If She Can Let Go, So Can I
Buried deep in a box full of stuff located in my mother’s garage, I find a fragile hourglass, filled with shimmery aqua-colored sand. No framework protects its delicate structure. I flip it over and watch the sand form a crumbly pyramid in the bottom globe.
This gets placed in the tub of things I want to keep.
My mom invited me over to clean out her home and garage, so I'm here to climb the mountains of clothes and shoes, topple boxes, and recreate some semblance of order from the current state of chaos.
Little did I know that purging a lifetime of my mother’s material things would lead to creating my very own clean slate.
During this project I find a total of 27 wristwatches of various age, style, color, brand, and function. I speculate about how she had trouble adjusting from the hourglass to modern technology.
There are a total of six decorative sundials. A few compasses. Twelve gazing balls, yet none of them were found together. It's as if she bought one, put it away, it became buried, she couldn’t find it, so she bought another one. Over and over again.
Five clock radios. Two of which I bought for her over the years, when she told me she needed one. I assumed the second one was for a different room. I didn’t know they were being discarded in her infinite slush pile.
Every carton I open is physical evidence of things I knew about my mother but had somehow forgotten. Her enthusiasm for new trends: tubs and totes crammed full of cassette tapes. More just like those, but with CDs. VHS tapes overflowing from cardboard crates. Her love for costumes and holiday decor tucked here, there, and everywhere.
Her passion to learn new things: unopened packages of art supplies and how-to books, still pristine in plastic shrink wrap. An armoire with doors tied shut, the contents bulging inside.
Tubs bursting with hundreds of loose photos and albums, every page full. One of them is dedicated to three decades of used photo development mailer envelopes, all devoid of both pictures and negatives. I stopped counting after 400 and moved them to the trash pile.
My daughter, in between college semesters, helps me maneuver the land mines and does the heavy lifting. We share equal confusion and exasperation over the contents and excesses of every newly-opened box, bag, or closet.
Every hour or so we come across yet another container filled with adhesive bandages, rolls of gauze, and first aid supplies. At final tally, we had found enough to stock a pharmacy for a full year.
Mom laughs as we tell her about all the medical supplies and says she’s been wondering where they had been hiding.
She’s perched on the edge of her Herman Miller chair in the middle of what she calls her craft room, surrounded by stacks of things we found that she needs to decide whether to keep or discard. Not surprisingly, she can’t decide about most of the items, choosing instead to tell us stories about each of them.
We’re on a limited time frame and live some hours away, so I’m impatient with her desire to relive her glory days with each item she holds. I dance all day between aggravation, guilt, compassion, and sadness. Also fear and anger. I’m afraid that I’ll take after her, and am angry for feeling this way.
I don’t want to live surrounded by mountains of stuff I have to forge a trail through to get through a room. I also have no desire to possess lots of pretty things kept hidden away, and never used, saved for for some special event in and unknown future. It’s a vicious cycle that I do not want to engage in.
Deep down, I know that my mom is more than the sum of these physical parts we’ve uncovered. She’s more than just a house or its contents. Yet I struggle to understand. My temper is quick and I’m less than kind toward her about how I think she should live — or not live — her life, even though it’s not up to me.
On day four of this project, I take stock of everything we’ve uncovered, discovered, and sorted. I notice the plethora of sundials, watches, clocks, and hourglasses. Faced with a preponderance of evidence, I surmise that she’s obsessed with the concept of time.
If I somehow live to be a hundred, I’m already a little past midlife, my mom, further along. I pause to ask myself how I want to spend the rest of our time together. If I’m judgmental and critical, it won’t change a thing. I could take the time to share with her the list of grievances I’ve accumulated and nurtured over the years. All the missteps and slights I’ve felt. All the times she was less of a mother than I expected her to be.
I look at my own daughter and think about all the times I’ve misspoke, made missteps, and messed up in general. All the times I was less of a mother than what was expected. Ouch.
I wonder how much headspace I could free up if I took my negative scorecard and did with it what we are going to do with most of this stuff: donate it.
I consider the possibility that my mom is simply human. If I squint my eyes and tilt my head just right, I can finally see her in a new light. With the majority of her piles of stuff gone, I can actually see her, period.
The walls of junk have been torn down and disposed of. Things have been reorganized. Navigation is easier. Both in her house and in my head.
I joined Mom and a dozen of her friends for lunch the other day, the foyer of the restaurant buzzing with chatter while we waited for our tables. The woman who greeted us wore a Marine Corps pin on her shirt. When asked about it, she explained that she’s the mother of two Marine sons.
One of her friends nudged my mother forward and piped up, “This lady here was a Marine.” My mom and the pin-wearing woman responded in unison, “Once a Marine, always a Marine” and the room fell silent.
The woman asked Mom about her years of service and previous station. She went on to thank her profusely for her service as she unpinned the badge she wore “for my sons but I want you to have it” and affixed it to Mom’s blouse.
They hugged. Tissues were yanked from a dozen purses and shirt sleeves, eyes dabbed and dried of tears.
There is still so much more to learn about my mom. Who she was. Who she is. Who she is still becoming. Others see the good in her. Why do I resist?
It’s time for a change and I’ve made up my mind. Being impatient, angry, and unkind to my mother is not the hill I want to die on. It’s her life and I’m just as guilty of being imperfect and human as she is. From here on out, I’m going to go with kindness. This will be time better spent. For everyone.