Yesterday I faced the difficult task of clearing out my mother’s room. Her familiar clothes were hanging in the closet, and I knew which were her favorites and the provenance of each. The drawers were brimming with beads and broken watches, eyeglasses and trinkets, fancy fans and shoe horns, random treasures neatly wrapped and taped in tissue paper: a screw, a domino, a broken piece of star. I saw the dolls whose names were Darling and Miranda, and good old Betty Boop, and the steadfast white bear with the heart on his chest who sat on the bed pillow through many hard times. Now they were gathered together like orphaned children awaiting their destiny.
I approached it all in a trance-like state, turning off my emotions so I wouldn’t start to cry. Thankfully I was accompanied by my dear friend Donna, who was functional and clear-thinking. A sort of sorting system evolved, with bags for the Goodwill, for the dumpster out back, and smallest of all, for stuff to be kept. “Take your time,” said Donna, more than once, holding up something of potential value, whether real or sentimental. “Are you sure this isn’t something you’ll wish you’d held onto?” But I was ruthless in the giving and the throwing away. I didn’t want things that I knew would only make me sad.
So many hair ties and barrettes, so many chapsticks and lipsticks, so many unwrapped butterscotch candies. So many pens and crayons, and letters and cards almost all sent by me, so many handkerchiefs and scissors and post-it notes and magazine clippings and little mirrors and napkins and pictures of kittens and brochures with smiling people on the covers. So many books with handwritten notes tucked into them, so many purses and keys to nowhere, so many emory boards and band-aids and a secret stash of hearing aid batteries. Money, too: a long-forgotten dollar bill folded into a tiny pink coin purse, and about 79 cents worth of change.
And everywhere there were photographs of people she loved, and of course they’re the same ones I loved, the original cast of characters. She and I sat side by side many times going through these albums and looking at those snapshots, and she never forgot who they were. Just weeks before she died, I showed her the framed picture of my father, and she leaned forward and kissed it. I’ve taken those photographs with me.
I also took the composition notebooks we referred to as our journals. These were a ritual: at the conclusion of each visit over the years, I would open to a fresh page and write the date and what we did together. I thought it would help her stay oriented and allow her to revisit the memories. They are thus a record of our outings over the course of fifteen years, with the diminishing radius of our expeditions reflecting her diminishing capabilities. They also document her accumulating problems, filled as they are with reminders, advice, and attempts at reassurance. So I’ve inherited the journals, and I’ll read them, I guess, but I don’t think I’ll keep them. I remember enough.
The mezuzah is mine as well. It was mounted on the wall by the door, and she always touched it before passing the threshold. “Heaven keep our going and coming each day.” It’s a kind of blessing and protection, and I like that it was hers. I’ve hung it by the door in the upstairs room of my house, a threshold of some importance to me. It reminds me to stay faithful to what matters.
Life moves along too fast too fast but after a while we look back and see what wasn’t clear to us while everything was happening. I understand now that my mother’s childlike enthusiasm was something rare and beautiful, and I can see how very brave she was. I am in awe of her resilience and stamina. She weathered terrible loss and loneliness and traumatic upheavals, but she remembered mostly good things and tried to be game. Discarding the remnants of face powders and blushers, I recall how much she liked to look pretty, and I remember how surprised she was to be old. And I realize in retrospect how much she loved music…in the deafness of her final decade she missed it more and more, and she hummed to herself a lot. I see again how fond she was of animals, and I wish she could have had a real pet in these years, but she was always on the lookout for a cat slinking by on the street or a bird splashing in the patio fountain. I must never forget how the simplest of pleasures can brighten someone’s day.
And I marvel at how much she loved to go outside and walk. Even after she fell and broke her hip, she swapped her cane for a walker and kept on moving. Here’s a quote from her, age 89, that I jotted down in one of the journals: “89. It’s pretty old…isn’t it? But I don’t feel my age. I could still run…if I ever have to run, I could run.” Yes, my mother thought of herself as someone who could still run if she had to. She hated that wheelchair, another object left behind, but not one we ever really thought of as hers.
It’s a pretty good legacy, after all. I don’t know if I could ever be as stoic and brave as she was, but maybe after I get up and pull myself together, I’ll discover that I’ve inherited some of her resilience and stamina. I’ll definitely be inspired by her enthusiasm. And I already know I find great comfort in mobility, which I’m sure is a gift from her. (Some of my earliest memories, come to think of it, involve walking all over the city with her, she in high heels.)
Most important, I have had an excellent internship in patience, and I’ve been bequeathed a small trove of wisdom. I have learned that you only end up regretting the times you were unkind, and that what you perceived as a burden may turn out to have been a gift. And I’m not going to be sad, damn it. I’m going to try, as my mother did, to remember what was good.
So we cleared the room of my mother’s worldly goods, and a poignant collection it was. Ninety-one years of living, and this is what she owned. People have asked me if I am the executor of my mother’s estate, and I never thought about it that way, but yes, I suppose I am. Not only that, I’m an heiress.