My maternal grama became sort of reclusive in her later years and had been living that way by choice for ages when she passed away. She was so very different to my dad’s mother who always had a full house. By choice. And also kept the old half pack of cigarettes in her dresser drawer from when she quit smoking back in the 60’s. She would show us. Forget. And show us again at a later date. She was very proud. My mom’s mom, though…This particular grama, I’m pretty sure she held stock in R.J. Reynolds until she died. Even a stroke hadn’t slowed her down. Groan…anyhow…
My mom was left with the task of cleaning out her place after she passed. And I remember not understanding then how pissed she was about the things left behind in my gramas house. Allll. The. Things. She wasn’t a hoarder by any stretch. But she kept things. She kept things from her younger years when she and her husband entertained great amounts of people. An amazing number of table settings in several styles. Barware enough to open a few pubs of her own. Tons of hobnail and milk glass that my mom hated cleaning as a kid. She kept things she didn’t need. And she kept things she thought she would be able to use, which I found out later was a repercussion in Depression era children and families. She was also a very vain woman and the beauty products, makeup, and wigs left behind were massive. Closets full of shoes and clothes long out of date from her years in the working world. My mother took it all in stride. For a while. She sorted through it all, keeping necessary papers and making a small box of family mementos and pictures. Everything else went to Goodwill. My mom gradually started asking out loud why her mother had kept all of these things. Quietly it went. Until the day she found a linen closet full of Kleenex boxes. And it broke her.
They were not full and useable boxes of tissue. They were empty. Stacked in the closet. Of all my mother had cleared from that house, all the heavy lugging and deep cleaning and phone calls for pickups and arranging for things and garbage bags full to capacity…these empty boxes changed something in her when she came across them that day. They were a representative answer that allowed her to finally grieve. To finally voice and acknowledge her mother’s lifelong selfishness. They allowed her to be angry. Angry at the inconvenience. Angry at the way things had turned out. Angry about her childhood. Just angry. Things she needed to feel. Unfortunately, she never really stopped feeling them after that.
My mother spent the next ten years or so paring down her own possessions. She made it her mission to not leave a burden for me and John in that way. Why have what you don’t need. Why keep things you won’t use. Why leave that for your kids to deal with. She thought about it every day. There wasn’t much to be done about my father, the perpetual hobbyist’s personal things. But, hers…everything she owned came across that chopping block of downsizing at least once.
When it came time for me to go home to make sense of everything my mom did leave behind, I saw just how deeply those tissue boxes affected her on that day. All her papers were labeled with instructions for us, in order of importance. Including ones we could get rid of entirely if she passed. All in her desk. A list of phone and account numbers for companies that needed to be notified or services that needed to be canceled. One box of old schoolwork and awards for each of us to keep. She kept minimal clothing and shoes, very minimal beauty and self care products. Just what she needed. Same with jewelry. She had even cut their linens and kitchenware down to a quarter of what they had once been. I went through it all. A matter of function and necessity. And it all went quietly and systematically for me for almost a week.
Under her bed was a plastic tub with just a few things inside. There were two cell phones I’d given her years prior. Ones she didn’t use once she got a smartphone. They were stored back in their original packaging, along with their cords and instructions. Tidy and unassuming. Heartbreakingly symbolic. And I lost my fucking mind.
These phones were my Kleenex boxes that gave me permission to grieve for my mom. On my own. I let go. I sat there on my knees at that box and said over, and over. And over again, “she tried so hard”. I know that she did. I always knew that she did.
My mother didn’t leave behind torment. Burden. Or rememberances of a selfish nature. When she moved on, she left behind her a lifetime of hurt and pain. She left behind journals full of words from a woman whose life did not turn out as she’d planned. A woman who followed God to better understand a husband she could never reach. She left behind every sign she could of how hard she tried to make everything easier on everyone while she was suffering for so long. And I had to carry on and feel that of her. Still.
We are often allowed to choose what our memories are of our loved ones. What we will hold to our hearts, smile, and what we will set aside. But some memory we do not get to choose or filter so nicely as it is formed of a private reality and that reality only. Though, it is uncomfortable to accept, I do believe my mother was always suffering. Just as she believed her mother was cold and uncaring for the duration. And there were objects remaining that defined those realities. I have given much thought lately to what my kids will have on their hands with me. What their nicely filtered memories will be, weighed against an object that may represent a converse reality only they will understand or see. Private to them, I can never know what it will be. But I do think about it. Because I have come to know that whatever it may be, they will carry it with them, and feel it of me. And that they will never really stop feeling it.