Of Ghosts and Goldfish

IMG_2757Before I leave the sewing room (fully reserving the right to return), a word about ghosts. I don’t much believe in them, but I’ve come to expect them nevertheless. This is a contradiction I can live with, and nowhere do I experience it more than among the stuff of my mother’s creative passion. Maybe it’s the dusty Butterick patterns stuffed into drawers, or the wooly smell of the moth-eaten skirts in the closet, or the sweet droop of the faded curtains that hang over the table where Mom used to spin her magic, whether finishing up her mother-of-the-groom dress within hours of the rehearsal dinner, or whipping in a final buttonhole on an outfit for me in the wee hours of Christmas morning. But somehow I, a non-believer, can feel my mother standing beside me, looking over my shoulder, ready to cry foul when I dump her treasures into my industrial-strength trash bag.

“But Mother—it’s a mess in here. Look at the dust bunnies around the rusted bobbins that are balanced over the old tailor’s ham that’s perched on those remnant boxes … under the bed!”

“We-e-l-l-l, Marth. I’ll think about that—tomorrow,” says my mother-spirit. “Ok then, Scarlet,” she adds with an ironic roll of her Vivienne Leigh eyes. A smart, self-mocking specter, she’s proud to have snatched up the Gone With the Wind reference before I could pounce. IMG_0621

Mom seems happy in this hybrid room, as she always was before, and she’s got company. There in the corner are my miniature pet turtles, dripping with salmonella. Their soft bellies bared, they teeter on tiny green feet and scratch at their plexi-glass prison, just as they did in life. And over here, on the table beside the bed, Oscar the goldfish—who like all domestic carp, got his death sentence the minute I dumped him out of his bloated plastic bag—swishes about unawares in water no one warned me to de-chlorinate. Best of all, my gal pals sit crisscross-applesauce on my pink gingham bedspread, fans of Crazy Eight cards in hand and boxes of Red Hots in their laps. It’s way past our bedtime. I can tell from their soft giggles and the still darkness at the window.

I feel better now. Once I’m done ditching yards of mildewed swatches and sorting all the buttons for Goodwill, I’ll be okay to leave this room behind. It’s a good cozy place. Maybe some young couple will recognize that it would make a perfect nursery. A changing table would be nice under the window, and a bassinette could fit beside the closet that leads to the master. But they needn’t bother with a music box. The tap of a shadowy foot on a pedal, the snip-snip of threads, the phantom whirr of a Singer engine going full steam–these were my lullaby, and I slept like a baby.

Vivienne … See what I mean?
Vivienne Leigh, alias Scarlet O’Hara
Vivienne–See what I mean?

Finding the woman within, one toothpick at a time

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My mother was born in 1919, the year the dial telephone was introduced and WWI drew to a close. J. D. Salinger was a 1919-er, too, along with Eva Gabor, whom mom found silly, Nat King Cole, whose music she loved, Jackie Robinson, whom she never gave the time of day, and Balto, the renowned sled dog. She outlived them all. Against all odds, she liked her chicken fried, her pound cake with a spoonful of heavy cream, her pancakes with a thick slice of real butter, and her nightly glass of Chardonnay full to the brim. She never took a vitamin or swallowed a drop of fish oil, and unless you count a few failed games of croquet, she spent not a single minute of her adult life engaged in organized exercise.

Ok, so she had good genes. Her parents lived into their nineties, too, but I can’t help but think there was more to it than that. What was it about this lady (she was above all, a lady) that made her so resilient? Small but sturdy—5’2” with a playing weight of 106—she survived breast cancer at 81, a serious car accident at 83, the loss of her husband, a bad bout of pneumonia, and perhaps hardest of all, the death of her oldest son when she was 88. Tough as nails, her Hospice nurse called her, and a fighter, though at first glance she seemed anything but. In spite of a failing memory and the accumulation of sorrows that living long brings, she simply loved life. Even in her last difficult years, she clung to the remaining pleasures of her daily routine—a mug of coffee and a plate of eggs in the morning, a raucous visit from her great-grandchildren, an outing to Mass on Saturday evenings. Maybe this was my mother’s greatest legacy: You get up and get out of your pajamas. You engage with whatever is left to you. You hope. It served her well. She hung on as long as a body could, only breathing her last when she couldn’t swallow enough, literally, to keep her little heart beating.

That was last October, and since she’s been gone, I’ve been sifting through what she left behind. And she left behind A LOT, ten closets and an attic filled with dust and mildew and a frightful number of rodent droppings. She hoarded, you might say, (see party toothpicks above) and it’s true that like other members of her generation, my mother spent too much time saving things from the past. Yet somehow, she was always looking to the future, too. This bothered me over the years, the way she and my father never quite got the hang of living in the moment, but maybe we in our endlessly progressive throwaway society would do well to pay attention. As I paw through hundreds of cardboard boxes gone grimy and soft with age, I’m beginning to see that these leftovers are the fruits of my mother’s particular brand of hope. After all, why save every single one of those spare buttons that come with a new blouse if you don’t imagine that one fine day, you’ll wake up and fancy wearing that blouse, and it certainly wouldn’t do to go out with your collar gaping open.

So join me. I’d love the company as I journey into the dingy corners of this moldy and mysterious place, my mother’s attic.

Generational pic, Mothers Day, 2012
Generational pic, Mothers Day, 2012