Not an Ugly Christmas Sweater

(Whole) in the World—moving forward through grief.

My wife had a great sense of humor and a tremendous capacity for joy, but she was absolutely incapable of enjoying the irony or finding humor in the Ugly Christmas Sweater phenomenon that has swept the nation over the past few decades.

She didn’t even like wearing Christmas socks to the many Ugly Christmas Stocking parties that inevitably sprang up like mushrooms in the smugger corners of New York City (in a futile attempt to keep Gotham grime off our hardwood floors, most New Yorkers ask their guests to leave all shoes in their buildings’ hallways), and she would sometimes go so far as to rebel with a slightly upmarket red-and-green argyle design.

She was nothing if not classy. She had impeccable taste in home décor, cooking, art, literature, music, skin care, and, above all, clothing. Working, as she mostly did, on Broadway, she was annually subjected to the Times Square holiday tourist tsunami of red-nosed reindeer pullovers, snowflake cardigans, and menorah turtlenecks.

“Mug Me!” sweaters, she called them, often reflecting that these folks were lucky that the winter season required each festive holiday-maker to zip up his or her parka to cover up the fashion abominations that would surely attract every mugger within the five boroughs.  She was lucky it was winter too. Those things hurt her eyes.

My wife’s clothing was well-tailored and flattering, dykey enough to make her mother cringe and the young actresses who worshipped her swoon, but feminine in unexpected ways —a creamy softness that made me want to touch her all the time.

I was reflecting on all of this the other day when I reached into the closet for my coat and found it; her anti-ugly Christmas sweater was hanging there in a dry-cleaning bag. How had I gone into that closet at least four times a day for the past 6 years and never spotted it? Or, wait, had I seen it? Had I simply ignored it? It didn’t matter because there it was, and it was exactly her. Soft merino wool in a deep cranberry hue with a very subtle cable knit.

Classy. Festive. Flawless.

After she died I avoided her clothing. I gave it away—some of her best stuff to her friends, some to charity, I threw it away—devastating bags of underwear and jeans and t-shirts. I kept a few things, promising myself I’d sleep in them all the while letting them gather dust in corners of drawers.

But this, this sweater, this not-the-least-bit-ugly Christmas sweater, this symbol of her style and beauty—I felt certain she had sent me her sweater– or had helped me to find it—and I would allow it to tenderly swathe me, comfort me, lend me some of her loveliness.

I wore it to work and mused all day about how I would write of this…gift. It thought about just the right way to express that this was the exact present I needed at the exact right time. Maybe my column too, I fantasized, would be the perfect present for someone else who was grieving.

And I had discovered it the first week in December. It was a freaking Christmas miracle!  It was almost too perfect.

For one thing, the sweater fit me really well. OK, that was weird because she and I were very different sizes. Had the dry cleaners shrunk it? Had I suddenly grown three bra sizes?  And also, I was beginning to have this creeping sense that I had actually picked it up from the cleaners maybe a month ago? Or a year ago?

I felt deflated. Why did it fit me? Why didn’t I remember it hanging there or not hanging there or… had I dreamed the whole thing up? Tied my little story up with a pretty fabrication bow? How many other lies had I told myself about what she’d left behind? About who she was?

Had it ever been her sweater at all? I could picture her wearing it, but could I remember her wearing it?

That night I lay in bed with my new (not so new anymore–very patient) partner. We talked about the ways in which we all subtly, but constantly rewrite our life stories to make them more special or more… complete somehow.

“I guess I’ll never know the whole truth,” I mused.

“Dear, why don’t you check the size?” he suggested.

Jesus, why hadn’t I checked the stupid size? Was there some part of the truth I was still avoiding? I took the sweater out of the wardrobe and showed it to him. “Isn’t it so Christmas-y and warm and—”

“What size is it?”

“What? Oh yeah…”

I reached into the neck and pulled out the tag.

It was her size.

It was her sweater.

The tears and thoughts rushed in at once:

I love her I long for her I love him he makes me see things she never forced me to look at she comforted me he challenges me I feel proud of my writing which makes me feel guilty because when I write about her am I using her is this her sweater? am I using it? is it mine? did we share it? it’s such a gentle sweater and she was so gentle and he is so kind and why does this thing fit me?

It is her size. It fits my body. It is not ugly. This is part of the truth.

The truth isn’t ugly either.  So why is it so hard to look straight at it?  Will it hurt my eyes the way the Ugly Christmas Sweaters used to hurt hers? Or is it just impossible to see?






Ugly Christmas Sweater image courtesy of Amazon.  Buy It!

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Gretchen M. Michelfeld

Gretchen M. Michelfeld is an eclectic writer, a hopeful feminist, a sheepish Mets fan and a proud mom. Her award-winning feature film AS GOOD AS YOU is available on iTunes.


  1. This is a poignant and deeply moving piece about navigating the unimaginable loss of a loved one and how the painful and heartwarming reminders of them will both surprise and comfort us, years after the wrenching goodbyes. Gretchen paints such vivid and evocative images with her words and helps even a complete stranger feel the warmth of their love and the depth of her loss. What a tremendous gift and a brave act to share such intimate insights into something, that for most of us, is inevitable, and the sheer thought of it fills many of us with paralyzing dread. Thank you for bringing your breathtaking and honest voice to this tender subject and by this process of acceptance, help to bring us, your readers, some peace in knowing that despite the agony, there is life after loss. I look forward to being graced by more of your gorgeous prose in the future. With much love and gratitude. -Karis

  2. Wow. What a beautiful essay on the sweet little memories that one thing can trigger. I love the way you explore grief in your work. Thank you for this.

  3. It’s yours. It’s hers. As I continue my life without my partner of 40 years, I often feel I’m doing things for both of us. Am I writing to compete with him and teaching workshops to compete with him. If he were here, he’d encourage me to do what I always wanted to do and had a hard time doing then. He’s in me–at least in memory and heart. I often find little treasures that feel like ours even though it’s been ten years since his death. His clothes are too large, but one of my sons wears his wood’s jacket and the other son just took one of his dad’s chainsaws home. Slowly the stuff gets dispersed. I’m moving on with a life that feels connected and disconnected from him, less sure of the borders between us and between life and death..

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