Journalcalling #13 – Transitions
Journalcalling • April 25, 2021
My mom is not a hoarder, but she is a long-time saver of family memorabilia. We are cleaning out her home as she prepares to leave town and move to an apartment near me in Maine, and she is not parting with anything until she fully reviews it: reading every letter her children sent to her over the years and the newspaper articles featuring us in school plays and sporting events, our kindergarten report cards, her first teacher’s contract ($3600) and favorite recipes inside the pages of a large pile of cookbooks dating back 60 years.
Sorting through this stuff beside her, I am reliving my life here. We arrived at 22 Janes Lane in Clinton, Connecticut in a limp state four months after my dad had died in 1973. After driving up from Houston with my mom’s brother, Uncle Jimmy, at the wheel, my two brothers and I stepped out from the backseat to take in the white colonial with black shutters.
We had only lived in Houston for two years — after the mortgage company my dad worked for had transferred him there — and suddenly we were back to our roots in New England where all of our family lived, minus a dad. My mom would raise the three of us here, and despite the chasm, and with some combination of love, fear and a healthy dose of Catholic guilt, we all made it through.
My brothers and I moved out more than 40 years ago, but returned again and again for family celebrations, respites, and random weekends. When we first arrived, my mom spent 10 years focusing only on us, and after I married, she met a gentle man named Bob Thompson and gave love a second shot. After the last of their children moved on, they enjoyed 38 years together in this house. We lost him to heart failure in February. My mom has now sold the house to a young couple who will build their own family here, and we are surrounded by boxes and stacks of newspaper and a lifetime of things to wrap.
“I arrived here as a widow, and now I’m leaving as a widow,” my mom remarked one day. There’s nothing pretty about that word. From the root word to “be empty” in Old English, or the Sanskrit “to be destitute,” she remembers when a new neighbor identified her as the widow who had moved into the neighborhood. Today, my mom is heartbroken at the loss of her dear Bob, but this home, bursting with the artifacts and memories of the times we all lived here together, represents the richness of her life.
When the Campbell’s Soup Cookbook surfaces, all of those family dinners in the 70s come flooding back. The slight sucking sound as the cylinder of goo slid from the can and glopped into the mix in the electric fry pan was a staple of my childhood.
One of our favorites was hot dog casserole with the unlikely combination of cut-up dogs, green beans, bacon, potatoes and the magical ingredient that held it all together — condensed cream of mushroom soup. Thankfully, Mom knew to have us playing team sports to run off this stuff.
A day after we began packing and sorting, I wanted to feel like we were making some progress, so I removed every piece of art and all of the photos from the walls. I laid them all across the living room floor thinking it would be fun for my mom to attend an “art show” and pick and choose what she would take, donate or discard.
“Oh my god!!” she shrieked when she spied me. “She’s stripping the walls!” It took another day before she could brave it, and then she was able to send the “Prayer for a Teacher” and a few other items to the Goodwill pile — not many though.
It was painful to decide which of the dozens of framed pieces of crewel work that had decorated every room might not fit into the new place — the colorful yarns she had carefully stitched into botanical prints, alphabet samplers and a huge one with a mason jar full of daisies she had made in honor of my dad. It represented the beginning of her healing, she said, and though it needed a trip to the dry cleaners, she was not going to part with it.
My mom had spent many of her evenings sitting in the corner of the couch carefully pulling threads through cloth canvases. She also knit us thick sweaters with matching mittens and hand-stitched beautifully patterned quilts for our beds. It helped her mind to relax, she said, and stray from the frightening job of being our only parent. “I was so scared,” she said.
Now, she is packing up the years stored in more than 20 photo albums, a closet overflowing with Christmas decorations, dozens of glass and pottery vases, a copper fondue set from the 50s, a painted wood carving of an orca whale from her grandson, shelves of Hummels, a cellar and garage stuffed with tools and so much furniture.
My mom has offered me an array of items, and friends who have been through this have advised me to take all of it. I draw the line at outdoor chaise lounges and their poofy cushions that I would need a truck to transport home.
Some of the things I have taken are: the letter my grandfather wrote to my dad three days before my grandfather died, a box of crystal wine and water glasses, my grandmother’s painted serving bowls, a teapot with gold daisies, hand-knit mittens that will fit a grandchild someday, two bird baths, and the granite garden bench that we gave my mom for her 60th birthday.
“How much stuff are you sneaking into this house?” my husband recently asked. He is not a fan of tchotchkes, he reminds me. I call them treasures.
At night, when another day’s packing is done, I start to compile my memories of this home in my journal — something slim I can take with me:
There I was:
Posing for the camera, tall and awkward, in the yard before the 8th Grade Formal wearing my lavender print gown and Dr. Scholl’s sandals
Sitting down for family dinners every night at 5:30 (Do not be late.)
Learning to eat quickly to beat my brothers and get seconds
Watching TV in the den, the four of us sprawled out on the couch and shag rug, laughing at Carol Burnett and Tim Conway and grooving to The Partridge Family
Pleading for a puppy and finally wearing my mom down
Receiving our long-awaited, sleek ten-speed bikes and the freedom to ride them all over town
Snapping green beans at the kitchen table that were bought in a bushel for freezing
My mom begging me to dress like a girl, but still buying me the Herman work boots and Levi jeans and corduroys in every color that I coveted
Missing the school bus repeatedly and finally having to walk the three miles to high school because my mom refused to drive me anymore (I usually got picked up by my guidance counselor, a family friend who lived around the corner.)
Vacuuming the pool in the hot sun before slipping in for a swim
Stuffing down mom’s fried dough pizzas and cinnamon and sugar doughnuts for dessert
Tossing my pillows out of my bedroom window for a sleep-under-the-stars night after prom
Locked out for missing curfew, and having to bang on the front door to get in and then pass my angry mom on the stairs
Puking in the upstairs bathroom after mixing creme de menthe with ginger ale and trying to convince my mom it was a St. Patrick’s Day milkshake from McDonalds. “It doesn’t smell like a milkshake,” she roared.
Repeatedly being yelled at to make my bed because I was leaving my quilt in a ball
My mom teaching me how to cross stitch and trying to teach me how to knit
Repeatedly being yelled at to get off the phone — My uncles would report to my mom that they had been trying to get through to her for hours.
Mom laying on the horn waiting in the car with my brothers to go to church while I was upstairs putting my look together for Mass
Hiding my tears at the door as I moved out after dropping out of college
Moving back home to save money to return to college
Ice skating in the backyard rink at night under the spotlight
Tearing up my imperfectly written papers at the kitchen table
Grinning as we celebrated my first grandchild with a family party in the yard
Being part of a tribe of 30 to 40 packed into the house for family Thanksgivings
Laughing long into the night in my room when my best friend Cheryle slept over
Learning some stick skills playing street hockey in the garage
Messily staining the deck every summer
Shooting hoops in games of HORSE and PIG on the court in the driveway
Inhaling the warm scent of mom’s delectable apple pies
Devouring the cinnamon and the sugar roll ups she made from the extra pie crust
Preparing steak and seafood for a dinner party where I would meet my future husband
Leaving in a limo in my wedding dress with my family and bridesmaids to get married
Listening to my mom explain the names and how to care for the dozens of plants in the yard, a language that helped us move past the strife of my teenage years
Sharing an oversized chair with my brother at Chrismas Eve celebrations in the living room with a fire blazing and a large, dazzling tree in the corner trimmed with ornaments all made by my mom
We gathered in the living room this year, but the setting was vastly different. In the middle of the room, Bob was lying in a hospital bed, and all of us came to take turns sleeping on a mattress nearby to comfort him in the night so my mom could get some sleep upstairs.
A lot has happened here. I arrived as a young wounded teenager and, now after a few transformations, I leave this harbor for good as a pretty joyful 61-year-old woman.
In the yard, my mom’s flowers are coming up to bloom again next to old stone walls. The red bud tree that she and Bob planted with my son and daughter-in-law is a piece of art — its pinky-red blossoms running up and down thin, bare branches.
I get in my car, into which I’ve stuffed my mom’s house plants and a few final treasures, and am about to set off on the winding, country roads where I first learned how to drive. My mom is in the passenger seat again and she is still a little nervous about how close I am driving to the edge of the road.