My mother, Donna J. Barone, 1929-2014
My mother, already fading, a couple months before her death.
The place in church where my mother parked her wheelchair, the Sunday after her death.
Eight times I have done this. Each time the stack of boxes gets smaller as she goes to places which can meet her increasing levels of need. Eight times I have unpacked them again, trying to set things as closely as possible to how they have always been. Eight times I have wrapped each pretty thing in bubble wrap, eight times heard the story of each—how Bernice gave her the blue bowl because my mother helped with her mother; how Aunt Goldie had promised her that plate when she was a child; how Aunt Louise had tatted that doily; how the church she had worked at had given her that cross in a goodbye parting, certain they’d never be able to replace my mother; how she had been given that stained glass bowl at a craft show in New Hampshire and how a former beau had given her this Lenox bird and how she really should have married him.
Everything she owns has a story, and the story is always the same: I mattered to that person. Once I had my daughter take photos of everything so she could look at them in a book without having to drag everything around, but that project was summarily dismissed. Clearly I just did not understand.
I have handled these things so often, I have my own relationship with them. When I came across the wooden Spanish man, face down in the back of the cupboard, I imploded into weeping. Two years ago in her paranoid stage, my mother who had given me this carving years ago saw it on the mantle. “I never gave you that,” she said fiercely. We fought. She implied I had stolen it. I finally thrust it into her lap and she proceeded to stroke and fondle it like she might a kitten. I raged and wept for the insult five days until I wrote her a letter about it which I thrust into a niche in a remote canyon wall. Now here he is again, neglected in dark dust. What shall I do with the Spanish man? I place him on a dresser for three hours while I remember and deliberate, still wrapping other pretty things. At last I place him not in the Good Will pile, but by my bag. I will bring him home. That awful night must have no more power over me.
Now for a ninth time I again pack up her pretty things. But this time is different. She does not sit in her power recliner telling me the stories yet again as I hold each object up for her scrutiny and order me to put more bubble wrap around that pitcher. She is eight miles away in a nursing home, a vacant look in her eyes, spitting indelicately into a tissue. She does not remember these things. I told her I was packing them up. She did not ask me what I was doing with them. She did not ask to see them. She did not tell me a story. She wanted me to put her back on the toilet.
My grown son watches as I place the pretty things on our dining room table. I lift each and tell him its story, how each one means that Grandma has been important to someone who wanted to thank her for something she did for them. I want him to know who she has been; what she has been capable of doing, unlike this shell of a person whose edges are so fuzzy she barely shows up in photos anymore. He nods. When I unwrap my grandmother’s pink and white frilly bowl, I burst into a fresh round of weeping. I never really knew my grandmother, nor did I grieve her death. This silly little bowl makes real for me what a single phone call 15 years ago could not.
These things are touch stones to something deeper. I have rolled my eyes at their cumulative bulk for twenty years, muttering under my breath as I pack them up yet again. There is a thrift store between my mother and me. I could easily drop all five boxes there and be done with it, maybe even take a tax deduction for them on my mother’s behalf. But I cannot. Even to consider it feels like a betrayal of who she used to be. She can no longer hold that care and love for these things, and so I feel I have to hold it for her, even if I fought it all my adult life. There is so precious little left of her that is recognizable.
Perhaps she was right, and these things are points of connection to who she used to be. I rewrap each one and decide which kid, and which sibling, to ship them to. They can do with them whatever they want. How important are the corresponding stories? They were important to her and perhaps more important to me than I had realized. But they will die with me except for the few that my son might remember. Someday someone will pick up that little frilly pink bowl, turn it over, exclaim about the workmanship, and wrap it up to give to someone who had done something nice. A new story will be born, a new meaning infused. My mother’s stories will have run their course, served their purpose. She already no longer needs them. Someday I won’t, either. For now, however, I’ll throw one more layer of bubble wrap around the frilly pink bowl because my mother would want me to.
Carolyn W. Metzler 11 May, 2011