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 …

 

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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.   

Color Me Burnt Sienna

October gold
October gold

Yesterday, October 19th, marked the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. I’m a day late and a dollar short, as my father, who was never late for anything, was fond of  saying. We lost him in October, too, twelve years ago on the 25th, just about a year to the day after my closest aunt left us in 2002. Then there was my maternal grandfather. Let’s see, he went in October, 1979, on the kind of warm bright autumn day in his north Florida town that makes surviving the area’s blistering summers worthwhile.

Is it in the blood? All these beloved folks died of natural causes, three of the four “of old age,” to put it rather unscientifically. It does make you wonder–is there something about the month itself that draws my kin to their final rest? Something anesthetizing about the cool rains, the majestic leaf fall, the smell of woodsmoke? Or is it the irresistible allure of all those zombies and skeletons knocking on doors on the 31st? Maybe thoughts of the great saints preparing for their feast day November 1st? I can’t say, but here’s another funny thing. My father, and that paternal grandfather, were BORN in October, too. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t recall the day my grandfather was born but I know it was in October. He used to wear a pin in his tie, a thin strip of gold topped with an opal. I remember the opal’s glossy shine, its smooth oval surface, one he let me rub whenever I drew near. His birthstone, my mother told me the first time I asked about it. The notion that a man would wear a birthstone pin both surprised me and filled me with awe.

The Payne children, when they were children, begging candy at my mother's house.
The Payne children, when they were children, begging candy on my mother’s back stoop.

And hold on a sec, that grandfather’s wife, the only grandmother I ever knew, she was born in October, too. As were many of my dear friends (thanks to those handy Facebook reminders, far more than I realized). What can it all mean? Probably nothing more than that for me, October is as fickle a month emotionally as she is meteorologically (the mercury here dipped into the 30s last night, while weekend highs are predicted near 80). If nothing else, this might explain why when a good friend exclaimed in an email the other day that October was her favorite month, my heart sank.

Color change in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina
Color change in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina

I prefer April. She and October are sort of sister months aren’t they, cosmic mirror images, the earth tilted to the same degree in relation to the sun? (Can you tell most of my astronomical smarts come from lessons learned while building styrofoam solar systems?) But April. Ah April. For me, far from the cruelest month, she’s the month when moisture returns to my skin, the sun grows warmer each day, doors and windows open and the sneezy mold and dust of winter rise up and out. The trees burst into showy flower and perhaps best of all, baseball season gears up!

An October victory over the rival. My second son, #78, dumps the Gatorade in celebration.
An October victory over the rival. My second son, #78, dumps the Gatorade in celebration.
Traditional carving night!
My daughter, designer and assistant carver. Tradition!

October? It heralds the end of things I most enjoy–more hours of sunlight than not, long walks in shirtsleeves, the comfort of 160 Atlanta Braves’ games to come. And yet … October has football, and pumpkin-carving, and the holidays aren’t far off and of course winters here in Atlanta are blessedly short. My mother preferred fall and disliked summer. She hated to sweat, had spring allergies, loved nothing more than wearing a crisp blouse under a wool suit. Maybe that’s it. Maybe, during her last weeks, difficult weeks during which I realize now I was doing everything I could to keep her alive when she was ready to go, she finally decided enough was enough. It might well be that October felt like home to her. Perhaps she felt those spirits who went before her–her father and my father and her sister–beckoning so strongly she could no longer resist. I can’t say. We can never say.

The tree that shades my parents' resting place.
The tree that shades my parents’ resting place.

I imagine October with all its golds and greens and browns will always be a month when melancholy will have its way with me. I’ll remember my parents’ passing, and my grandparents, and those of friends I’ve begun to lose along the way, some of them in autumn, too. October is a soft month after all, a sleepy one, restful. And you know what? I guess there’s nothing else to do but let the sadness wash in and through, to look the painful memories square in the eye. Then, when I look back I can better see the beauty of October. Its short golden days, the chilly football nights, the amber sunsets on an emptying beach–wistful, yes, but lovely. I can never say you’re my favorite October, but you get my attention, and my respect. You hold in your cool velvet hands the souls of so many I’ve loved.

Warmest October, Seagrove Beach
Warm October: my youngest with his cousin, Seagrove Beach, late 2000’s
Day is done.
Day is done.