By Lifestyle Observer
The loss of a simple item of clothing called up the pain of losses I thought I had already accepted.
Sometimes, when you’ve owned and loved something for many years, you begin to worry a little every time you use it. As if the longer you manage to keep it, the more likely it is to be lost, stolen, or damaged. I have such a thing, long owned and long treasured. When I lost it two autumns ago, I wasn’t surprised to be sad. What surprised me was how the loss of a simple item of clothing could call up the pain of greater losses I thought I had already accepted.
It was a scarf. Nothing fancy and in fact downright plain. Charcoal gray. Wool. Perhaps closer to boiled wool than woven, and with a thick fringe on each end. I bought it in 1993, in Hampstead, London, at Next, a chain that was trendy then and is now simply still around. The scarf was shorter than what we consider stylish these days, but I could wrap it around my neck once and have just enough left over to knot beneath my chin. As soon as the weather turned even slightly cool, it was the only scarf I wore, whether I was in jeans or a cocktail dress, boots or heels. Charcoal gray goes with everything. And so the scarf went with me.
Over the years, the scarf was an essential element of my personal style. And while I’m not sure I can define the ineffable logic behind that style—or behind anyone else’s, for that matter—I know it when I see it. Personal style is what emerges when your appearance and sense of self fall into perfect accord. When you find that accord, not even a raised eyebrow or a frown at your outfit can dampen your spirit.
One day in the autumn of 2014, I realized that the gray wool scarf I had left my house with was neither around my neck, nor in my bag, nor in my car. I had been out on a date. After 30 years, including five years of pain and uncertainty, my marriage had finally ended, and I was beginning my new life with excitement and relief. But as I stood scarfless by the front door of the home where I had raised my children to adulthood, all my newfound contentment unraveled. My happiness seemed suddenly ephemeral and flimsy. All I could see was what I had lost—my marriage, my family, a lifetime of history with one person.
In 1993, my then husband had been posted to the London office of his company, and I had taken a semester’s leave from my teaching job at Harvard. With our two small children, we moved into a flat in a semidetached house in Hampstead. For the next seven months, away from campus and with no teaching responsibilities and few research obligations, I had more time with my children than I’d had since their births. Fully immersed in my own family, I was able to concentrate on myself, my children, my husband—and on our still relatively new lives together. That summer, we camped in Scotland, took our daughter to visit the okapi at the zoo, watched our son learn to ride a trike, hiked in the Lake District, drove to Paris. And through all of it, through the experiences we had, as us, I wore the scarf.
For almost two decades, I wore the scarf without giving it a moment’s thought. But then, the shape of my family began to change as my children turned into adults and my husband began his slow turn away from me and from our marriage. I became aware of how old the scarf was, aware that it had been with me since the very beginning of this family that was shifting around me. The scarf became precious, and like so much of what I’d held precious for nearly 30 years, I came to see how vulnerable it was.
That night on my date, I removed the scarf in a movie theater when I set my jacket and bag on the empty seat beside me. This was a third or fourth date with a friend of a friend. He was wrong for me, but he was fun and he was sexy. I liked spending time with him, and my liking it gave the time a sort of edge. In the parking lot, we leaned against my car and kissed before saying good-bye. Not until I drove home and reached into my bag to pull the scarf out and put it away did I realize it was gone.
An early train to New York the next morning meant I couldn’t return to the mall to search. From the train, I texted to ask my date the question I already knew the answer to. No, he said, I had not had the scarf on when we parted. I called the theater; someone went to look among the seats but found nothing. Nothing in the lost and found.
In New York, I walked from one appointment to another, pining for the scarf with a deep sorrow that surprised me. I told my friends about it as I saw them for coffee and for lunch. They listened kindly, perhaps puzzled, as I told my tale of a woe that felt greater than the upheaval and damage I had weathered for several years. When the marriage had ended irrevocably that summer, I had not cried. Even that fall, I had sung anthemic pop songs loudly in my car, and I had actually looked forward to this new, for me, experience of dating. But that day in New York, I felt like weeping—not over the scarf, but over a life I finally understood to be broken. I walked the city as if the sidewalks were made of glass and, like my composure, could shatter at any moment. Losing the scarf on a date especially seemed like a kind of comeuppance, as if simply enjoying my single life was behavior deserving punishment. I berated myself: How could I go forward if I could not hold on to the one thing that connected me to my history? How could I lose that history so thoughtlessly, on a date with a man with whom I sought no future?
The mall lies between the train station and the family home I was now living in on my own. Returning from New York on the third day since I had lost the scarf, I stopped at the theater there and approached the customer-service desk, where three young people seemed to be enjoying themselves in the absence of either customers or service. Could they check the lost and found, I asked, suspecting this foolish errand would only renew my sadness and, to some large degree, relishing that further push into a wallow. One of the young men disappeared into an office and returned a moment later with something dark in his outstretched hand.
What he held seemed familiar to me in the way that an old friend’s posture identifies her even in shadow. But the scarf was not what I had expected—not what I had cherished in my memory since it had disappeared. The wool was darker and thinner than I’d remembered. I took it from the young man and saw that there indeed was the small hole punctured through the wool, from a moth or from my briefcase strap or the backpack in which I had carried my toddlers. There was the slightly spongy feel of the fringe, the earthy floral scent lingering from my perfume. Nearly crying, finally, from the relief and the astonishment, I put my scarf on in the theater lobby. I didn’t care that the weather had turned warm.
There’s a strange thing about the way my memory had altered the scarf during its three-day absence. Treasuring my long history with it, I had imbued the scarf with decades of comfort and reliability—with decades of expressing me—and had forgotten that it bore the wear and tear of all that time. The puncture hole, the fragrance: Those were positive markers, yes, and hallmarks of my specific life. But as with my marriage, despite all that history, there were other ways in which the years had worn it down.
Reunited with the scarf, I finally understood—in a deep way that had long eluded me—that I needed neither the scarf, nor the marriage, nor the husband, to be confident and happy. The things I treasured had been beautiful once but had succumbed to friction and to strife. As for the scarf, if it had been so crucial to me, my happiness would have soared right there in the lobby as I held it in my hand. And yet it didn’t, because I was already fundamentally happy. The only change I felt that day was that I stopped thinking about the scarf, stopped mourning it and all the rest that I had lost, and looked to what was beautiful in this new life I was making.
This article originally appeared in the October issue of ELLE.