By Tricia Springstubb
It reminded me of that period in my life when, if a friend called up with a tremulous note in her voice, I knew her next words would be, “We’re splitting up.” Or, years later, when an urgent request to meet for coffee meant a brilliant son was failing out of school, or a daughter was whittling herself to a skeleton and what, what could you do to stop them?
Now it was our aging mothers who gave our voices a ragged note, that hiss of despair. My friends and I staggered through the long stretch of midnight phone calls, of step-down and rehab, spouting diagnostic numbers we didn’t really understand, comparing tips on home aides. While we struggled to be noble, our mothers remained the pessimists or the optimists, the divas or the earth mothers they had always been. They thanked us over and over, or told us we were doing everything wrong. And then, they died.
After all that, they went into the ground without complaint, heavy seeds that bore no fruit, not any more. But oh, it wasn’t over. Here are some of the things they left behind: boxes of feathered, veiled hats; a collection of pietÃ s; sweaters; poetry by the shoebox; rooms full of hideous furniture pristinely preserved. A tattered rain coat, thirty unopened sponges, photo albums full of smiling people no one recognized. Without the mothers to pick them up and show them to us, to put them on, or dust them off or gently unfold them on the kitchen table, these things lost their enchantment, the way luminous shapes picked up on a beach turn into unremarkable rocks once you get them home. Standing in my mother’s silent house, I thought of a beekeeper regarding his swarming hive—all that golden dazzle of movement, that hum of wings, and sweet, heavy smell of honey. Then one day the bees are gone. Gone! And he realizes that all he’s looking at is a ponderous box.
Yet what to do with all they left behind? One friend built a pyre, and the hats in their cake-shaped boxes went up in smoke. She couldn’t bear to give them away and what in the world would she ever do with them? Another painstakingly sifted and compiled her mother’s poems, bound them and gave us copies. My siblings and I were lucky, in a way, because our penny-pinching mother didn’t leave very much. She liked to use things up; she was one of those rare people who can throw something away without a second thought. (Something like my original Shirley Temple doll, no doubt worth a fortune.) There was nothing for us kids to argue over, though we wouldn’t have anyway, not if there’d been mountains of silver and crystal. Our parents’ marriage was tempestuous and hard. How well we children get along was one of our mother’s rare, pure pleasures. That, and her grandchildren.
And we were lucky in another way, because one of those grandchildren, my youngest daughter, was planning to move into her first apartment and would need things like colanders and kettles. The mothers’ dying, the daughters’ setting up house—the fearful symmetry of that! The day we closed up our childhood home, my siblings wrapped juice glasses and measuring cups for their niece, gratified that these things would get a second act. It seemed so natural, the wheel of life taking a spin, the baton passing, and we were off the hook about what to do with it all. This was a rainy day in late July, our parents’ anniversary in fact. Just as we were leaving, the sun came out, and condensation rose from the roof. We all started laughing, all thinking the same thing: It was Mom, steamed up over our abandoning the family homestead after fifty-four years.
This granddaughter who was moving out, moving five hundred miles away to New York City, this youngest daughter we still call Baby—this girl once misplaced her cello, which was in a case the size of a closet. While she lived with us, I found twenty dollar bills wadded up in the bottom of the washer as regularly as I did her cell phone (and once her bra) between the couch cushions, her wallet beneath the seat of the car. The floor of any room she occupies quickly becomes little more than rumor. Where her grandmother was thrifty, she is careless, but in the end doesn’t it amount to the same thing? Possessions are their servants, not the other way around.
I, on the other hand, am prone to endow objects with, if not sentience, at least the power to conduct memory and its attendant emotions. Some current scintillates in the weave of that ugly shirt, the first present my husband ever gave me, which he chose with such care and offered with such diffidence and which he’d be astonished to discover still residing in my bottom drawer. This isn’t sentimentality. It’s primitive faith, or else superstition of the purest sort: If I don’t honor you, dear thing, what’s to keep the universe, which after all is mostly composed of things, from turning its back on me? It’s not me converting this bit of cotton into a talisman, but the reverse: The power resides in that shirt, this yellowed prayer book, the envelope of baby teeth tucked in my jewelry box. “I hear the songs the objects sing,” my friend who collects glass and textiles once quoted to me, a line from a German poet. A Siren song, I fumed, surrounded as I was by far, far too much stuff. Possessed by possessions, those treacherous tricksters! After we emptied my mother’s house, I vowed to learn my lesson.
And yet, two months later, a week before my daughter was set to move away, I became fixated on acquiring a dresser. A dresser and a hamper, I told my friends, comrades in this latest stage: the empty nest. If this careless girl at least starts out with receptacles for clean and dirty clothes, her life may assume a new, vertical order. The chaos of her life will fall away, stunned into submission by shining towers of organization. All will be well! My friends nodded. They were busy buying de-humidifiers for basement apartments, curtains for windows that faced brick walls. The song of the objects still sang in our heads, but now, instead of a dirge, we heard a love ballad.
At Target, the Baby glanced at the various dressers, pronounced them all just fine, and drifted toward the jeans department. That night my husband examined the model I bought, which mysteriously fit into a very flat box.
“There’s really a dresser in there?” I’d asked the sales clerk, and she’d murmured something about assembly, and hardware, though maybe she’d said nightmare. My husband returned the box the next day, vowing to take charge of the dresser issue himself.
He came home with a chest of drawers the size of a child’s coffin. It was assembled, yet would fit in the car (a station wagon, a near replica of the one my mother drove). “It’s too small,” I said. He argued it was practical. I insisted it was flimsy. He said look, he’d reinforce the bottoms of the drawers, and tighten the knobs, and while he was at it give the top another coat of varnish. “Why don’t you just build a dresser from scratch?” I cleverly rejoined. Our daughter raised an eyebrow but dutifully filled the drawers—her underwear and half a dozen T-shirts did it. The rest of her clothes went into garbage bags she wedged in around the dresser. Her grandmother’s linens and kitchen things, my dismantled childhood bed—the car was crammed. We were ready.
But sometime between then and the next afternoon, when we were to leave, her father began to have qualms. He e-mailed me from work that the dresser was, after all, too small, and we should take it out of the car. “Are you nuts?” I e-squawked back. He wrote that he was a flexible person, able to admit a mistake. I wrote that the dresser might work out after all, because our daughter said her room was small, and if she said that, it meant Lilliputian. He phoned to say he didn’t want to drag a dresser five hundred miles only to discard it on a New York City sidewalk. I said that would be easier than wrestling it back out of the car at this point.
The dresser stayed in the car, but by now we were both furious and miserable. We left late, throwing off the (completely arbitrary!) schedule he’d set us. He and I, when we spoke at all, continued to argue, all across Pennsylvania, past the signs for Barkeyville and See Penn’s Cavern by Boat and the giant Sapp Brothers Café coffee pot, milestones that in the past always made us happy. Demented, we fought over when and where we should stop to eat, whether we should stay in a Motel 6 or a Comfort Inn. If it had been possible to enumerate the hairs on our daughter’s head, we might have argued over the final number. She and the dresser rode in the back, equally silent.
When I left home for the first time, I moved to a big city, too. I had no job, but a good résumé, friends with room in their apartment, and high hopes. Just like my daughter now, precisely the same scenario. Yet my mother didn’t fret over what I’d sleep on, or where I’d stash my clothes. Surely she never bought me a single piece of furniture, not even a set of towels. By then my father’s drinking was bad. She had four other children, the beginning of her own serious medical problems. Did she believe I’d be better off if, from the very beginning, I understood the price we pay to own things? Or maybe she’d already surrendered, this woman whose homemade wedding dress we found crumpled and yellow in her own dresser’s bottom drawer, surrendered any trust or hope she’d once placed in objects.
The apartment was tiny! The dresser was perfect for it. Where would the rest of her clothes ever fit? That no longer seemed to matter, now that we were standing in her new place, which was so cute, and meeting her roommates, who were so smart and sweet. There was a park at the end of the street, and every passer-by my husband interrogated said the neighborhood was safe, it was a delight, our daughter would love it here. We sank onto a bench, and I leaned my head on his shoulder.
These days when I imagine the Baby’s room I see the little reinforced dresser, a would-be beacon of our love and support. I try not to feel sorry for the poor, stalwart thing, struggling to live up to its task but no match for her usual maelstrom. My friends laugh ruefully as I say this. We shake our heads. What we leave behind, what we choose to give—it’s always so paltry, compared to what we meant.
My mother can’t know (unless she can) that her granddaughter now squints at her Pyrex measuring cup, the red lines all but worn off, or fills her dented tea kettle with New York City water. Thrifty as she was, Mom would be gratified, but more than that. How happy it would make her, what proprietary pleasure she’d take, to know she was part of this new adventure, this blank and gleaming slate of a life!
And when this child uses her grandmother’s things, doesn’t some of that happiness pass through to her? For her, unlike me, these objects are no burden; they make no demands, evoke no regret or sorrow, disappointment, or grief. A single power resides in them now, and that is the magic to make our girl feel embraced, enveloped by something ongoing. Look at her washing the measuring cup, not very well, and setting it on the shelf. Look at her dashing out the door, late, careless, brimming with hope.
Author’s Note: My mother loved to read. Thrifty as she was, though, she never bought books. Stacks from the library anchored every table in our house, and one of my favorite memories is waking in what seemed the middle of the night and seeing, down the end of the hall, her reading lamp shining like a tiny lighthouse.
These days the Baby spends her daily subway ride to work (yes, she found a job!) reading, and has probably endowed a special collection or two with all the library fines she’s paid. How I wish my mom could read this piece about the two of them, and how glad I am that her granddaughter will.
Tricia Springstubb’s fiction has appeared in Redbook, The Iowa Review, and Hunger Mountain, among other places. Her books for young readers include What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren, Lost and Found, and the picture book Phoebe and Digger.
Brain, Child (Fall, 2010)