August 21, 2011

Bill Nemitz: Parents gone, but 'soul stuff' lives on

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Elizabeth Peavey takes on her mom’s belongings in a new play.

Photo by Shoshannah White


"MY MOTHER'S CLOTHES ARE NOT MY MOTHER" premieres at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland on Sept. 15. For information, go to

Then there's the curling iron.

"This has absolutely no value, It's yucky," Peavey said. "But look, there are little strands of her hair still on it and I used to help her curl her hair. It's like I'm still holding on to something that says, 'She was here.' "

Which, according to University of Southern Maine psychology Professor Carol Nemeroff, is precisely the point.

Nemeroff has devoted much of her research over the years to what she calls "the magical law of contagion." First coined by Scottish social anthropologist Sir James Fraser almost a century ago, it recognizes that the moment someone touches and uses an object, it's transformed from just "stuff" to what Nemeroff calls "soul stuff."

"It's permanent. It's indelible," Nemeroff said in an interview last week. "Once that stuff is in (my father's MIT mug), putting it through a dishwasher isn't going to change it."

In other words, that wasn't just a curling iron in Peavey's hand -- it's an emotional conduit that, simply by picking it up, transports her back to an afternoon doting over her mother's hair.

Ditto for the top to a pressure cooker that now resides in Peavey's home office -- it's all that's left from the night Peavey made a charred mess of her and Shirley's weekly steak-and-cabbage dinner.

Peavey said she's still putting the finishing touches on her show -- for tickets, go to or stop by any Bull Moose music store. But if all goes well, she's considering taking it on a national tour.

(Talk about the ultimate irony: Unable to discard her mother's stuff, Peavey soon could find herself making a living schlepping it all over the country.)

The title of the play comes from that day, alone in her mother's bedroom, a still-grieving daughter looked at the 60-year-old prom dress ... the dress Shirley wore to Elizabeth's wedding ... the little white ankle socks ... the T-shirt Shirley wore when Elizabeth took her golfing at Sebasco Estates ... and told herself over and over, "My mother's clothes are not my mother. My mother's clothes are not my mother. ..."

Try telling that to the wool winter coat with the fur collar -- "I think it's real critter," observed Peavey -- that Shirley bought back in the 1960s at Bernie's Fashions on Congress Street in downtown Portland.

Peavey can still hear herself telling her mother, "Will you please chuck that thing? You haven't worn it in 40 years!"

But that was then -- and this is now.

"After she died, I took that thing home with me and wore it all that winter," Peavey said wistfully.

Really? That old coat? Why?

"I couldn't not wear it," Peavey replied.

Smiling, she added, "Why do you wear your dad's hat?"

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


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