Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, May 2016
After my father died, Mom summoned me to assist her with long-overdue housecleaning. I was relieved, hoping the fact she was ready to clear out years of accumulated possessions would lessen the weight, physical and mental, of living alone. I said of course I would help. I felt guilty enough, with a full-time job and family, that I did not have as much time to spend with her as she wanted. On the other hand, it wasn’t as if she were asking me to lunch or tea or something fun we could do together, something that would give us both pleasure. I was, as always, prepared for pain.
Since the early 1960s, moving from country to country, state to state, house to house, all of our worldly belongings had traveled with us: steamer trunks, boxes of clothes, books, toys, photos, favorite pots and pans, antique furniture, paintings, and more clothes. When Dad finally retired from the army and they moved to a gated, adult community in West Chester, most everything came with them. The one-level duplex was small, but they didn’t throw anything away because they didn’t want their surroundings to be any different, they wanted their lives to stay the same.
That changed when my father died; there was no way her life was going to stay the same. That and she had always been project oriented; she had to have one. On her to-do list was the attic, the garage, her bedroom, several closets, and the guest bedroom where Dad had slept most of the time because of her deep snoring. She planned to reward me, she said, with things of hers that I might need for my new house in Maine. She wasn’t giving, she was offering; like the final decision of what I would take was up to her. My mother was famous for having the last word, like everything was a battle and she had to win.
I arrived on a Saturday morning, leaving my husband and kids to fend for themselves. It was a beautiful day. Spring bulbs were up and new growth sprouted on the trees. We decided to start in the garage since it was nice to be outdoors. She announced we would make two piles: one for Hunks Hauling Junk to remove on Monday, and one for me. She had already made up some boxes in advance and had lined them up by the garage door.
We started with a box of flimsy aluminum men’s shoetrees. There must have been about fifteen pair. I had no idea Dad had had so many shoes. There were also a number of hangers, mostly white-coated-wire ones from the dry cleaners.
“Here,” she said, pushing the box toward me. “Take these.” I must have looked at her like she was crazy.
“No,” she insisted, ignoring my disbelief. “They are perfectly good shoetrees. Bill can use them. And you can always use hangers. Don’t you have a lot of closets in Maine?”
“Ah, no thanks, Mom.” I didn’t tell her that Bill’s shoes all had cedar Brooks Brothers’ shoetrees. And that we already had plenty of hangers. “We should throw this box away.”
“Fine,” she replied, pushing the fine white hair out of her face.
Losing on her first try, she decided to leave the other boxes and work inside the garage. We entered the cool cement interior. She pointed up to a high shelf that held Dad’s sixty-year-old metal Head skis and Rieker clip boots.
“They are very, very good skis, you know,” she said in her expert voice.
“Mom, they are 190 centimeters. No one uses skis that long anymore. The average length even for men is more like 160 centimeters,” I explained, thinking she must remember how ski length is measured.
“That’s not true,” she said, bewildered. “I watch skiing on TV. They use long skis all the time.”
I was stuck in the place where I’d either have to agree or argue. Neither offered satisfying results.
“Mom, we need to just throw the boots and the skis away. Okay?”
She stared at me with hard blue eyes, a look that used to petrify me, like I was being fried alive in hot oil. I could see her temperature rising, flames licking up from long-banked fires.
Flushed, she decided we would go back to the boxes. This one had old garden tools: a rusted pair of hedge clippers, an ancient water sprinkler with spikes that looked like a torture device, and cracked terra-cotta flowerpots. I said no to each item, taking them from the box and putting them in the junk pile. Saying no thanks to the hedge clippers sent her over the edge.
“How can you throw those away?” she asked heatedly.
“Mom, they look more dangerous than useful,” I replied, showing the blades barely opened and closed. My humor did not touch her funny bone, it hit her sad bone. I thought she was going to cry.
“But,” she whimpered, “they belonged to me.”
It probably would have hurt her less if I had stabbed her with them. By refusing, I was saying I didn’t want a piece of her to hold and cherish. I should have told her that I already had plenty of her: she was my other arm, making me do things her way; she was the other side of my mouth, hurting and teasing the ones I loved; she owned the other part of my brain, controlling my thoughts, reminding me I was a good daughter but never good enough.
“Mom, why don’t we go and have some tea? Take a little break?” I coaxed.
She nodded and took my hand. It was hard for her to get around now, having gained so much weight. Her breathing was labored due to heart problems, yet she pushed herself hard to keep going—but she had always been that way.
The kitchen had nice big windows overlooking a little garden and bird feeder. It was a cozy, comfortable room with two armchairs, a coffee table in between, and cabinets filled with her cookbooks, at least a hundred, copper pots from Florence, and gold filigree tea service from Turkey. She had hung blue toile wallpaper; she had always loved wallpaper. There were two matching armchairs covered in a coordinated blue-and-white stripe, coffee table in between. She plopped down in her chair and I sat in Dad’s, facing her. Her yellow sweater wore a constellation of small stains, driving home the perils of old age and a busty chest. She had given up wearing skirts some years ago, finding pull-on pants with elastic waists much more comfortable. Ease of movement and comfort were paramount to her now, not fashion or making heads turn, which had always been the norm. She smiled weakly, her eyes rummy and red. I wished I could turn back the clock for her, make her beautiful and happy again, though I had my doubts about how happy she had been. And as usual, just as I was about to tell her that I love her and how sorry I am about losing Dad, she decided that we would go upstairs and keep working. Like a bad smell she detected vulnerability—hers—and she didn’t want anything to do with it. Task One completed. Now Task Two, she said, clapping her hands. I had little choice but to do what she wanted, which was the attic and, if there was time before I had to leave, the guest bedroom.
The house was basically one level, but there was a flight of stairs that led to an open loft with a bright skylight. Up there Mom had her “office”: a desk with filing cabinet where she paid bills and kept important papers. The room had a couch, easy chair, and low bookcases used mostly to display beloved objects liked wood carvings from the Black Forest, ceramic plates from Istanbul, photos of her grandchildren, and arrangements of dried flowers. A door from the loft led to the attic, more a crawl space under the eaves, airless, lightless. We ducked inside and switched on the one light bulb. There was a bureau in there, and six steamer trunks. They looked tired and worn, almost glad to have found a final resting place after eight transcontinental moves. Even empty they weighed a ton.
My mother took a deep breath and sat down on one of the trunks. There wasn’t anywhere else to sit. She pointed to one marked “TURAN.” The stencil was faded and scratched. I got on my knees and undid the clasps and the buckle lock. The smell of mothballs hit me as I threw back the lid. It was filled with Italian doll furniture from the 1960s, German handmade wool puppets, stuffed animals, and other toys.
“Do you want to throw any of this away?” I asked. She shook her head no.
“Let’s leave them for now. I’m sure you’ll have grandchildren someday. And they are such fine toys.
You know, made by craftsmen. You can’t buy these things anymore,” she said solemnly.
The next trunk was old ski clothes: parkas with faux fur trim, narrow elastic pants, après ski outfits, wool sweaters, none of which had been worn in forty years. She didn’t say anything as I went ahead and stuffed the clothes in a black plastic bag. I had won the earlier ski battle and she was going to let me have this one too. I suppose she didn’t want to be reminded that no one wore pants or parkas like this anymore.
Trunk number three was filled with swatches of fabric, bolts of cloth, mostly moth-eaten, but she didn’t want to throw these away, not yet. She might decide to go back to sewing now that she had more time without Dad to look after. And so on with the rest of the trunks until the last one.
She leaned over anxiously, watching as I struggled with the bolts and the lock. This trunk had not been opened in some time. I pried the lid open. This time it wasn’t mothballs, it was the thick smell of stagnant, stale wool. Mom sat down on the nearest trunk. I pulled away a layer of yellow packing paper; it crumbled into pieces on the floor. Sweaters, shirts, skirts, suits lay neatly folded. I heard my mother take a deep breath. She moved closer, reaching in and pulling out items.
“Oh, this is Bogner. Such a fine maker. We got this skirt for you in Munich, remember? You wore it once,” she said wistfully.
“Yes, Mom, that’s because you liked it and I didn’t.”
he continued with her digging, ignoring the reference to a feud that had started in my preteens. I wasn’t fat, just a little chunky, but she did not like how I looked, so she made special skirts with pleats falling nice and flat to give me the appearance of being slimmer. I started saying no to whatever it was she wanted me to wear.
“And this,” she said, fingering the silky label on a camel-hair jacket.
“This was made by Mr. Emo, the tailor in Vicenza. Remember? He admired your father so much. The ‘colonelo’ they called him. And look, these sweaters, from Bill’s in London. We special ordered to match the plaids I ordered from Scotland.”
Holding the sweaters up, there was just enough light to see multiple pinpricks of moth damage. She kept going through the clothes, unfolding, folding, pausing to look at labels as if reading postcards from an old friend. On the bottom she found a bathing suit: hers, circa 1966, a Catalina with an I. Magnin department store tag, purchased the year we lived in Carmel. The suit had hard pointy cups and a plunging neck line. It was made of elastic, see-through black lace, but the elastic had gone brittle. A size six; it would never fit me anyway.
“Don’t you need a nice bathing suit for Maine?” she asked. She held it up, turning it this way and that, admiringly. Just try and look as good as I did. That is not what she said, but that is what I heard.
“Here,” she said urgently, like it was her last chance and mine to keep a piece of her alive.
“Sure, Mom. I’ll keep it.” We closed the trunk and shut the attic door.
The bathing suit went home with me that day and not much later, after she died, many other Turan treasures: antique copper pots, the Istanbul plates, her cookbook collection, knickknacks from Dad’s bureau, a Baccarat tiger, paintings, photos, and the intensity lamp she kept on her desk and now sits on mine. And last but not least, the four hanging plastic bags filled with her cherished clothes. She had kept them in the guest bedroom closet; they were far too grand for the attic. And they needed to be easy to get to, stored in one place, like drops of water, when she thirsted for the past.
The clothes are extraordinary; she had exceptional taste and a talent for sewing. Self-taught, she made all her own patterns. And she had only used the most expensive fabrics: Italian silks, wools, English tweeds. She created a wardrobe of flower cotton dresses for summer; wool suits, trimmed with passemanterie, for winter; and tweed coats for spring. The buttons alone are like works of art: oyster shell-shaped wooden ones, Roman lion’s heads made of brass, smooth mother of pearl, glass beads from Venice, and shiny ebony disks. She kept her clothes, shoes, and handbags in pristine condition; they look the same today as when she wore them through the streets of Vicenza, Venice, Milan, Rome, Munich, Vienna, looking like a queen.
Like the bathing suit, the clothes don’t fit me. I will never wear them. For a long time I left them in an upstairs closet. They were taking up space, really mostly in my head, but I didn’t have the heart to get rid of them, so one day I decided I would give them away. I called my friend Margie; she was petite, like my mother. We spent an afternoon trying on clothes. I felt like I was back in the attic, visiting labels from long ago, memories living in the shape of a silk blouse, the patterns in a cotton dress, the shine of a button. Margie took quite a few pieces home, promising to wear them. I imagined someone would see her and ask where the beautifully made silk blouse she was wearing came from, and Margie would tell them the story.
I think my mother would have been pleased, and relieved that I wasn’t going to let her die.