By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
It’s hard to believe that a life can be whittled down to this: three boxes neatly packed with an assortment of leftover items. Some old slips, the nylon stiff with age. A plastic bin of kitchen tools, their oversized, ergonomic handles a bit sticky. Ordinary household supplies, no longer needed, and a few mysterious relics from the past: an embroidered handkerchief, a Mennonite head scarf, a sparkly brooch.
Lugging this desultory array of objects to the table is my mother, valiant as ever, the oldest living child in her family, focussed on doing the right thing.
My grandmother, 97, is failing. She’s so tired. And while she woke up to relish the July 4th holiday with family members who’d flown from the coast or driven cross-country to celebrate with her, Grandma is, as she often declared of me during my childhood, “all tuckered out.”
She didn’t wake up the morning my mother stopped by the nursing home to say goodbye, just slept hard in that bed, her white hair flat against the pillow. Grandma used to fix herself up with pride, a professional woman who held an office job when other wives and mothers were still staying home and starching laundry. Her neatly-tailored suits each had matching scarves and jewelry, and she smelled of Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew perfume. I loved to breathe in the rich, sophisticated fragrance when I’d burrow into my grandma’s arms. It evoked the mystery that this woman, with her stories of people at the office, and her polished telephone voice, was also Grandma, who played endless rounds of Yahtzee with me and served iced animal cookies for snacks.
Now the last of her belongings have arrived at my house, scarves folded into bright squares and flashing a bit of color against the dingy cardboard. Grandma lives in the nursing home, where, as one visitor described it, “everyone gets a dresser and a bed.” There’s no room for china cabinets full of the Royal Albert tea cups my grandmother collected, and she has no need of the costume jewelry that made her work-wear sparkle.
The holiday reunion concluded with a sorting session, my mother tells me, designed to clear out the inherited clutter from an aunt and uncle’s basement.
“We set it all out and let everyone choose, from oldest to youngest, and then we went around again,” she says. I don’t need a description of the mood in the dim underground room; my mother’s weary face tells me the story. It’s something we’ve all encountered, at garage sales, thrift shops, auctions: what once represented the details of a vibrant, inhabited life now becomes a mess to sort out.
My mother tried to select items that might have some meaning to her children and grandchildren. A few tea cups, though the finest ones found their way into other china collections years ago. A set of souvenir boxes from the Philippines, probably a missionary memento. A flashlight.
“I wanted to get something nice for each of the children,” she says apologetically, “but I don’t know if I did.”
We go through the boxes, and I understand what the stricken expression on my mother’s face meant. The selection is uninspiring, yet it feels wrong to assign items to the “give-away” box. The truth is that neither I nor my mother, nor my 14-year-old daughter, wants this stuff.
Weirdly, I find I feel proud of my indifference. I don’t need knick-knacks or legacies because I have lived nearly 45 years with this magnificent woman as my grandmother. I remember her house on Hickory Street, atop an Omaha hill. I can picture her delight when she’d pick up the Christmas pastries from the Swedish bakery, and her exasperation with the loud neighbors who argued on the front yard across the street. I know how the food she once cooked for us all tasted, and I know how she kept house. I’ve heard her life story, new bits emerging as the years passed, but the basic structure intact: farm girl goes to Los Angeles, meets handsome preacher, embarks on life of ministry criss-crossing the country. An early widowhood with two boys still to raise opens a robust second chapter of life, complete with entrepreneurial projects, thrift and pre-feminist grit.
The material relics don’t matter.
This, I realize, is what my mother must feel when she goes to visit Grandma — a simple, tremendous love that transcends practicality. In transitional times, when a loved one begins to falter, it’s easy to be distracted by the question of who gets what, and whether a string of pearls is real or fake.
Unless you’re my mother, who’s cared for me all her life, just as she cares for every member of our family. What she doesn’t care about, not one bit? How the knick-knacks and jewelry get divvied up. She’s my grandmother’s daughter.
She drove four hours to celebrate Independence Day with her weary mother, showed up with smiles and kisses and a great attitude, held her peace while her siblings sorted through the leftover boxes of their mother’s belongings, and never quarreled or criticized the process. Instead, she focussed on the best qualities of her siblings and their spouses, affirmed their strengths, and came home with stories about their triumphs rather than their flaws.
In this, she is like her mother. If I get to claim a legacy, that’s the one I want.
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