by Jeff Oaks
Today I’m boxing up things I want to take from my mother’s house. It doesn’t amount to much on one hand (because it’s not her), and it seems like too much on the other (it’s ten boxes and two trunks). Much of it is kitchenware—baking pans, knives, utensils, special little things like the ceramic green bell pepper she used to keep her tea bags in. “It’s in those little daily things I remember her best,” my brother said Monday when we began the process. Each thing got handled, allowed to release a memory or two, and then got packed. It was achingly archaeological. I was taking an enormous dig, the remains of a once-proud civilization home, home to examine and dream about.
That my brother was going to move this summer anyway is a happy coincidence. In the end, he’d been living in a rented condo in the same complex as our mother to make care for her easier on everyone, but his plan has been to move out of state. He was tired of his job, boxed in by the pettiness of the business world, which paid well but gave him no deep nourishment. Originally we thought Mom would make the move with him, but as she got more and more sick, that became impossible. We armed ourselves with contingency plans; I’d come down and stay with our mother for the summer until we could figure out something else. But then our mother, the master planner, died at exactly the right time to make my brother’s move easy and my life simpler. She was perhaps more in control of things than we thought. Much of what we’ve had to do was simply sign our names on blank spaces on documents she’d set up long ago, and viola! here was the condo and the money she’d managed to save. But of course there are still the smaller things that needed to personally be arranged.
We’ve been eating out a lot these last couple of days, making hard jokes that an outsider might sound cruel. Thai food one night, Indian another, Italian, Vietnamese, all the places my mother would have loved. Even bought an Italian Cream Cake from the local supermarket to eat for breakfast as if we were pampered children whose parents were simply away. Steve’s been handling all the business dealings, for which I am enormously thankful. I sit and sift through things like an anthropologist, weeping occasionally about our lost mother, all of which he’d rather avoid. He’s had to deal directly with the loss everyday for the last two years, since her diagnosis. He looks forward to a new life near water and whatever new work he’ll choose.
Right now, I have the BBC on TV, a station my mother loved. None of us believe in heaven, but if there is one for her, it will probably be British. It’s a comforting thought for me while I wrap her hundred little things in a hundred little hand towels and tea towels and oven mitts. “Thank you,” I say to each thing that made her life easier in some way. I take a number of them into my service now, as if I were a king who will shelter these objects in exile. Who knows if I’ll ever make muffins? Who knows what I’ll do with these pieces of my inheritance? Some things I’ll give away to friends who embody something of my mother—kindness, practicality, strength, a deep morality, a wicked humor. Some things I’ll figure out a way to keep around, shifting my own life to make room for hers as I take her in at last.