From my mother’s house, in 1982, when I left for college—for good: her prized crimson cashmere sweater, which she never wore (Orlando, average temperature in January: 70 degrees Fahrenheit), the most collegiate item in our house, which I washed in warm water, which turned my t-shirts, sheets, and underwear pink, all of which I put in the dryer. I pulled out pink everything and the now tiny sweater. I wore it proudly. I called it a “snug.” I wore it with ultra-tight black jeans, black boots. Hair in a ponytail, long earrings I hand-made out of fishing tackle, as though I intended it all to be just this way.

A bowl with a rooster on it, cream on the outside and inside the most interesting shade of ochre, a color I associated with my mom’s happiest days, the 1950s, when she was a reporter, then a teacher, making a weeknight dinner, laughing with my father about this or that.

A blue floral pillowcase. From a set she used so much the cotton had worn to shining, was smooth as silk. How much I wanted my head where her head had been, my cheek against hers.

Her one gown, a color with no name, palest cinnamon mixed with skin tones, tulle. It never fit me. I wanted to give the dusty dress a proper life at college dances and in ballrooms someday when I was tiny and slender as she was, which never happened, could never happen.

Her father’s wood rosary, carried in a pouch in my purse. Her father, Patrick “Buck” Keating, died on Christmas Eve when my mother was fourteen.

I was never the same again, my mother said.

When I came back from university to visit, the first thing she said was: “I know you’ve stolen some things from me and I want my belongings returned.”

I looked my mother in the eye. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

I didn’t take her jewelry or money or even the paperwork I needed from her to get financial aid. I wonder now at what she chose, this seventeen-year-old girl that I was: a pillowcase, a sweater, a dress, a bowl, and a rosary. Are these the archetypal elements of woman to a girl? Mostly, I didn’t take. I assembled. I assembled just enough to make a complete and good sentence, trying to create a story a girl could live in.

My mother always said to me: You could be so pretty if you tried.

What I took from my father’s house: nothing.

He, and every thing, every body, in that place smelled of smoke, gin, perfume, decay. Damp to the touch.

But wait. Wait. I did take something.

From his blue bedroom, from on his dresser. But it could have been from anywhere in the house, he strew porn magazines in the living room, bathroom, foyer, kitchen counter. I took the fall issue of the magazine Easyriders, containing the only such girl of his I ever came across, a girl who looked almost just like me. She was photographed, in her modest poses (am I airbrushing clothes onto her with faulty memory?) in mossy woods and dry fields, somewhere in the south—kudzu, pine trees—and paired with a gleaming motorcycle, of course.

The way the light fell through the trees, so familiar.

Her motorcycle was small. Similar to one I’d had, a Kawasaki 200. She looked like a junior high school student. She was so small, long wavy light brown hair. My hair. The only small-breasted girl I ever saw in those magazines.

Summer turning to fall, naked under her leather jacket.

I wanted to put my arms around her. Friend. It wasn’t her naked body that captivated my attention, but rather how she was doing life, her body along for the ride. I took her from my father’s house and with me to college.

Talisman. Marker. Back-up plan.

And I took from my father so much that was invisible to me, and I wouldn’t begin to see any of that until decades later.

Heather Sellers is the author of You Don’t Look Like Anyone I KnowEditor’s Choice at The New York Times. Her textbook for the creative writing classroom is The Practice of Creative Writing. She teaches poetry and micro-memoir at The University of South Florida.

Photo by Lauren Crux