The Power of Stuff … or Here’s to You, Elisabeth

Attic Fans: I’m honored to welcome Laura Schalk as my first guest blogger. I like to think of Laura, a lifelong bookworm raised in Poughkeepsie who now lives and works abroad, as my very own American in Paris. We met a decade ago at a writers’ workshop held not far from Hemingway’s old haunts on the Left Bank. Thanks to the bottomless generosity of one of our workshop members, we and six others from that initial group have continued to gather each summer to work, study, write, eat and laugh together in Bordeaux. (And the local grape, we enjoy a bit of that, too.) Despite the miles that separate us, we have become the best of friends. 

Like me, Laura lost her mother a few years ago. Like my mother, Elisabeth Schalk was a discerning reader who had a flair for fashion and a tendency to hold tight to what she loved, be it a shiny pair of patent heels, a box full of paperbacks, or her beloved family. Laura’s tribute to her mother here is graceful and true.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have. And by the way, Laura writes insightfully hilarious short fiction, too. Be sure to check it out through the Amazon link that follows …

 

laura-and-mom-and-gramma-with-peter
With my mother and her mother, and my brother Peter behind, circa 1970. I still have Mom’s Icelandic sweater. Much to my regret, the groovy shades have vanished.

Martha and I have chatted many times over the years about our mothers: when they were alive and when they were dying, and later as we were coping with their deaths and with the resulting need to plow through the detritus of a beloved and fashionable woman’s years on the planet. Across two continents, we’ve shared the attendant emotions which that particular and at times painful task has stirred up – laughter through the tears and all that jazz.

When I read the first installment of “My Mother’s Attic,” I was jerked through space and time from sitting in a chair in my living room in Paris, to sitting on the floor of my parents’ bedroom in Poughkeepsie, New York, heartsick and hot and dusty. My mom was still alive then but in a nursing home, and far gone with Alzheimer’s. My dad had decided to put the family house up for sale, and I had flown back from France to spend three days going through Mom’s stuff.

Although this had taken place several years before, as I read Martha’s blog post, suddenly there I was on my parents’ bedroom floor again, pulling pair after pair of black size eleven shoes out of the cupboards that lined the baseboard. Black flats, black sandals, black loafers, black half boots – dozens and dozens of pairs, all stretched and worked and bearing the marks of Mom’s dear feet, some emitting puffs of dust and others disgorging dead flies or hornets. (At the Lutheran Care Center, my mother and the other residents on her ward wore white sneakers with Velcro closings, though very few of them walked at all.)

While I worked, my dad holed up in his study downstairs and left me to it. My equipment: a box of extra large black Hefty garbage bags, a marker, post-its, tape. After tossing most of those damn shoes, I dove into closets and drawers full of my mother’s clothes. One of the tics of Alzheimer’s is that people tend to re-buy the same thing, and Mom was no exception. I found stacks of barely worn pastel Eileen Fisher dresses, identical black “agnes b” separates, and bushels of handbags. I shared out a dozen pair of black leather gloves amongst my girlfriends, and returned home with twenty purse-sized bottles of Purell. Dad and I made multiple trips to the Salvation Army in downtown Poughkeepsie, unloading our flotilla of garbage bags from the back seat and trunk. To cheer each other up, we told ourselves that women from the area who were looking for jobs would find their happiness and good luck in interview outfits, courtesy of Mom.

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Mom was an avid reader throughout her life. Here are a few of her best old books, one with her inscription.

Each day during this seemingly endless process, I cooked elaborate meals – magret de canard, frisée salad with lardons, crab salad tucked into beefsteak tomatoes, the mayonnaise homemade. Dad and I brought out the good china and silver and crystal (including glasses Mom never let us use) for both lunch and dinner. Between bouts of cooking and sorting, I meandered through the house putting post-its on chairs, paintings, a desk, that read, “Laura – Paris.” At the time, this seemed a momentous and never ending task and I struggled to see the point of shipping all that stuff home.

And yet, as I prepared the other weekend for a dinner party, I set the table in my flat on Rue de la Chine with my parents’ wedding silver. I put tapers in some candlesticks that used to grace the dining room table of my youth. I didn’t serve my friends anything as refined as the meals Mom would spend a day preparing (Julia Child’s coq au vin, lemon-lime soufflé), but I felt joyful carving my basic roast chicken on a lovely old Willowware china platter. And when my friend Nadia had a recent dinner party of her own, I brought a few things along … we ate Berber chickpea stew (a recipe from Nadia’s mum), served on my parents’ pink linen placemats with matching napkins. I’m sure my mother, ever the expert and gracious hostess, would smile to see her old treasures being used in other’s homes, and used again.

It may be reductive and even ridiculous to state that my mother is dead but lives on through her wool coat, her books, or the much-mended eight foot long white linen tablecloth she rescued from the dissolution of her own parents’ home. But still, to this day I can’t leave the house without wearing or taking along some item of Mom’s: a ring, a bracelet, a slippery Hermes scarf that I never can tie with her Seven Sisters’ insouciance. And when some months ago, the chain to one of Mom’s necklaces broke as I was getting dressed and the pendant dropped to the floor and rolled from sight, I wept. I crawled around on all fours searching until, already late to my meeting, I had no choice but to give up. I shoved one of her rings on my finger, reapplied mascara and left the flat.

As time passes, I continue to muse about the lingering power of objects that have been owned, held, chosen, worn by our loved ones. Is it unhealthy, superstitious to confer such mojo on material things? Perhaps. Probably. And yet, in amongst the clutter my mother left behind, there were multiple potent talismans, enough to buoy her daughter, to propel her through the days ahead.

POSTSCRIPT: As I prepped for the Women’s March in Paris last week, I was sure to wear the t-shirt my father gave me years ago, one which sadly is now more relevant than ever, and says, “Women’s rights are human rights! Stop the Republican war on women!” But I also gave full reign to my mania for talismans and wore or carried a panoply of objects from beloved women and men in my life: bracelets, a necklace, earrings, a pin, a flask and Dop kit and a handkerchief. Before I headed out, I tucked a water bottle bearing photos of my nephews in my knapsack and slipped my mother’s wedding ring on my finger, a thick gold band whose inscription is still visible: “Amor vincit Omnia.”

–Laura Schalk                                                                                                                                        

Laura’s short fiction is anthologized in “That’s Paris: An Anthology of Life, Love, and Sarcasm in the City of Light” and “Christmas, Actually: A Holiday Collection.” You can find both at http://amzn.to/2jL4Oun.   

Bookish

Scarecrows and Tin Men and Bears!
Scarecrows and Tin Men and Bears!

The Classics
Raggedy Ann, Tom Thumb, Snow White, and Bambi and boom, by the time I was four I’d met with little people, creepy dolls-come-to-life, a mother’s death and a princess.

Babes, Prayers and Kittens
Babes, Prayers and Kittens
My mother wasn’t what you’d call hands-on. When I was a kid, we didn’t spend afternoons together making macaroni necklaces or finger painting. Messy crafts in particular weren’t Mom’s thing (though I do remember a Zoom Loom). Later, I don’t think she ever pulled up a chair to help with homework. And SAT prep? Um, no. As for shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball around the yard? We-e-lll, let’s just say she didn’t have the proper shoes, her thin-soled white Keds notwithstanding.

Emily Post, recipes from Old Dixie, a Party Encyclopedia ... the keys to homemaking success.
Emily Post, recipes from Old Dixie, a Party Encyclopedia … the keys to my mother’s homemaking success.
This is not to say she didn’t care. My mother cared a LOT. In fact, as the last of her six children, I was expected to fulfill her fading parental dreams. She wanted me to be the best damn finger painting-macaroni-necklace-making-zoom-looming basketball star in the state of Georgia, as long as she didn’t have to dribble a ball or risk soiling her blouse. There were exceptions. In matters of fashion, Mom led by example, taking me along to mall, boutique, discount house and fabric store alike. More importantly, she was into books, way into books. Before I could read on my own, she read to me (though not that often by today’s standards). The Little Engine that Could and Grimms do come to mind.

Books old and older.
Books old and older.

Attic reading
Attic reading

More, more, more!
More, more, more!
But mom was a reader herself, a devourer of print, and I became one, too. A case of successful parenting-by-trickle-down, I suppose. Books were omnipresent as I grew up, and my parents’ house remained stuffed full of them right up until the day Mom died. During last spring’s house purge, I saved cleaning them out for last. I didn’t really plan it that way, but I think as long as Mom’s books remained, I could feel her there with me too, her spirit tucked between the pages of everything from James Joyce to John LeCarré. We found books upstairs, downstairs, stacked on shelves, filling up secretaries, piled in tattered boxes under attic eaves, hidden under chairs and tables. There were hardcover and paperback; literary fiction and biographies, mysteries, and spy novels; first editions and worthless mass markets; cookbooks, travel guides, books on architecture and politics, Bibles (one dated 1827, from my Dad’s side of the family), and of course, Catholic How-to Manuals (wouldn’t Pope Francis be proud?). Among these were Birth Control for Catholics (rather brief, that one) and the Catholic’s Guide to Expectant Motherhood. There were so many books that finally, I ran out of time to decide if this one would go to the public library, or that one to Goodwill. Needless to say, lots came home with me. I suppose one day my sons and daughter will be forced to go through them all again, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

A little bit of everything
A little bit of everything

A crumpled stack tied in gold, Spenser's Faerie Queene among them. Mom's note reads, "Books my mother read in school. Salem, VA, 1910-1915."
A crumpled stack tied in gold, Spenser’s Faerie Queene among them. Mom’s note reads, “Books my mother read in school. Salem, VA, 1910-1915.”
I thought of Mom and her books the other day when a post popped up on my Facebook feed noting a drop in ebook sales as compared with print. Too, it seems studies keep showing that folks (even millenials!) like the feel and smell of a physical book. Well, after sorting through thousands of pages, some of them mildew-stained or harboring crumbled insect remains, I have to say I can see why.

And hold on a minute, here comes a memory … I did have finger paints! That smell! Sure, there was a box of them in the back of my closet, right under the Tiddly Winks. Alas, I believe that by the time my friend Diana and I finally dug out the jars and donned our own smocks, the paint had evaporated, leaving behind a crusty, pocked rainbow. But hey, we had books to spare. For a while, we even got into copying them, word for word, into spiral notebooks, though we kept that strange little game to ourselves. Today, Diana and I are both writers. And my sister is a journalist, one brother is an ad man/copy writer, another writes PR and speeches for Coca Cola. Hmm. 

Thanks, Mom. Really.

Mom's books now displayed in our downstairs hallway.
Some of Mom’s books now displayed in our downstairs hallway.

And more in the family room ...
And more in the family room …