When the sun returns after the epic monsoon and flooding, that came on the heels of snowmaggedon, I load the car with another round of paper recycling, several bags for textile recycling, and a pile of blankets and bag of towels for the animal shelter. If I were younger, I would kick up my heels, but I do it mentally. Lightening the load of this house is right up there with hiking on my happy meter. It’s a much more satisfying way to lose weight than not eating cake. And the best part of it is, how much is NOT going in the landfill, which it would if I hired someone with a shovel and a dumpster rather than using my time and a trowel and sieve.
Among the Erma Bombeck yellowed clippings taped to the cabinet door is a 1970 newspaper column with this quote:
My mother not only took it to heart, she extended it to “anything that has belonged to a family member,” to assure us all an opportunity to be immortal.
Moving away from crafts, I’m really headed into stored “stuff” now. Under the built-in shelving lives the huge trunk full of things saved for “the girls,” with our baby books on top. I close the lid, sweep up the dried centipedes, and shove it back under the shelves. It will wait for my sisters to be here in March.
My mother was a letter writer. She wrote beautiful notes in cards nearly to her end when she finally succumbed to dictation. Even her wavering handwriting—due to vision loss—hadn’t deterred her. I’m sure she wrote far more letters to my sisters and me than we did to her, but another vintage Girl Scout cookie box is stuffed with letters from us. They are separated into plastic produce bags, one for each of us. I take out my bag and put it by my chair in the corner of the living room and return the others to the growing collections for each sister.
She also wrote many unmailed letters, but kept them all the same (previously stored in her nightstand). Some years ago, my older sister Jo Ann discovered a bag of them my mother wrote to me at the time of my divorce and my (inexplicit) coming out. After perusing them, Jo Ann told younger sister Rebecca she was going defy Mama’s instruction to put them in the basement, and throw them out, thoughtfully hoping to save me heartache and/or anger. Rebecca persuaded her that was not hers to decide. Neither of them were wrong. When I looked through them back then—and they numbered in the dozens written over multiple years—I decided I did not need to read them and discarded them. It was gut-wrenching having to acknowledge how agonizing my actions were to her for so long.
Now I find more on the shelf. They are peppered with shorthand and cross-outs and additions in the margins. There are also newspaper columns and church sermons on the subject of homosexuality. I hate the grief I caused her. And I remind myself that she chose to take it on, that I had the right to my life and my decisions. I don’t read these either. What was her motivation in keeping them—did she want me to find them? (I remind myself that I do have my own journals.)
I think I redeemed my terrible self when I came home to care for her. Maybe not in her view, but in my own. And she lived long enough to know how completely misplaced were her fears that my children would drop out of school and become drug addicts. She may have believed I had done the unthinkable as a mother, but, in fact, I remained a “good mother.”
Along with letters in the cookie box is a researched opinion paper on premarital sex I wrote for a 1972 University of Washington psychology class. (I got a B+, due to inadequate reference citations.) My mother made more comments on it than my professor did, and included additional references from Time magazine, Dear Abby, church sermons, and a lengthy bibliography. Did she find it in some box of my saved stuff? Or did I give it to her? If so, what was my motivation? Did I want to make it clear that I was my own person, separate from her? Besides, it was a research paper, not a tell all. Clearly I had no regard for, or understanding of, the fact that it would serve to make her think I was going straight to hell.
Also in the folder is a letter she wrote me and didn’t mail two years before I wrote the paper; or maybe she did mail it and this is a carbon. “You may not like this . . .,” it begins. She admonishes me not to entertain my boyfriend (my first, from high school) in my dorm room, which she at least told me in person. Nice girls don’t do that. She provides a list of activities that are better ways to show love for someone than “kissing and making out.” And how disappointed she was that he and I in “fringed jeans, etc.” were not so neatly dressed as his two best friends “in white shirts, their hair clean, trimmed, and neatly combed” when they picked me up to return to Seattle, “. . . you have so many nice skirts and slacks, why . . . ” It ends with, “I hope you will forgive me when you get over being angry.”
There is a misplaced 1977 Weyerhaeuser calendar in the box, featuring their signature not-great paintings of woodland animals. Misplaced, because there is a whole box of my mother’s calendars on the shelf, also relocated from her bedside table. There is another box of my father’s pocket calendars from his desk drawer. They both used calendars as diaries, as much written after the fact as to remind of upcoming dates. Someday, when I finish this clean-out perhaps, I’m going to look at every one of them. They are fascinating artifacts of two lives.
Before I add the 1977 leaving to the box with the others, I look through it. Two kinds of entries stand out: my father’s frequent job-related departures to points around the country and sometimes beyond the country, and my mother’s health-related memos. There are appointments by doctor name, specialists with whom I am not familiar, though I have known many others. How she was feeling each day: shaky, exhausted, dizzy, lots of flashing, felt good, anxious, commotion in ear, head heavy, neck hurt . . . The diet she was supposed to be following (1 cup of this, 1/2 cup of that, no fiber . . .). How many Valium she took each day, when the doctor told her to discontinue them, and how many she took after that. Days she stayed in bed or didn’t get dressed all day. Nights she didn’t sleep.
In 1977, she was just sixty-one years old. She would have forty years to go.
Also recorded are appointments she took her mother to, but no notes about them; dates of rare arrivals of visiting daughters; taking her Laotian refugee friends to class; and concerts, art shows, and other events. But these entries are overshadowed by the health notes. To my knowledge, she only saw a mental health doctor once (for marital counsel) the kind she most needed to see.
I’ve just read Jodi Picoult’s new novel, Wish You Were Here. This line describes my experience of this project. Through stuff saved, I am learning about my mother that which I will carry to my own grave, even when the evidence is gone.