lovely. There is an odd touch: quite prominent swirly white seashell earrings with 18-karat-gold detailing, jewelry more likely to be worn with a cocktail dress than with the casual attire she has chosen. “Let me guess,” I say. “Those were your mom’s?” “Yes,” she says, laughing.
Amy, a 45-year-old interior designer with two young girls, is in the final months of a yearlong sartorial homage to her mother, an adventure she is chronicling on her photo-rich blog, From the Reservoir. Carole Lawrence died in February 2013 of lung cancer in a New York hospital, and Amy inherited the contents of her closets (Amy has a brother, but his wife wasn’t interested in the clothes). She brought a lot of her mother’s wardrobe back to L.A. and found herself regularly donning an item: a skirt, a scarf, a pair of shoes. “It was absolutely unpremeditated,” she says. “I would just reach for something of hers. But then when the first anniversary was coming, I said I am going to wear something of hers every day and photograph it. And I told enough people, so I was completely on the hook.”
Thus the earrings. We agree that they actually look hipper with jeans than they would with a fancier outfit. Later that day her husband, comedian Randy Sklar, takes a picture of her wearing them for the blog. He has been her chief helpmate in compiling this visual diary, which includes shots of Amy in a medley of her mother’s stuff, from necklaces and belts to floral frocks and long satin gowns. The clothes tend to be glam-fun outfits from the 1970s and ’80s—not high-end designerwear like Armani, though there are vintage Gucci peau de soie flats and a peppy St. John knit jacket. Amy’s father was in retail management at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, then at Bonwit Teller, and the evening clothes have a satin throwback feel; they are the kinds of gowns you would find on the dressier floors of those department stores.
There are people, I suppose, who might think this exercise is sentimental? Corny? A ploy for a book deal (what isn’t)? Not me. Not for a second. Amy is one of those adult daughters I instantly recognize, who were so close to their moms, they talked to them at least once a day, often two or three times, all the way through until the end. I understand the breed because I am one of them. We are, I think, the lucky girls. No, I know we are, though there is a longing we carry after we lose our mothers that marks us and that we try to assuage by wearing an item of their clothing, anything to be reminded, to hang on, to be hung onto. The need is reflexive, tactile, childlike, and ageless.
I occasionally sleep in one of my mother’s simple white cotton nightgowns. I often wear her rust-colored suede jacket, repaired so many times on her watch, then mine, that I am amazed it is still intact. During the holidays, I put on her black cashmere sweater with the little sequins—not me, really, but me because it was hers. I am amused scrolling through Amy’s posts and pictures to see her wearing almost the exact same cardigan, in her case with blue jeans and shiny heels (note to self: Pair it with something sporty next time).
Sprinkled throughout the blog are pictures of Amy’s dark-haired mother. She looks as her daughter describes her—full of life, full of appetite, a fashionista before we were using the word, a woman who never left the house without her hair done and makeup on. “My mother was very beautiful,” Amy says, “but she was also a woman of substance. She had character. She was generous and funny and irreverent. I just loved hanging out with her, even when I was in high school.”
By that point Carole was divorced and remarried and had taken up baking in a serious, moneymaking way, creating elaborately decorated cakes for weddings and birthdays. Amy shows me pictures of those, too. “I would be in the kitchen with her until two or three in the morning.”
The other thing they did together was shop. But times had changed. We’re not talking Saks anymore. Her father was no longer employed at the level he had been. Her stepfather, to whom she is close, worked in the shipping industry. The family was not immune to the economic downturn of the early ’80s. “That’s when we really started to become extreme thrift shoppers,” Amy says. “And it was fantastic. I ended up having a different style from anybody else in my public high school on Long Island. I was picking up Indian gauze dresses because I couldn’t keep up with labels. I learned to do my own thing, and that I’m very grateful for.”
The blog entries are generally warm and chatty and include details about the clothing being modeled. “Who doesn’t need a pair of emerald green pumps with rhinestones…Nuf said?” she writes in a typical offering. But there is one with a very different tone. The photo is not of clothes but of an open palm holding a 12-step coin given on sobriety anniversaries. I look closely—32 years. The accompanying prose is direct. It reads: “Day 152, Aug. 20, 2014. This year we flew back to NY on July 23rd. 34 years to the day that my mother entered her final trip to rehab. I am not going to go too deeply into the circumstances, because I believe it would hurt my mother. She suffered so much regret about not being sober for the first 10 years of my life…. As a child it is hard not to think it is your fault, but there were bigger forces at work there. Mom, I am so proud of the fact that you pulled yourself out of such a deep and painful hole…. Even in your darkest moments, I know you loved me.”
Nearby is a pre-rehab picture of an attractive, unhappy woman gazing out a window, a small girl trying to comfort her, to get her attention, to make her happy. Ah, I say with recognition. There’s the flip: parent as child, child as parent. That’s what is in there under all those clothes. I get it now. I did that dance. Like Amy, I will not delve much, except to say that my mother, too, had her collection of recovery chips. Like Amy, I will leave certain things unsaid, unwilling to cause hurt even though there is no one left to hurt. But what this inversion speaks to is the depth of the mother-daughter connection; it’s a double tether, if you will, an umbilical attachment that goes both ways. Maybe it is also fear. You lost them once, in effect, to addiction, so you must cling, hold tight, watch them closely, keep them safe, make them happy, play with them, shop with them, bake cakes with them, and revel in their nearness. The gratitude at having them present is vast, bigger than the sun and the sea and the sky. That’s what I told my mom when she was dying.
So we wear their clothes and we wear their perfume. “For me,” Amy writes, “my mother will always be tied to a few key fragrances: Guerlain’s Shalimar, YSL’s Opium, Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew, and of course, Chanel No. 5. As classic fragrances go, these are heavy hitters. If I think about them, they are indeed heady and intense. They would get caught in a sweater or scarf and linger for days, weeks, years.”
Just what you want: that lingering. I have not dry-cleaned a couple of my mother’s coats for this reason. There are moments I cheat and anoint them again with a mist of her favorite, White Linen, which I might spritz on myself before bed—not too often because I don’t want to weaken the olfactory impact by overuse. Reading Amy’s blog makes me smile, knowing there is another perfectly normal, highly functioning woman who is walking around in her mom’s clothes, and not just as an occasional nostalgic stunt. She’s all in. Always was.