April 1, 2013

Smile and Nod

(Note: This piece differs in content and tone from most of the other things I write in this blog. I wrote this five years ago but never published it due to the sensitive nature of the subject. It is not written as a dig at my mother but rather a snapshot of what I was going through during the year that followed my father's death).

     I wade through the boxes, bins, and totes that are strewn across my mother’s apartment. The living room is filled with long-forgotten treasures recovered from her storage unit; treasures collected from her daily trips with my father to the Goodwill store. Treasures that probably cost her $500in total to buy, but which she has paid $800to store over the past eighteen months.

     There are memories here, memories of when my father was alive; remnants of her happy past, lovingly preserved in a tin can tomb. Each item has a story and my mother is more than happy to tell it.

     "Remember this?" Her eyes mist over as she holds up a picture of a French village, ripped from an old calendar. The picture once had a frame and hung on her wall. It was ugly then and uglier now, crinkled and torn at the edges, but I’m a dutiful daughter. I smile and nod.

     "Your father and I found it by accident. We were out looking for salt and pepper shakers one day when we came across this perfectly good calendar. It was a few years old but the prints were still good so your dad framed them. Got twelve pieces of art for less than a quarter. I wonder where its frame is?” She searches through another crate and, not finding it, sighs. “Oh well, I can probably decoupage it onto a piece of wood or something. I need to get started on making Christmas presents anyway.”

     "What will you do with the rest of this stuff?" I sort through a nearby tote and find pictures of my dad from his infancy through his sixty-fifth birthday, when he was taken from me; pictures I resent my mother having because some part of me believes they are mine. I was his child. She was only his wife. I take a few, concealing them in my purse. She will never know. She has so many.

     "What do you mean, what will I do with this stuff? Keep it!" She clutches an old Tupperware bowl she has just unearthed to her chest. "I'm too old to start over now."

     My heart softens. This is her life. All that she owns. Every ounce of self-worth she still possesses is neatly bundled up in boxes I helped her gather from behind Safeway. It's junk. All of it. But it's her junk.

     "My therapist will be happy," she continues. "Going to storage and getting all this stuff back is a big step in my grief recovery."

     My toddler niece, born the day of my father's funeral, enters the room and removes a photo from a carton. "Look!" mom says, a smile spreading across her face. "She found a picture of your dad. She knows her grandpa." She has always been convinced that my niece is the reincarnation of my dead father. This cements her theory. She pulls my niece onto her lap and strokes her hair.

     I smile and nod.

     "I never knew being a pack rat was a sign of mental illness," my mother sighs. This was a new confession coming from her lips.

     "Well, being a hoarder,” I explain, purposely changing her wording, “means that you can't let things go, or that you have an obsessive-compulsive personality."

     She laughs. "Maybe both!" She is giddy. She used to deny she had a problem but lately she has begun to relish her craziness, to luxuriate in it like one would a hot bath. It defines her. It gives her purpose. But she will only accept it in the context of my father's death. He caused it. Before that, she insists, she was perfectly normal.

     "My psychiatrist told me there aren’t enough years left in my life to cure me." She grins like she has just won a game. "So he loads me up on pills now. I can't believe your father's death would do that to me."

     I want to say more. I want to say ‘mom, don’t you remember our childhood? Remember how checked out you were? Remember how you were so depressed you slept for days at a time and we were left to fend for ourselves?’

     But I don’t.

     I smile and nod.

     I spy another picture of my dad on the top of the nearest pile. I perform a sleight of hand trick and take it, knowing she would never give it up willingly. It's mine now. I’ve got secrets too.

     "But I think my psychiatrist is just going through a mid-life crisis and hates all women," mother continues. "He's probably about forty-five. You know how men are when they get that age? Crazy, all of them.”

     ‘Yes, mother,’ I want to say. ‘All your problems are related to my father's death and by men suffering mid-life problems. Your sanity, or lack thereof, rests completely with the men around you who have oppressed you in one form or another. Either by dying and leaving you behind, by running off with your mother's best friend in your formative years, or by labeling you a nut so far gone there isn’t enough time left on this earth to cure you."

     But I don't.

     I just smile and nod.


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