Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Elegant Gathering Of A Life

I’m currently reading a book called The The Elegant Gathering of White Snows. If you are any version of a woman, be it mother, sister, wife, daughter or friend, you should read this book. It’s a fascinating story about eight women and incredibly illustrates the connection all of us women have and share. I’ve actually considered buying this for all of the women in my life; as some of them have clearly forgotten the importance of these bonds.

In one part of the book, one of the women talks about losing her mother. She talks about how it was not easy losing her and how long it took her to heal; and if in fact she ever was going to be healed. She talks about the day that her father called to say he was ready to get rid of her mother's belongings and would she please come? So she did.

Some people don’t know what it’s like to lose a parent, and that’s good. Unfortunately I do, and couldn’t help but cry as I read this part of the book. Because losing a parent is one thing, but having to go through all of their belongings is quite another.

When my father died unexpectedly, I think I went on auto-pilot. Not that I didn’t have any emotions, but I knew I had to get things done. My brother was inconsolable and I knew he wasn’t able to tackle what I had to. It was going to be me who had to go to the home of my father’s horrible girlfriend to pick up his things. Thank God I had Ed to go with me. He was my strong, silent protector. He did as I asked, helped me move boxes and generally hung in the background in case I needed him. I don’t believe I got everything my father owned, as I was being watched like a hawk and didn’t feel as if I was getting the full cooperation of his girlfriend, but I got the things I knew I had to have. The things that represented my father.

I packed everything quickly, throwing things into boxes and dumping desk drawers without sorting. I took everything that was his and everything I remembered to ask for. I even took a basket full of dirty clothes. Although, my father was so clean even his dirties smelled fresh. I shoved everything into his mini-van and drove off enveloped by the cigarette smell of the car’s interior.

I also had to dismantle and sell his hot dog truck; the one he worked for sixteen years. That was a lot harder than I imagined it to be. The stool he sat on, the money drawer with odds and ends in one of the dollar slots and the hand-printed signs he used announcing his specials for the day. I was surrounded by him and the smells of his daily life.

My father died in February and the cart had been shut down that winter for a couple of months already. It was freezing inside. But each day I went there, I would sit on his stool and cry in the cold. I touched everything his hands had touched. I stood at the serving window and imagined being him. I looked at everything on the shelves; two of those items being the magazine and coffee table book my brother’s work appeared in. The pages depicting his projects were dog-eared and had greasy fingerprints on them.

I didn’t want to sell the hot dog truck. I wanted to get it up and running and work it, serving those same customers my father did. I tossed that idea around for quite some time. I had been in the truck with Ed for two years at that point and was planning on getting my CDL that year, which I actually did a few months after my father died. I wanted to be on the road. I liked the trucking life. But I’ve also always wanted to have a hot dog cart with a following like my father did. I owned my own cart at one time, but never had the time to build a clientele because things in my life changed and I couldn’t fully pursue it. This could be my chance. Maybe he wanted me to do it. Expected me to.

But I didn’t. I packed up everything, took pictures of the cart from every angle and posted an ad in the local paper to sell it. I eventually did, and it was bittersweet. I was very sad letting it go. Sometimes I wish I could get it back, but it’s not a keepsake you can tuck away in a sock drawer, so I rely on my memories and photos to keep that part of my father alive.

After I left New York, I took all of his belongings and put them in storage in Nashville, where I was staying at the time. As I rearranged all the papers and photos and bins full of clothes, I had waves of sadness wash over me. Every time I touched something that belonged to my father, I had tears in my eyes. I buried my nose in all of his clothing, especially the ones that were in the laundry basket since I knew he had worn them just days before he died. I breathed in every little whiff of scent I could. I even smelled his socks. His bathrobe, the one he always wore tied loosely and low on his hip, had some dog hair on it; he used to lounge on the couch at night watching TV while the dogs nuzzled their heads in his lap.

I wore his shoes. I tried to figure out how I could work his Huarache sandals into my wardrobe; the ones that his pinkie-toe stuck out of. I wore his sneakers for good luck the day I took the test for my CDL and his shoe-boots that winter, the shiny black leather sticking out of the bottom of my jeans. I was cool.

For a while, I even wore his taupe colored London Fog raincoat. I hate to be hot, even in the winter, so this was a perfect weight to be worn over a sweater. I had the menswear look going on. I gave away some of his clothing to family members, the ones who didn’t feel weird taking them. My cousin took his long, camel colored wool coat to wear over his fancy suits when going to the city for meetings, etc. and my best friend (who LOVED my father) took Daddy’s expensive dress shoes for her husband to wear. I remember being told by my best friend, when she asked her husband what he was wearing to the very important meeting with his lawyers, that he said he was wearing “Swee’s dad’s shoes, no?” She even wears the aprons from my father’s hot dog truck when she cooks; they are stained and threadbare, but she said it makes her think of him every time she ties it around her waist.

I moved his things so many times before they finally got to Arizona. Since I was on the road, I couldn’t keep everything in the truck with me, so they initially went to my cousin’s basement, then to my best friend’s garage and then to my storage shed and my brother’s garage. My brother still hasn’t gone through anything. I don’t think he can. We keep talking about doing it together, but the opportunity never seems to present itself.

The only other person I know in my life who had to go through their parent’s things after their death, is my mother. My maternal grandfather died years ago, in 1988, and to think now of my grandmother being alive and having to be in the same house, same kitchen, same bedroom for years without him is just crushing. But when she got to be a bit older, my mother moved her from New York to Arizona to live with us. My grandmother spent the last three years of her life in my mother’s house, in my teenage bedroom. I was also living with my mother at the time but moved into the other bedroom before my grandmother moved in.

Nanny slept in my old room at the rear of the house, the one that was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. She even used several pieces of my furniture. Everything in her room was set up so meticulously. In the winter, she needed a space heater and in the summer, a fan. They were both perched on the dresser in the same spot, changed out with the seasons. My childhood desk was where she paid her bills, kept track of her expenses in a little book, sent cards with money enclosed to her grandchildren and put on her makeup. The middle drawer held her rouge and lipsticks; her pink and green tube of Maybelline mascara visible immediately when the drawer was cracked open. In the closet, she hung her tiny clothes and lined up her pint-sized shoes. She was four feet eleven "and three quarters" as she liked to remind everyone.

Every day when I would get home from work, I’d go in and sit on the edge of her bed, where she’d ask me about my day. She remembered every single one of my friends; what they did for work and who they were dating. She wanted to know if so and so got the promotion, did what’s his name ask you know who to the employee banquet and when are you going to bring home that new boy you’ve been telling me about? I loved that part of my day. We talked about how her brother Dan used to sneak her into the dance halls when she was young, passing her off as his date just so they could do the one thing they both enjoyed so much; dancing into the night to the sounds of the big bands. Sometimes, we’d sit on the porch while she had a cigarette, her latest romance novel cracked open and placed spine up on the table next to the chair she sat on. At night after we'd gone to sleep, I’d listen to her smoker’s cough.

I wasn’t there the morning my mother found her. I had slept at a friend’s house the night before. In fact, it was my friend who took the call and crawled into my bed to be with me when I found out. “Nanny died,” she told me as she handed me the phone, telling me my mother was on the other end. “She went peacefully,” my mother said, “in her sleep.” How was she able to say that? My mother found her mother dead. How hard must that have been? I remember racing home to be with my mother, but I don’t remember much about what happened after that. It was over 10 years ago now.

What I do remember and get reminded of to this day, is how hard it was for my mother to forget that day. Over ten years after the day my grandmother died, my mother still touches items that belonged to her. She uses her bedside alarm clock in the bathroom, her slatted coffee table in the family room, her knitting needles to make blankets for her mother’s great-grandchildren. And although my mother has three sisters, not one of them came to Arizona to be with her after my grandmother died. My mother did everything on her own.

For three years, my mother and my grandmother did almost everything together. They’d to go “Targets” (as my grandmother called it), JC Penney (a favorite store of hers) and Village Inn for lunch (the closest thing to a diner that you can find in Tucson). My mother was as much a part of her life as my grandfather had been. My mother was now her confidant. Her guardian, in a sense. They shared current books, lady friends and time on the back porch – my grandmother would smoke a cigarette while they watched the sunset together.

My mother, the oldest of my grandmother’s four daughters, did all of it alone. It took time. And it made her cry. The olfactory part of the task was the worst, I think. The smell of my grandmother was everywhere. Her desk drawer smelled like note paper and Juicy Fruit gum. Her closet, a mix of the perfume on her clothing and the leather purses she scoured every department store for; always searching for the right one, with the perfect number of pockets and just the right length strap. Shopping for them had become a sport for my grandmother.

She wore those squishy pink foam rollers at night; they smelled like her hair. Her bathrobe, which to this day hangs behind her bedroom door, smelled like her freshly bathed body. That’s the hardest part, I think; the clothes. Knowing they were on the body of a person you loved and they'll never wear them again. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to press their nose deep into the folds of fabric, deeply inhaling and trying to capture the smell, saving it somewhere deep in their memory.

Everything my grandmother owned, my mother had to take care of. She touched everything. Her photo albums and old sewing machine, her jewelry and the contents of her wallet. The rosary beads contained in a fabric pouch that she wore pinned to the inside of her bra, and the bobby pins she used in her hair. The hairbrush with her silver strands still in it, and the slippers she wore with her housecoat.

I guess I never really thought about what my mother went through until reading the passage in this book, even though I had to do the same thing with my father’s belongings. But I didn’t live with my father, I didn’t see him every day and I didn’t have his daily routine etched in my head as my mother did with my grandmother. Him being gone created a hole in my life, but not like the hole that was left in my mother's daily existence.

So even though you may know what it’s like to lose a parent, it’s different when you are the one packing up their life, when you have to determine which items to keep and which to bring to Good Will. When you decide how much to tell your siblings or other family members, and not knowing how much they even want to know. It’s a responsibility, but it’s also a kind of privilege. It’s sad, but it makes you feel closer to them, and although you try to distance yourself from the task, it winds up being so intimate.

I miss my father tremendously, but I’m glad I was able to handle the same items he did in the last days of his life. And I know my mother treasures every day she spent with my grandmother the last three years of her life. I also know, and it's something I am very sure of because she mentioned it so often and in a tone that expressed how grateful she was, that my grandmother enjoyed her life in Tucson so very much. She often said, without my mother and step-father, she wouldn’t know what she would have done. I think they saved her from the last years of her life being ones of lonely days and empty nights and she came to love the wide open spaces in Arizona, saying she could see across the entire desert landscape without anything blocking her view.

I feel good knowing that her last breath was taken in a place where she was surrounded by people who loved her so much. That, and the fact that she spent the last moments of her life with the same person who spent the first moment of theirs, with her.

So although this post was prompted by the memory of packing up my father’s life, it’s also about the bond between women and how important they are.

From your very first, to your very last breath.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
My, What A Nice Berg You Have
The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Grapes Being Crushed Into Wine
There Are No Words To Explain The Misery Of A Three Digit Temperature
New York State Of Mind


Anonymous said...

...the depth and maturity of your insight is poignant...bittersweet memories and tears proved that memories keep the people we love alive forever...MAE

Don Olney said...

With my Mom fading - 8 days in the nursing home now - and Dad trying to cope - you must know how much your story means to me. Thank you for sharing. You are such a wonderful addition to my life!

all things bradbury said...

out of everything you've written,...and you know i'm a big fan......this has to be the best.....both of my parents, my grandparents and a very special aunt have passed on and reading your blog today brought back some very sweet memories of them....i have alot of things that had belonged to each of them....going thru their things was heartbreaking, but i'm so glad now that i have things that remind me of not just them, but their everyday lives.....i hadn't heard of this book until you mentioned it, but i will be looking for it....thanks.....

The Daily Rant said...

MAE: Aww, thanks.

Don: Glad to have you in my life also. Your mother and family are always in my thoughts.

RuthAnn: Thank you so much. I know it was a long read, but I'm glad you stuck with it to the very end. The book is a good read...I'm on the second one by her right now.

Hedon said...

This was a great post. I know exactly what you're talking about. I lost my mom Sept 18, 1986.

I ended up being the one to dispose of her things since my dad was an incompetent boob and my brother and sister were too young to have to deal with that. I remember keeping a couple of her shirts for almost a year because they smelled like her.