Monday, December 12th, 2016
(Note: I wrote this three years ago, before my mother died.)
My 90-year-old mother brought a kazoo with her when she moved to assisted living a few months ago.
We found three kazoos in a drawer of her bureau – part of the furniture set she’s had for her entire married life, which she wasn’t taking with her — and she stopped me from throwing them out. “You never know when you might need a kazoo,” she said.
And I thought, delightedly, okay, the old girl still has some spunk.
She also insisted on bringing a hammer and screwdriver from the house she was leaving after 50 years. “Mom,” I said, “you’re moving to A-S-S-I-S-T-E-D living. You don’t need tools.”
“I want to be able to fix things,” she said, and I thought, yes, this is good. This is the most self-confident I’d heard her in a long time, certainly during the past seven months in which she survived a long stretch of soul-sapping inpatient rehab for her debilitating and painful back condition.
She also packed an “evening bag” and a fancy floor-length gown, just in case, and I thought, great, she can see herself dolled up, even with her walker.
Later, I called up to her from the basement that I’d found a big box of her love letters to and from my father, written daily by each of them while my father was serving in World War II. “You can get rid of them. I don’t need them,” she shouted down. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them in one of the large plastic garbage bags filling rapidly with detritus of her life, so I just set aside the box, thinking I might take the letters myself.
Ten minutes later, my mother called down; her back pain had prevented her from coming down to the basement for a couple of years. “I’ll take them,” she said. I was glad. My guess is that in the last chapter of your life, the letters to and from your beloved will be more important, more soothing, perhaps, than an extra sheet set or your collection of Shakespeare’s history plays, hand-written college comments intact.
My mother had lived in that house for 50 years, alone in it since my father died in 2001. Like so many of her contemporaries, she was committed to staying in her home – a tiny three-bedroom, one-story, brick house in Queens – for the rest of her life; not only did she enjoy puttering around the house and garden, but she was haunted by images of unpleasant residential institutions: the dreary nursing home her father lived in until he died, let alone the state-run psychiatric hospital where her older brother spent his adult life. But as my mother became less mobile – she and her friends stopped driving, they became disabled, ill, and many died — her relatively active world started shrinking and she felt isolated; a sociable person, she needed more people in her day-to-day life. When she called me to say she’d decided to give up the house and go to assisted living, which most of my family had been urging her to do for several years, she said she was ready to move because she was “bored.”
That she wanted to move for more stimulation, rather than because she felt unable to oversee the demands of a house and garden, was a good sign, I thought – the same sort of positive spin on things as she’d later reveal about taking the kazoo when we packed. This optimism was unusual; my mother has always been a lemons-don’t-make-lemonade lady, a glass-is-always-empty gal.
Luckily, my mother knew what assisted-living complex on Long Island she wanted to move to, so that part of this big life change was easy. She found a beautiful apartment, and one room has a wall of windows; it looks out on the hustle-bustle of a busy suburban street and a large shopping center and makes her feel part of things, even if she’s indoors.
Once she decided to move, my mother wanted to get on with it, to get there already. Transitions are always uncomfortable; they make you feel ungrounded, suspended in air until it’s time to land. This anxiety freed her, I think, to let go of a lot of her stuff – 50 years of stuff – without too much second-guessing, or wistfulness. She discarded mounds of towels, cloth napkins, dishtowels, comforter covers and placemats; at least two dozen pairs of shoes, each stored in a labeled shoebox; several coats; her entire collection of cookware and casserole dishes, serving pieces, and the rest of the kitchen (except the sink), and so much else, 50-years much, and she did it all with purpose, in seemingly good spirits.
The many hours I spent helping my mother pack was probably the most time we’ve spent together alone, possibly ever, certainly since I went to college in 1972, and sorting was surprisingly upbeat; she was clearly ready to move on. We sat together and went through just about every item in that house and reminisced as we put them in one of five piles: Take, throw out, donate, Janet wants for her home, and Janet will sell at a yard sale at her own home in Pennsylvania.
My parents were collectors – nothing fancy, nothing too pricey — but idiosyncratic, many collections inspired by their travels. They collected wooden Asian dolls. They collected horse brasses and displayed them around several doorways. They had an entire wall covered with abacuses, all sizes. And they collected whale figurines, geodes, opera chachkas, nature guides, and lots of other things; these thematic collections always made them easy to shop for. My mother had a more difficult time parting with these objects, I think, but she wisely took a few pieces from each collection to help make her new apartment feel like home.
I took the rest of each collection, or just about. I don’t collect Asian dolls, horse brasses, abacuses, and the rest, but I couldn’t bear to think of the collections not remaining intact.
I took meaningful stuff with me: A book of haiku that my father wrote after his retirement, a few of his academic medals and several wood statues he’d whittled; my immigrant grandparents’ tickets from the boat that brought them from Europe to America; my grandmother’s collection of buttons, which I played with when I was little; my mother’s knitting and crochet needles, and photos, lots of photos. Things beyond value. The heart things you take with you if there’s a fire.
I took goofy things, like some old-fashioned garters from when my mother wore a girdle, and one of her curlers (to show my daughter, who’d never seen one), an angel-food-cake knife, a cardboard-tube balloon blower-upper that I remembered from my birthday parties, and Happy New Year paper cups and streamers. It was relatively easy to pack up my mother’s belongings because she was choosing what meaningful items to move with; what remained, no matter what pile they ended up in, were not her favorites. But because my father died without having had the opportunity to make these choices, his dearest possessions were still in the house, and it was his stuff that made me teary.
There were things I took not because I wanted them but they were too nice to get rid of: crystal stemware, big ginger jars, a couple of oak type cases, a set of what used to be called “tv tables,” framed Asian prints, and my mother’s raccoon coat, which looks terrific on me but for moral reasons, I can’t bring myself to wear it. And lots more. Cartons more. From my mother’s house to the holding station of my basement.
Luckily, my brother and I didn’t want to take the same things to our own homes. I got the Nok-hockey board, and the Radio Flyer red wagon, and the fancy dinnerware with square plates, without any conflict. The only thing we had to negotiate was who would get which of our father’s collection of wooden block prints, one of several crafts he dabbled in over the years.
After five months, my mother finally moved. Her apartment quickly looked like home, thanks to the possessions she had chosen to take, and my house looked like a mess, overstuffed with temporarily homeless items, many of which I didn’t want to keep.
So I gave some things to friends who know my mother. Jamie, with a rooster-themed kitchen, got the rooster mosaic my mother made. Donna got several large blue-and-white vases to match her color scheme. I gave a porcelain bell and a “World’s Greatest Bubby” mug to Judy. My mother was thrilled.
Other things I sold at a yard sale at my home, and my mother’s possessions were a big hit. Any time I sold something that had been hers, I explained the circumstances and urged people to give the item a happy new life. One woman, purchasing two Japanese prints, replied, “What’s your mother’s name?”
“Frances,” I said.
“Every time I look at these prints I’m going to think, ‘Thank you, Frances,’” she told me. I told my mother, who was delighted.
And after a few months, I unpacked the whales and put the whole collection on a deep windowsill on the third floor of my house.
A week or two later, I put the Asian dolls in our porch. That’s where the geodes ended up, too.
And we hung the abacuses on a wall that most visitors don’t see, but it’s near my home office, so I do. These are still not my collections, but I see them and know that I am home.