Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Twenty years ago I was living in London and so poor I could afford to buy a pizza only by saving for a month. On Saturdays I would go to Camden Market, where the stalls were full of crafts and clothing and bric-a-brac, but I never bought anything. I just loved to look.
One weekend a man was selling old office supplies, and I admired a wooden ruler, worn with age and marked “London.” It was priced at twenty pounds, an enormous sum to me then. The man delivered a sales pitch about how it was handmade of boxwood. I said it was lovely, but I had only three pounds. He laughed and replied, “Sorry, darling, but it’s worth a bit more than that.”
As I walked away, he shouted and motioned for me to come back. He said that if he sold me the ruler for three pounds, all I would remember was that I’d gotten a good deal, and I would throw it in a desk drawer and never use it. But if he gave the ruler to me for free, he said, I would never forget him and this day in London and how people can pleasantly surprise you when you least expect it.
Twenty years later I have not forgotten and have tried to pass on his kindness and generosity.
My closet is overflowing with clothes. Just finding something to wear to the grocery store is so daunting that I stare helplessly at the mountain of garments, many of which I haven’t worn in years.
Helping me clear out my closet, my pragmatic husband holds up a patched pair of jeans that have been out of style for two decades. He rolls his eyes and looks for my approval to add them to the giveaway pile.
I got those jeans in high school, when my aunt Joanne took me clothes shopping for my senior year abroad in Chile. As I tried them on, she gazed proudly at me and said something flattering about the fit. I wore those jeans with tears in my eyes as I said goodbye to my family and friends at the airport. I still had them on twenty hours later, when I met the family who would host me for the year. I wore them on my first terrifying day at the Chilean high school, where I had to introduce myself in Spanish in front of the entire student body.
That summer my older sister came to visit, and we hitchhiked thousands of miles along the Pan-American Highway. I slept on the beach in those jeans and was awakened by an earthquake, the sand rolling beneath us like a river. We thumbed a ride to the capital, arriving just in time for a U2 concert. The band’s lead singer, Bono, held up a picture of someone’s mother and asked, “Pinochet, where are los perdidos?” referring to the thousands of Chileans who’d gone missing during the dictator’s bloody coup d’état. By then the jeans had developed their first hole in a knee. Later that year I fell in love for the first time and wore those jeans as the boy and I rode horses on a beach.
Shortly after I returned to the States, I learned that Aunt Joanne had an aggressive form of cancer. I was wearing those jeans when I received the news that she had passed away. By then my mom had sewn patches over both knees.
Those jeans do take up space in my closet. I will certainly never wear them again. My husband wants me to let go of them, but I fear that if I throw them away, I will somehow lose the memories, too.
We kept it in a teapot my husband’s mother had given us years before. It was a tiny skeleton key, dull silver in color with a cloverleaf design at one end, and it unlocked my husband’s “treasure chest,” a beautiful green wooden box carved with flowers and leaves.
When I had spotted the box at the secondhand shop near our New York City apartment, I’d known right away that he would love it. I gave it to him that Christmas with three chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil at the bottom and the key taped to the gift tag.
“Every boy needs a treasure chest,” I said.
At first he used it as a place to keep his pipes and roach clips and nickel bags of pot. Eventually other treasures found their way inside: An old Indian coin. A torn piece of a dollar bill whose other pieces were kept by four friends. (They’d planned to get together and reunite the dollar in Central Park in the year 2000, no matter what, but some of them died in Vietnam.) A Carter/Mondale campaign button. A lock of hair from our son’s first haircut. A photo, taken on our honeymoon, of my husband mooning me from a secluded lake. A business card from Famous Ray’s Pizza on West 11th Street — our favorite.
In the days after his funeral, when I was alone, I’d open the box at night and breathe in the smell of old wood and carefully pick each item up. Then I’d put them back and turn the key in the lock.
It was nothing, really: just a grown man’s treasures in a tiny little box.
Santa Cruz la Laguna, Solola
I never had a father growing up, and family members couldn’t even agree who my father was. When I was thirteen, my mother got a letter from one of the men I’d heard might be my father. She threw it in a drawer and refused to tell me what he had said. Later I took the letter out and read it alone in my room.
It was written in all capital letters on yellow notepad paper. You was spelled “U,” and he used smiley faces and slang like a teenager. He was writing from prison and said he wanted to be my mother’s friend and that he still loved her after all these years. He missed his kids, he said. I wondered if I was one of them.
I didn’t put the letter back, and my mother never asked me about it. I have kept it because of the P.S.: “I just need a friend. Gangsters get lonely too.”
From the time I was a boy, my grandmother Zula respected me as an individual and gave me refuge from a sometimes difficult and chaotic home life. When she renounced religion in the 1960s, she was ostracized by most of her family and friends. Yet she was one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever known. “We’re all connected in this world,” she’d tell me. “God is inside each one of us.”
When I was ten, Zula’s house had to be moved to make way for a new interstate highway. She purchased a vacant lot in a declining neighborhood, and her small house was placed there on a cedar-post foundation. The only vegetation was two mesquite trees and a native pecan. Zula liked to be surrounded by growing things, so I helped her plant elephant ears, calla lilies, oleanders, and — one of her favorites — nandinas.
The nandina is a shrub with variegated leaves and small white blossoms that smell a bit like gardenia. During the winter it bears red berries.
Only one of the nandinas we planted survived. When I was nineteen, I was carelessly mowing around it and broke off a large branch. I could tell Zula was disappointed, so I put the branch in a bucket of water near a sunny kitchen window, and it grew roots and thrived. In the spring I planted it by her back steps, where she could see it every day.
After having moved to Colorado, I stayed in contact with Zula, who seldom failed to mention the nandina by her steps and how much it lifted her spirits. She would call it “brave” or “sassy.” When, at the age of ninety-eight, she needed to move from her home, I dug up a well-rooted piece of the shrub and placed it in a pot, which she kept on the deck of her new place. The nandina struggled to get enough sunlight under the live oak that towered above it.
Zula called her hundredth-birthday celebration “bittersweet,” as she had outlived all her friends and two of her four children. She asked if I’d take the potted nandina home with me and keep it alive for her.
She died in 2000 at the age of 103, after having lived alone as a widow for fifty-seven years. She was every bit as sassy as that nandina she loved, which sits on my patio today, enjoying some Colorado sunshine.
During my first year of teaching, a girl named Shay was assigned to my seventh-grade class. She was a desperately unhappy child and rebelled against the most basic rules, such as “Stay in your seat” and “Raise your hand to speak.”
Shay and I battled for control of the classroom. I tried every technique I knew: behavior contracts, praise, reprimands. None of them worked. I even called Shay’s home every week, but no one answered. (She lived with an older sister.) I went to the school counselor, who said I’d done my duty and offered to transfer Shay to another classroom. I declined. Shay was my student, and I wasn’t going to pass her on to someone else. In the faculty lounge the older teachers patted me on the back, thankful they didn’t have Shay in their classrooms.
June finally came. On the last day of school, Shay was quick to head out the door. As I sat contemplating my failure with her, she walked back in. Oh, great, I thought: one last act of terrorism.
In Shay’s hand was a small bowl, the kind that students made in ceramics class. She thrust it into my grasp. “Here,” she said. “It’s the only thing I could think of to give you.”
I turned the bowl over and saw Shay’s initials etched on the bottom.
“Thanks for trying to like me,” she said.
Before I could speak, she turned and left.
After several more years of teaching, I went on to become a school principal and am now a district superintendent. Shay’s bowl has never left my desk.
Santa Maria, California
For as long as I can remember, my mother has kept an antique makeup compact in her jewelry box. Made of aluminum, it looks like an old pocket watch. Her father found it at the dump near their house and thought she would like it. He was a machinist, and her mother worked, too, but with five kids, there was never any money to spare. When he died, he left no estate.
In a recent phone call my mother told me she had discovered that her neighbor has a collection of antique compacts just like hers. Although I knew the story behind the keepsake, I could think only of my mother’s inability to throw anything away. Frustrated, I said, “I can’t believe you kept something from the dump for all these years!”
There was a brief silence on the line. Then she said, “It was the only thing my father ever gave me.”
North Wales, Pennsylvania
A few months after my husband had died, I forced myself to go through his belongings. I donated or discarded most of them but kept a few items that evoked memories of our forty-two-year marriage: His watch and wedding ring. The tie our daughters had made him for Father’s Day when they’d been young. His favorite sweater. His leather jacket. These, I thought, would be my precious keepsakes.
Six months later I opened his trumpet case and discovered a half-empty plastic water bottle tucked inside. The last time he’d played the instrument, he’d taken a drink from this bottle. Holding it, I felt as though he’d just stepped offstage. His lips had touched this bottle. And now so did mine: just a tiny sip, almost a kiss.
Ridgewood, New Jersey
My mother was born in the back of a Model T truck in the midst of a Thanksgiving Day blizzard. The year was 1919, and by the time her parents reached the hospital, she was nearly hypothermic. My grandmother, a devout Irish Catholic, sent a fervent prayer to the Virgin Mary to save her baby girl. Along with the prayer she offered a bargain: if her daughter lived, she would dress her only in light blue and white — the colors associated with Mary — for the first seven years of her life.
My mother lived, and my grandmother kept her promise.
Seventy-five years later my husband and I were in the process of adopting a baby girl from China. It was an exciting but difficult time for us. While we were waiting to be united with our new daughter, my nearest cousin went into a vintage-clothing store and spotted, hanging up high and nearly out of sight, a light-blue cotton dress with white embroidery. Knowing the blue-dress story, she bought it for our daughter-to-be.
Back home she examined the dress more carefully and gasped: on the inside was a tag with my mother’s name on it. Coincidence, luck, destiny — call it what you may, somehow that dress had come back to us.
My daughter, who adores her grandmother, proudly wore the dress until she outgrew it. When she was nine, I passed it on to my pregnant niece for her daughter to wear. That was a mistake. My daughter was distraught that the dress, which had become an important confirmation that she belonged in our family, had been given away. She begged me to get it back.
My daughter is now seventeen, and the dress is framed on our wall. Being adopted, especially interracially, is not easy. The blue dress has helped affirm that her place is here with us.
There is a Chinese saying that a red thread connects people who are meant to be together, and nothing can break it. Our “red thread” came in blue.
A heart-shaped marine fossil sits on my dresser next to a silver sculpture of a reclining Buddha. I spotted the small black stone with the imprint of a crustacean beside a trail hundreds of miles from the sea, on a two-week trek in the Himalayas when I was twenty-four. Holding it now summons memories of that trip: rhododendrons in full bloom with snow-covered mountains in the distance; rickety bridges and narrow trails carved into rock; a lama on horseback wearing a fur-trimmed hat and carrying a little dog called a “Lhasa apso” under his arm.
When I found the fossil, I had been hiking alone beside the milky waters of the Kali Gandaki River for hours. My Sherpa had gone on ahead. Too exhausted to take another step, I collapsed on a rock, unwrapped a bar of chocolate, and began to cry.
I cried because I had miles of trail ahead and was wearing flip-flops, since my swollen, blistered, bandaged feet would no longer fit into shoes. I cried because the only way out of those mountains was to take one painful step and then another. I cried because I knew that no amount of crying or chocolate would change any of this.
What, other than curiosity and an interest in Buddhism, had possessed me to go trekking in Nepal? Had I needed to prove something? Suddenly I could see before me a lifetime of self-imposed challenges that would lead only to misery. I resolved to guard against them for the rest of my days.
With that, I finished the chocolate and continued down the trail, stooping to pick up that black, heart-shaped fossil, but otherwise putting one foot in front of the other for four more days.
Just a few weeks later, in May 1969, I met a friend in Tangier who proposed we cross the Sahara. I pored over maps, completely forgetting my resolve to avoid such challenges. Only the prohibitive expense of a desert crossing — not careful consideration of what the Sahara might have been like in summer — saved me.
I still find myself undertaking ventures like those I resolved to guard against: backpacking trips in the High Sierra, surfing lessons in Costa Rica. When a friend invited me to climb Mount Kilimanjaro a few years ago, however, I turned her down. But I was sorely tempted.
Palo Alto, California
My father’s dresser had a drawer for pajamas, a drawer for socks and boxers, and a drawer for his shirts that came back from Reliable Cleaners attached to white cardboard with straight pins. The top drawer, however, was not for clothing. It was where he stored interesting keepsakes, such as rare coins and his 1927 Austrian driver’s license. We kids understood that we must never go into that top drawer without his permission.
After my father’s death, I was alone at his house packing boxes. The dresser had been emptied except for the top drawer. Inside, beneath subway tokens, an old passport, and some silver dimes, I found an envelope full of letters and photographs. The letters were in German, which I can barely read, but I recognized my grandparents in the photos. I had never met them, because they’d been murdered by the Nazis. The pictures had been taken in a ghetto, and everyone was wearing armbands with Jewish stars. Otherwise my grandparents looked much as they did in other family photos: well dressed and not obviously thin or sick.
My grandparents continued to appear healthy in subsequent photographs, though their letters described the miserable conditions in the ghetto. I had read about “kapos,” Jews who’d received special privileges for cooperating with the Nazis. Could my grandparents have done this?
I phoned my friend Marv, a student of the Holocaust, who told me, to my relief, that the photos weren’t evidence that my grandparents had been kapos. Jews who were sent to the ghettos, Marv said, were often photographed repeatedly on their arrival, when they still looked like themselves. They were told to write regularly to family and friends back home and to enclose these photos, which misled others into thinking they had nothing to fear when it was their turn to be deported.
The photos and letters sparked my interest in family history. I now know exactly how my grandparents got from Austria to Poland. I know where they were forced from a truck onto a train and later onto a cattle car. I don’t think I’ll ever know whether they died in the ghetto near Lublin or in the Sobibór extermination camp. But I do know why my father didn’t want us kids going through his top drawer.
Henry W. Rosenberg
My mother never wanted children. When she became a parent, she tried to console herself by turning me into a concert pianist. From the age of five onward I was forced to take twice-weekly lessons with a short-tempered teacher who had no interest in young children.
After school every day my mother made me practice and tried to browbeat me into brilliance. Hovering behind the bench, she would pull my hair every time I hit a wrong note. Rather than encouraging genius, her efforts squelched whatever minimal interest in music I may have had. When I turned fourteen, I announced that I was giving up the piano, and my mother didn’t fight me on it.
My memories of those lessons and the mandatory daily practice sessions still haunt me, but I cannot let go of a memento of the ordeal: a lone bronze bookend of Beethoven seated at a baby grand, his hands poised above the keys. Throughout my childhood the bookend and its twin sat on a shelf behind our piano with books of sheet music between them. When I left home after college, I brought the bookend. (I don’t know what happened to its mate.)
Beethoven has now traveled with me from house to house for forty-two years. The fake-ivory keys of his piano have cracked and yellowed. The once lustrous black piano and bench have only flecks of paint remaining. The green felt bottom disintegrated decades ago, exposing two sharp screw heads. I’ve sought ever more inconspicuous places to park him with each move.
A while back I was surprised to find intact sets of similar bookends for sale online for thirty dollars. My husband suggested I spring for a new set and dump the “relic.” But I didn’t, and I won’t.
When a friend sold her house recently and moved into a condo, she offered me her modest upright piano. At first I balked, but then I accepted it. Ever since, about once a week, when I’m alone in the house, I retrieve the bookend from its out-of-sight location, set it beside me on the bench, and play for half an hour or so, just for my own enjoyment. I am not a gifted pianist, but I have a good ear and can pick out a tune. As distressing as my early musical education was, it was better than none at all. The battered Beethoven bookend reminds me to be grateful for it.
In 1965 I spent my junior year of college in Strasbourg, France. It was the first year of the exchange program, and our group leader made it clear that he wanted to hear from us only if we had a dire emergency.
Until then my controlling mother had made every decision for me, no matter how trivial. Even the trip to Europe had been her idea. In France I befriended a fellow exchange student, Irene, and we took advantage of our new freedom, going to school Monday through Wednesday, then traveling Thursday through Sunday. Not quite ready for total independence, I let Irene decide where we went and what we did when we got there.
Once the school year had ended, I decided to see if I could make it on my own, depending on no one else. My idea was to hitchhike alone to Italy, and from there to cross the Mediterranean and end up in Israel, where I had relatives.
At the last youth hostel before the Italian border, I asked if anyone was hitching to Rome. “I am,” said a boy with a cockney accent. Tony was about my age and had light-brown curly hair. Although rides came slower when I was hitching with a guy, he and I successfully made our way down Italy. When we got to Rome, Tony was running short on money and asked if I wanted to share a room, to save expenses. I was attracted to him, and I thought he felt the same way about me, so I said yes.
The room had two beds, but one night we both got into the same bed and held each other and talked and kissed. Tony told me he’d felt the need to get out of London after his mother had died of breast cancer. It had been agony to see her in such pain, he said. I put my arms around him and cried with him. We never had sex, but I felt closer to him than I ever had to anyone before.
Tony begged me to come with him to Naples, but I was determined to continue on to Israel, where I planned to stay with some cousins I’d never met, then catch a plane back to the U.S. Before I left, Tony asked me if I wanted to buy his sweater. It was a navy-blue pullover made of wool. I certainly wouldn’t wear it, but I realized he needed the money. So I bought it and stuffed it in my backpack.
In Israel I stayed at a kibbutz with my cousins. The day after I’d arrived, they gave me a letter from the U.S. that said my mother had been killed in a car accident. Alone in my room I cried and clutched Tony’s sweater, which smelled of the sea. In my grief I remembered the night we’d spent talking about his mother’s death, and I wished I could have spoken to him just one more time.
I’m not a sentimental person, but I couldn’t throw away that sweater, even after I’d grown older and gotten married. Most of the time it stayed buried at the back of a closet. When I saw it, a profound sadness would come over me, and I would put the fabric to my face and smell it, then shove the sweater beneath some old clothes till the next time. I kept that sweater for forty-two years.
Most visitors to my home ask about the thirty-one-inch maple stick displayed above my small TV. Its bark is aged to a chocolate brown, and the top is split into two worn-smooth “ears,” which caused me to pretend the stick was a horse when I was three. But I couldn’t ride it when Mom made biscuits, because the stick’s real purpose was to prop shut the oven door on the wood-burning cookstove in our drafty, two-room, tar-papered shack.
My home today is modest. A guest once patronizingly described it as “quaint.” A single room serves as living, dining, and office area. But it has central heat and full plumbing. The stick serves as a reminder that I live in great luxury.
One of my brothers died recently. I did not mourn him. Thirteen years older than I am, he left home when I was seven, and I saw little of him after that.
A few days after he’d died, I opened an old chest I keep in the garage. In it was a white box containing copies of the mimeographed program from my wedding. The guest book was there, too, and the letters from my family.
I got married in the 1960s. My fiancé, Bob, and I were working for a struggling nonprofit that brought the arts to a poor neighborhood. We had no money. The only wedding expenses were my twenty-five-dollar dress and the stamps to mail the few invitations we didn’t hand deliver. The ceremony was held in the inner-city church basement where the nonprofit was housed. None of my family was there, but my mother and nearly all my siblings had written to me. Their mildewed letters were in that box in my garage. One brother had ripped up his invitation and sent it back. Others had tried to shame me into changing my mind about marrying Bob, because I’m white, and he was black. He was also a divorced Catholic (and therefore, by church law, ineligible to remarry) and much too old for me in their minds. We were breaking all the rules.
I sat and reread their letters. I had forgotten how vile racism and self-righteousness can be up close. Mild-mannered Midwesterners, my family members rarely showed emotion, but they’d been passionate in their condemnation of me. “What’s the matter with you?” my recently deceased brother had written. “You gotta drag yourself in the gutter but you don’t have to drag Mom in with you. You keep that nigger away from Mom. From what I hear from home you got Mom with one foot in her grave. You put her in her grave and you better be prepared for yours. That’s a promise.”
But Mom soon embraced my marriage to Bob, who made her laugh. I didn’t see the brother who’d written that letter again until our mother’s funeral ten years later. I was afraid of what he’d do when he and Bob met, but the two of them shook hands and had a beer together.
Reading those letters revealed something else I hadn’t expected: as wrong as my siblings had been about Bob, they’d nailed me for my own self-righteousness, my attempts to shame them for their outdated beliefs, and my holier-than-thou stance. I had forgotten that I was cut from the same cloth. And though their desires for me were misguided and marred by racism, behind their fury, I could see that they did care for me and want me to be happy.
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
I never felt closer to Dad than when our family was on vacation. We always stayed with his sister, who lived and taught school in a small town in central India. There was nothing to see there and nothing to do except go for a walk. So that is what he and I did each day before the sun rose and the streets became busy with bicycles, bullock carts, and buses.
Dad would bend down next to my bed and touch my hand to wake me, not wanting to disturb the others’ sleep by speaking. Once we were outside, he would let me choose which road to take. (There were only two.) Sometimes he’d confirm my choice by saying, “Well done! This side of town seems quieter today.”
We would pass the vegetable vendors and the newspaper seller on his decrepit bicycle and the tiny farmers’ cooperative. Once we were outside of town, the air was fresher, and Dad and I would walk briskly by the light of the rising sun. A few huts, the occasional stream, and an emaciated cow or two were the only scenery, but Dad would always find something of interest. “Look,” he might whisper, and draw my attention with a forefinger to a blue flycatcher perched on a twig or a modest garden with a flame-red bastard teak.
We’d walk three miles to the river and along the scraggly shoreline a bit, then turn around and go back. By the time we returned, the town would be awakening, and Dad would say, as if the idea had suddenly struck him, “Do you think we should stop for some tea?” I’d nod, and we’d visit a street-side stall where a wizened man served tea to passing laborers. We would sit on a rough bench next to a rickety table, and the man would place two steaming cups of oversweetened Darjeeling before us. I loved Dad’s expression of satisfaction as he took his first sip. After the third sip, he would turn convivial. “So, what do you think of this town?” he might ask. Unlike our conversations at home, these discussions made me feel as if we were equals.
Dad has been gone some thirty years. He died suddenly from a surgery gone awry, and I never got to see his body before he was buried. I live on the other side of the world. I have nothing to remind me of him except a handful of old photographs. But in the Washington, D.C., suburb where I live, I walk every morning with my aging husky and remember the quiet, loving man who made me feel like his equal. That is my keepsake.
It’s been almost ten years since I got out of prison, and I have adapted pretty well to free life. I have a dog and a close-knit circle of friends. I rent a house, own a car and a motorcycle, attend services at a Zen center, and have held the same job for six years. I more or less pass for normal. But I have kept a few souvenirs of my past.
I still own the two nylon laundry bags I put my property in when I was released. Sometimes I see them in the closet and remember having to fill them and deliver them to the prison laundry every Wednesday.
I still have the paperback books I read in prison, each covered with clear packing tape. I had to pay another inmate a steep price for that tape, which was contraband, but I didn’t care. I wanted to preserve my books.
I still wear the black-framed sunglasses I used in prison. I still have the shorts I wore, though they no longer fit. (I’ve gotten fat.) I have a three-inch plastic pen, the sort given to inmates because it’s too small to be used as a weapon.
My most treasured items are two coin-sized wood carvings made by friends: an “om” symbol and an “eternal knot.” I admire the effort it took to make them in prison, where tools of any kind — even sewing needles — were not allowed.
Last year I saw three former inmates I knew at a mutual acquaintance’s birthday party. It was like running into someone you’ve met only in a dream. We sat and talked, wearing civilian clothes instead of prison blues. It was good to see them. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has managed to make a life for himself after his release. We all know people who reoffended and went back to prison. That we’ve stayed out is perhaps evidence we have kept the most important thing we had on the inside: the fortitude to make it through.
St. Petersburg, Florida
The scar on my upper right chest is grayish pink, the color of Silly Putty, and slightly indented. Occasionally a jolt of pain from the spot will surprise me. I’m actually grateful to have this one-inch memento — a reminder that my aggressive breast cancer was caught early and successfully treated.
Sitting on a bookshelf in my home office, secured in a biohazard bag, is the Smart Port that was inserted into my chest so I could more efficiently receive my chemotherapy cocktails. My IV drips went straight into the vein, no pesky arm pokes required. The port served me so well that I chose to keep it in throughout the weeks of radiation treatments that followed.
I’ve considered having the port made into a necklace. Its plastic center could easily pass for a grayish moonstone, and I’ve always favored unusual jewelry. But would I want to tell my story to everyone who inquired about this distinctive piece? Someday I might go ahead with my plan and find out.
Robin Galen Kilrain
My parents had many siblings, but they all lived far away. My father moved out when I was eight. I have one sister, nine years older, who married at nineteen. So from the time I was ten, it was just Mom and me.
My mother passed away when I was twenty-one and still living at home. After her death, there was a lot to do: Select the coffin. Arrange the church and cemetery services. Contact the newspaper. And call all those relatives I hardly knew. My sister and I handled it all.
Several of my mother’s sisters came to my house to claim keepsakes. I remember them rifling through her closet, looking for a certain article of clothing. My sister was polite in handling them, but I thought they were vultures and hoped I’d never have to see them again.
At the funeral parlor my sister wanted to remove Mom’s jewelry, claiming the funeral directors would steal it. I didn’t believe this and wanted my mother to be buried with her cross. I couldn’t remember a single day she hadn’t worn it. A screaming match broke out, and the final outcome was that the cross would come off, but I could keep it.
I’ve never been so glad to have lost an argument. It’s been forty-five years since Mom died, and that cross is one of my most prized possessions. I wear it almost every day. I’ve even come to understand her sisters’ desire to have something that had belonged to her.
Waterford, New York
I was always my father’s girl. My mother and my older sister were close and secretive, whereas my father and I were carefree and easygoing. He and I played stoopball, handball, and hit-the-penny in our Queens housing development. We went to the bagel store every Sunday morning. An accountant, he taught me math tricks and let me use his pencils and adding machine. When my sister and I fought, our father cheered me on. When she wasn’t around, he slipped me five-dollar bills.
One day our father arrived home with two gift boxes. I unwrapped mine first. Inside was a beautiful porcelain doll in a silk kimono. Her black-lashed eyes opened and closed, and I loved her instantly. When my sister opened her box, she discovered that her doll’s face was webbed with hairline cracks. “Not fair!” she cried as I caressed my gift, the perfect one. Our father told my sister to be quiet and make do with the flawed doll.
Another time, when I was eight, our father gave us identical gold-heart necklaces, except mine had a brushed finish of Florentine gold on one side. Fifty years later it pains me to think how many times I taunted my sister with “I got the better necklace!”
My sister never left home or got married, and she hasn’t worked in thirty years. She broke up with her only serious boyfriend after my father had made fun of him. I often wonder whether his playing favorites changed the course of her life.
Our father is dead now, and my sister takes care of our ninety-year-old mother in the apartment where we grew up. They are best friends and recluses. I live in another city. Though lucid and healthy, my mother never calls me and doesn’t seem to care if I visit. My father’s home office, which had once been my childhood bedroom, remains closed off. On my infrequent visits to Queens I am no longer allowed to go in there. The porcelain dolls collected dust for decades before they disappeared.
Only a trace of Florentine gold remains on my necklace. I never take it off.
Loudonville, New York
I have been visiting my mother in Arizona for nearly a week. She is a widow in her eighties, and I am helping her get her house in order, but I’m leaving tomorrow and have yet to tackle the guest room where I am staying. The contents of the dresser and closet are strewn across the floor and wrapped around the legs of tables and the bed. I see books and magazines and jewelry and greeting cards and photographs and newspaper clippings. There are even a few dead bugs. I cannot leave in good conscience until I at least organize this chaos.
I find a box of trash bags and begin separating the clothing into piles for Goodwill, mending, and laundering. This process goes on nearly until dawn, and Mom is by my side throughout, terrified I will throw something away, as she believes I want to do. She tells me the story of each item and the meaning it holds for her. I listen intently and try to understand.
When we get to the greeting cards, I learn that she fears if she destroys them, something bad will happen to the senders. After she dies, she wants me to return the cards to the people who wrote them.
Back home in California, I cannot stop thinking about my mother. Her hoarding habit is nothing new. When I was a girl, visitors had to kick their way through the mess in our living room. In college I majored in religion, and Zen Buddhism spoke to me, especially the part about letting go. Today I think about the boxes in my garage that hold my souvenirs and memorabilia. “Everything is alive,” I hear my mother saying of her keepsakes. I am determined to burn mine, so I can live.
Santa Barbara, California
At their year-end pool party, my daughter’s Girl Scout troop presented their leader with a Leatherman stainless-steel multi-tool as a gift. I watched as a pair of scissors sprang from the device, along with three screwdrivers, a knife, and some other gadgets.
When I was my daughter’s age, I had a pair of scissors that folded up in a similar fashion. For me they were an emblem of the unknown world outside our industrial city in northeast China.
My father had been sent to work far away (he was not allowed to choose his own job), while my mother and I stayed home in the steel-and-iron capital of the country, where the sky was always purple and red. Once each year my father returned like a migratory bird to spend ten days with us. One time, when my mother and I picked him up at the train station, he motioned for me to come closer. His eyes were bloodshot from forty hours on trains, and he had a smear of dirt on his forehead. I held my mother’s hand tight and stared at him as if he were a total stranger. My father sighed, then reached into his shirt pocket and produced a silvery instrument, which he laid in my palm. I carefully unfolded it into a pair of scissors. He had bought them in Beijing while waiting for his connecting train, he said.
I was in awe. My only toys were a one-armed doll, a dented hand-me-down truck, and two marbles. The only scissors I knew were made of heavy black metal, like the ones my upstairs neighbor used to chop off fish heads and his wife used to cut the sleeves from his old steelworker’s uniform to make an apron for herself. This pair of silvery folding scissors was my first glimpse into a world of finery and novelties.
From that day on, the scissors went with me everywhere. All my friends wanted to borrow them. Once they unfolded and poked a hole in my pants and cut my leg. Over time rust climbed the blades, but they remained sharp. As I watched a friend play cards with her father, I would reach inside my pocket and touch the scissors and yearn for my own faraway father.
I lost the scissors during a field trip in middle school. I did not write to tell my father.
Shortly after the pool party I ordered a multi-tool for my daughter. She had no real use for it, but she has kept it anyway, adding it to her vast collection of belongings. If anything, it might remind her of Girl Scouts. I am content with that.
It occurs to me that I have never asked my father, now ninety years old, if there is a story behind the scissors he gave me. I wonder if he has been waiting for me to ask.
On the bookshelf in my living room is a picture of my husband, Fred, kissing a beautiful blond woman I’ve never met. I feel as if I’ve walked in on a private moment whenever I look at it.
In another picture I see myself on a walking trail on the shore of Lake Superior, holding a man’s hand and grinning. Love shines in our eyes. My husband, Fred, has never met the man in this photo.
Fred and I were teaching in the same school five years ago when his wife died of lung cancer, and I wrote him a polite note of condolence. Three weeks later, after my husband had been diagnosed with the same disease, I wrote Fred a second note. My understanding of what he’d been through had changed.
Fred and I established a friendship that helped us sort through our losses, then evolved into a love affair. We had a large church wedding with two of our children and fourteen of our grandchildren as attendants.
Now retired, we spend seven months of the year in Florida, in a new house with all new furniture. When we’re there, we feel like nineteen-year-old newlyweds.
The other five months we spend in Minnesota, where we live in the house my dead husband built for me and sleep in a bed that Fred and his first wife chose together. There is the lamp that Fred bought for his wife at the hospital gift shop. She spotted it in the window as he was pushing her in her wheelchair to a chemotherapy treatment. It cost more than they could afford, but Fred couldn’t say no. In the family room where Fred and I watch the evening news are the coffee table and end tables my former husband crafted from slabs of myrtle he’d bought on our trip down the Oregon coast.
Each storied item in this Minnesota house squeezes my heart, and for a moment the grief is fresh again. Every year we discuss buying a different house and packing away the objects that make me sad, but I know we won’t do that.
When my dead husband’s cancer was diagnosed, a friend told me, “Lou, you won’t really learn how to live until you understand that life is a constant walk with death.” This house and its keepsakes are part of that lesson.
Lou K.Z. Prudhomme