The Burden of Things
|Jan 12, 2019|| 8|
One week after my mother died, my sister and I arrived at her house with a U-Haul and a mandate to wind down the remnants of her life.
It penciled out as an easy job, as my mom had moved twice in the last five years, each time prompting a garage sale or phone call to one of us inquiring, “do you want this?”
Anything of special significance or sentiment should have been long gone, so we adopted a well-known strategy to expedite the process – save, trash, or donate.
It was a simple algorithm.
“Save” meant my sister or I wanted it. Failing that, if someone else could use it, it went to “donate.” Anything that didn’t fall into the previous categories went into “trash” – literally.
But even with our ruthless efficiency, we ran into speed bumps - the first of which was a hoard of ephemera my mother had collected obsessively.
Old travel brochures and printed recipes mixed with bank statements, handwritten check ledgers, and triplicate copies of utility bills - each annotated by highlighter and post-it note.
And file cabinets full of folders, stuffed with anything from 60-page prospectuses for mutual funds she never bought, to instruction manuals for exercise equipment she never used, and receipts for every repair, upgrade, and renovation ever done on her houses - going back to the first one that my parents bought in 1972.
Not wanting to accidentally throw out a cherished photo or stock certificate for 10,000 shares of IBM, we sifted through each piece one at a time.
But quantity wasn’t the only stumbling block. Emotional drag played its part as well, particularly when we got to her bedroom.
My mom lived alone in a three-bedroom house, but the sicker she got, the smaller the orbit of things around her became.
Hats to cover her naked head. Mints and candies to take the bitter taste of chemo from her mouth. A phone and flashlight for emergencies. Nightshades, an ice pack, and a hot water bottle so she could sleep better.
These things and more piled up on what started as a simple side table but evolved into a massage table full of items pulled close, all within arm’s reach of the bed.
I’ll admit to a tinge of guilt when clearing away the miscellany of her life, but I had to do it.
Every time I entered the house it felt like she was still there. Around the corner, in the kitchen making a sandwich, or upstairs folding clothes - always just out of view.
I had to start creating space between the memory of her alive and the fact that she was dead.
In these situations you do odd things. Things that don't make sense.
Like when I bumped into her desk clock and the battery fell out. I quickly scrambled to replace it. To make sure it kept accurate time for someone who wasn't there - and never would be again.
But what really slowed us down was deciding what to do with things that carried a tacit obligation - the antique pair of glasses, inkwell, and church hymnal, for example, found in a small chest of drawers, nestled in the corner of a closet.
Inside the book’s cover was written “John Kelly.” I had a vague recollection of the name and even less interest.
A snippet of retained family folklore told me he was a great-great-grandfather, or uncle, or cousin twice removed – someone from my father’s side who died 150 or more years ago.
I knew nothing else about him, but reflexively put his things in the “save” category.
Then wondered why.
My father was 30 years gone and had never mentioned him while alive.
My mother certainly had no connection, nor had she indicated any significance to his things.
In fact, the last time I saw them was 40 years ago, in a dirty old box under my father’s workbench.
Why was I saving them?
[A Russian nesting doll with hand-painted scenes from Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”]
I was in love.
I thought she might be my wife someday. And I wanted to get her something special.
She was hard to shop for, but I had paid particular attention when she cooed over her friend’s Russian nesting doll.
That’s what I would get your mom.
I went to every place I could think of to find one - tchotchke shops, doll museums, even the local Russian cultural center - but to no avail. And her birthday was tomorrow.
Disappointed and depressed, I went to the mall - a mall I’d been to a hundred times before, one which had no Russian nesting dolls – resigned to buy her a shirt, or something.
Walking through the concourse I passed kiosks selling random crap, like handmade jewelry, customized cell phone covers, peanut brittle, off-brand plushies, steak knives, new age crystals, windchimes, bath salts, and Russian nesting dolls.
Yes, right there before me sat Vaclav’s Doll Hut, brimming over with nesting dolls of every size and shape. I picked one I thought she’d like.
It’s the one you’re looking at now.
And the stroke of serendipity that led me to it convinced me that your mother and I were destined for each other.
P.S. One week later I was in the same mall and I thought I’d stop by Vaclav’s to tell him how happy the doll had made my girlfriend. But his kiosk was gone, and it never returned.
[A Ragged, bearded doll, dressed in Bavarian clothes of green felt]
I was only six and it was the first time I’d flown by myself. I wasn’t scared, but the stewardess who sat next to me gave me ginger ale and a toy airplane just to make sure I was okay.
The flight was short, and Geneva and Roy were waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs when I deplaned.
I called them my aunt and uncle but technically they were “greats” – Geneva my grandmother’s sister and Roy her husband.
I was spending the weekend with them at their house in Kentfield, and knowing how they’d dote on me, I’d been excited about the trip ever since they called my parents to suggest it.
Now in their 60’s, they never had children, and I was their surrogate, just as my father had been before me.
They were wonderful people. Not particularly educated, but cultured, moving in all the right circles in the Bay Area. Roy even played violin in the San Francisco Symphony.
They took me to Fisherman’s Wharf where I tried a shrimp cocktail for the first time.
We ate chocolate sundaes in Ghirardelli Square, then rode the ferry to Alcatraz.
And on Sunday we had a picnic in Sausalito.
But what made the biggest impression on my six-year-old brain were the tall tales Roy told while we sat around the dining table eating prime rib and Yorkshire pudding.
When he was still a young man, Roy had lived in a faraway land called Germany. It was there that he’d seen incredible things, like people paying for a loaf of bread with a wheelbarrow full of money – or so the story went.
He told me about men in boots who marched in the streets, shouting slogans to their leader – an evil man they called “The Father” – who eventually attacked his neighbors and tried to wipe out the people called “juice.”
Roy left Germany but returned after a great war had passed and The Father was gone.
He looked far and wide for his friends, many of whom were juice, but they were no longer there.
I remember thinking that The Father had probably taken them away.
Before I went home, Geneva and Roy gave me a present – a Sandman – the one you’re looking at now.
In German, he’s called Sandmännchen, based upon Ole Lukøje, a character by Hans Christian Anderson.
Sandmännchen is the gatekeeper of children’s dreams, and according to legend;
Under each arm he carries an umbrella; one of them, with pictures on the inside, he spreads over the good children, and then they dream the most beautiful stories the whole night.
But the other umbrella has no pictures, and this he holds over the naughty children so that they sleep heavily, and wake in the morning without having dreamed at all.
At the back of my Sandmännchen, there’s a string, attached to an ivory ring. When pulled, it plays a Bavarian lullaby.
On nights when my sleep was disturbed by nightmares, I pulled that ring, and pulled the Sandman close, for protection from the unknown.
And I thought fondly of aunt Geneva and uncle Roy.
[A Black and white photo of a small grainy image]
I sat in the darkened room and watched the movement on the screen. I’d done this twice before, but still, I was nervous.
“Good,” said the technician. “Just fine.”
She moved swiftly through the process, but the gaps between her words seemed to last a lifetime.
“Good over here,” she continued.
Then she paused, “Hmm?”
Hmm? I thought. What does “hmm” mean? Don’t say hmm. Never say hmm during an ultrasound.
I held my breath for what seemed an eternity. Finally, she spoke…
“Okay, everything looks great.”
My relief was audible as I let out a loud “whew!”
Three months down, six to go.
I was fine with just you two. To be honest, I was fine with none. But after you came into my life, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. And if number three brought even half the joy you did, I’d welcome her with open arms.
Her. It was a girl.
I wondered what she’d look like. Specifically, would she be a mini version of her sister, or have a look all her own?
I pictured her with curly hair.
My mind drifted as I calculated how old I’d be when she graduated high school, got married, had kids.
The humming from the ultrasound machine brought me back to reality, as a series of small photos – with even smaller images on them - emerged from a hidden slot.
One of which you’re holding right now.
We raced home to show them to your grandparents and to post on Facebook. We got cheers of excitement and likes all-around. The next step was a name.
Then the phone rang.
It was Doctor Tucker, your mom’s obstetrician.
“We have the results from the amniocentesis and there seems to be an anomaly,” he began. “I’m sorry to inform you that your baby has markers for Trisomy 18.”
It’s a genetic disorder that causes most babies to die in utero, and if they do live to birth, they’re usually dead within a matter of hours.
She died not long after we found out.
I was sad, and as men often do, I pushed my emotions down deep and thought no more of it.
But your mom was devastated and never got over it.
It was my job to inform family and friends, as well as delete social media posts.
Your mother never mentioned the ultrasound photos, but I assumed she’d want me to get rid of them, so I ripped them up.
I never told her I kept this one.
I don’t know why I did.
One of the prime directives for parents is to leave their children with as little burden as possible.
Financial burden. Emotional burden. The burden of things.
What you just read were the letters I’d write to my children – in an alternative universe - explaining the significance of the things I left behind.
But these narratives are uniquely mine, and I can’t expect my emotional attachments to translate to anybody else. It’s the height of arrogance to think they could.
To me, these things represent the touchstones of my life, but to my children, they are a cheap trinket, a raggedy old doll, and a low-quality image of, at best, an abstract concept.
I understand the importance of history, of family history, and a sense of lineage. But I also understand the value in relieving your offspring from the burden of carrying sentimental straw men from generation to generation.
And if I accomplish nothing else as a parent, I at least want to free them from my baggage.
So, this is the letter I will write instead;
As you wind down the remnants of my life, feel no obligation to take my things with you. I’ve lived a full life and the things I’ve left behind are hollow vessels compared to the memories you carry of me in your heart.
If they please you through aesthetics or emotion, gladly take them with you. If they’ll help someone else, forward them so, but, and this is so important, don’t be afraid to discard them with abandon as you wish.
Above all else, that will put my soul most at ease.
That’s how I hope to break the cycle.
John Kelly’s widow kept his things because they were the only tangible remnants of the man she loved.
150 years down the line, my mother kept them to honor a well-meaning but defective tontine.
If I kept them, I foresaw my children, 150 years hence – if modern medicine is to be believed – wrestling with the same questions that vexed me so.
And so I gladly relegated them to “trash.”
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