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Boxed

Jeff and I were the only ones in the house the week after Mom died.  The cancer had been swift, giving us mingled feelings.  Our father had passed many years before, peacefully in his sleep on Thanksgiving.  We had sent my niece Jillian into the living room to pry him away from the game for lunch when he hadn’t responded to our good-humored and rowdy calls.  Thank goodness she had been only three.  She didn’t notice the ashen cheek, the awkward position to which his head had fallen, or the coffee mug that had slipped from his hand and stained the rug at the foot of his favorite easy chair with the ink stains on the arm from where he rested his pen while he did crosswords.  Anna had called for Jeff, Mom and me, then had picked up her daughter and carried her across the street to the Miller’s house so she could never fully understand what she had found, and so we hoped, never remember it.

Mom had been cremated, and the memorial was going to be that weekend.  We were the first to show up in Birmingham, Michigan, and we wanted one last look ourselves.  We wanted to find Mom hidden in the corners of sock drawers, and be able to linger over her slanted script in the cook book left by her bed without hearing the laughter of others stumbling upon memories of their own.  We wanted to be in the house one last time while it still smelled like her and it still felt like Mom’s house filled with Mom’s things, and not what used to belong to her. When others came to help, it was Anna who found the crusty, shriveled Shepard’s Pie molding in the oven.

The wallpaper in the house was a lurid yellow that my mother had hated, and it was covered with china plates, although I couldn’t see their rich blue patterns.  She turned them towards the wall to display the brown Spode stamp.  She loved to collect Spode china, and when she started buying whatever pattern suited her fancy and the displays no longer matched, she simply turned them around to face the wall.  Dad had never understood, but as usual, gave into whatever Mom wanted.  I only ever heard him ask her for one thing—the recipe to her apple strudel.  She would never give out her famous recipes.  She always said that if she told us how to make them, we wouldn’t need her anymore.  I still couldn’t get my chocolate chip cookies just like hers.  She still wouldn’t cough up that recipe.  But she would make me as many as I wanted.  A grown woman and my mother still sent me cookies, even when I moved to Iowa, and when I was in the BVI for two years, and when I was in Boston with Evan, for a while.

So much of Mom was defined by what she had.  The plates, the small, cramped house that always felt damp.  I expected to see mold leaching through the cracks in the mustard walls, like the dust that muted the color of the rich wooden table next to the stairs was really mud and when I breathed it was that mud settling in my lungs that was weighing me down.  How had I never noticed the heaviness of the house, in her things, in the sheer weight of everything she kept tucked away?  I remembered a lamp that had rested on the table by the stairs.  She had told me she had been in her early twenties and had been shopping in the china warehouse with her mother, who had laughed as she had admired a large porcelain Buddha.

“What would you do with that?” my grandmother had asked dismissively.  My mother had been defiant, she said, and became determined and set on the Buddha.

“I’ll make it a lamp,” and she had purchased it for forty dollars, glued it to a wooden stand herself, and had my father—whom she was seeing at the time– run wires through his seat to his jolly, bald pate.  The lamp sat in their front hall for twenty years.  I had been eleven when she decided to sell it in the resale shop downtown and I had begged her to keep it, “for when I go to college,” I had said.  Our little, plump babysitter had just moved into an apartment and my mother had sent her off with an ancient coffee table that used to sit in our living room, which needed to be refinished and had a large ring on it from my Dad’s scotch glass, and her soft oatmeal raisin cookies as a housewarming gift.  She had appeased me and kept the lamp.  I forgot about it for a long time, and to be honest I had expected her to have sold it a few years later after I had long since gotten over my resistance to change.  She didn’t though.  She kept it and as we packed my car to drive down to Ohio, Mom dug in the basement and found that lamp, which she had saved just for such an occasion.  It has been in all of my houses and apartments ever since, and there had been a lot of them.  I just never could settle.  I never quite fit into a job or a place, it seemed.

We stood for a minute in the kitchen, looking around, not sure where to begin.  I had never had to clean out a house before, only move its things from one home to another.  Should we go through her files first, to set her affairs in order?  Or should we clean out the refrigerator before her left-overs went bad?  There was a recipe next to the stove and I lifted it, sheppard’s pie.  I looked at it.  It was an ordinary recipe.  It hadn’t come out of a vault or a safe, and there was almost a let down to realizing her secret.  I wondered if it would taste as good.

Evan would have known what to do first, in the house.  His mother had died long before we had gotten married and he and his uncle had shared the burden of clearing out the rooms, except Evan’s mother had been a hoarder.  He had said that as a child it had been just clutter, but after he moved to Boston she started rinsing out her McDonald’s soda cups every afternoon after she got home from her receptionist job at the bank, stacking them one inside the other until they filled all of the cabinets on the left side of the sink, and they would slip from the shelves and create a great echoing racket as they bounced around the floor like little cardboard drums.  Evan said it had killed her, that finally when the air was too thick with dust, and mold, and oldness, that she got too sick to control her things, and the worry of it squeezed her heart until it finally burst.  That was how I had felt before our divorce, but here I was.

. Evan and I had been married for eight years, and inseparable until that last.  I found out after the fact that he had gotten an apartment in town the eight months before the end of our marriage.  I used to pass it on the way to Boston Market every Thursday.  He had been unhappy for a while, and he was never comfortable when we visted Mom’s house.  His eyes would shift, he would sniff with distaste, or waiting to catch a whiff, of what I’m not quite sure.

“It makes me claustrophobic,” he had once said as we drove home, staring straight ahead, pursing his lips into a pucker.

“I always thought it felt homey,” I said.  He glowered and retreated even more sullenly.

“It’s too full.  She keeps too much.  Why does she have so many lamps and books?  And why are those goddamn plates backwards?  It’s just strange, creepy, like she’s hiding something.  And why does she keep all of those boxes?  She should just buy new ones.  You’re over the speed limit.”  I slowed the car down and smoothed out my transitions.

“She doesn’t mind storing them and saving money, I guess.”

“That’s not storing, they aren’t even collapsed.  And it’s cheap.  It all drives me crazy.”

I stood next to the counter, flipping through the mail.  She still got my Dad’s Sports Illustrated and Eddie Bauer magazines. Jeff wandered around.  On the fridge there were yellowed and curled notes with phone numbers I wasn’t sure still existed, and names I hadn’t heard in many, many years.  There was a picture of Jeff and Anna from my wedding, where she was laughing hard at something just behind the photographer, and where Jeff was looking at her, with his arm draped across her shoulders.  The picture of Evan and me had long since been taken down.

I watched as Jeff crossed the kitchen in two measured steps, and ended up in front of the shelf next to the refrigerator.  There were the three short shelves that held Mom’s only matching collection of china.  She loved to look at it. Over the years she had found an entire matching place setting of their dinner wear, a teacup, a tureen, and last of all, her favorite, a light blue gravy boat.  Generally Mom liked the dark blue detail, but this set was all a lighter shade, closer to the color of the sky, and the patterns were thin, exquisite lines.  This, she proudly displayed, and showed to all who came in.

Mom had taken Anna and me with her a few times.  I was used to the trip across the Ambassador Bridge to the enormous store in Canada.  I knew my mother preferred the blue, even if I enjoyed the muted browns.  Anna and my mom had been collecting the same set, and it had been Anna who donated the teacup one year, the first Christmas after Dad was gone.  She had looked so hard for it, and made connections over at the Canadian warehouse, scouring the internet late at night, calling to ask where else she might look for bargain china.  When she presented it to Mom I felt a little pang of guilt.  If something so simple and fragile could make my mother so happy, why hadn’t I ever thought of it?  My expertly wrapped Cuisinart then seemed foolish.  I had been so proud of the bow, the presentation of it all.  Anna had been on the edge of her seat all morning, anticipation causing her to fidget and eventually beam as my mother unwrapped the crinkled brown paper around the box. In my mother’s eyes, there was almost no more selfless of an act that could have been made.  Anna had eventually found her own teacup.  All she was missing was a gravy boat.  It was a search in which they were both engaged.

Jeff gently lifted the gravy boat and ran a thumb over the front.  There wasn’t a single chip on it.  There wasn’t a crack, or a flaw.  He flipped it and looked at the seal on the bottom.  My dinner china hadn’t been Spode, Mom had been saving, but still couldn’t afford a whole set when I got married, so she found some simple, plain, Royal Worcester.  It was nice, but I had put it away in an old box in the basement after Evan and I separated.

I didn’t move, and I looked at him holding the gravy boat.  We both knew what would happen next.  Everyone knew about the china set.  It would be worth much less without the coveted gravy boat.  Our cousins could use a little extra cash, and we knew if it disappeared there would be no getting it back.

“I don’t want the whole set, I know, that’s nearly a crime,” Jeff said, standing like a guilty child unsure of the right thing to do.

“I think the only reason she would split it up would be for family.”  He nodded.

Jeff seemed to be having a harder time with the idea of emptying the house than I was.  I had moved before.  I understood that it wasn’t what was in the house that made a home.  Sure, I had kept Mom’s Buddah lamp in each of my rented homes, but it never made it comfortable or gave it that extra something that made me feel set or stable, to me.  The china set wasn’t the most valuable or particularly stunning set of dishes, but they were Mom’s and she had imbued them with a majesty that was infectious.  I wanted to tell him that no matter how long we put off the move, Mom would still be dead, and eventually it would stop smelling like her, and her things would collect dust and feel like junk, instead of the meticulously written lists that helped guide her through her day.  It still felt like home to him, perhaps equally as much as his house with Anna and Jillian.  For me, I had never had the same relationship with the family as he had.  For a long time, it had been Mom’s house, not our house, and while it made cleaning it out easier, I didn’t want it to.  I felt even more outside, even less a part of my loving family than before.  I was finally doing something useful for them, but why could I when they couldn’t?  I just couldn’t bring myself to collapse in misery with them, which caused a different, selfish grief I knew I could not ever express to him.

I turned around in the tiny, grimy kitchen to head towards the garden room, which had the doorway to the cellar.  I pulled on the cable that connected to the light bulb, which was bare except for a pie tin Mom had made into a makeshift shade.  It was dusted and had cobwebs.  The cord bounced sharply and clinked as I started my way down the stairs, which pounded and echoed somewhat how I imagined the falling paper cups must have sounded to the cockroaches in Evan’s mother’s house.  I was looking for boxes in which to carry what we would take.  Jeff was still upstairs.  It had never before been me who asserted authority or taken over a group activity.  Jeff always made the better impression, and I could never quite manage the practiced ease and social grace he was so comfortable with.  But at this moment, he couldn’t slap on a smile and take charge of the situation.  At this moment, he was incapable, and this was all I had to give.

I had seen so many boxes and I had moved so many times I had become something of a cardboard connoisseur.  I could tell by just looking at it how many trips the box had made without glimpsing at the old labels.  I could recognize most of my mother’s boxes as well—she had loved to send us things from the time we went to camp as children, until we had grown older.  Some boxes I had kept folded and tucked away, just to see the familiar handwriting, and her signature brand of packing tape.  I thrived off of their memories.

In college, she  had sent us a set of knives after we mailed her the picture of a mangled watermelon we had written “Defeated” on with a fat black marker.  My roommates Erica, Janet, Cindy and I all crowded around it, our faces red from laughing, eyes lazy and squinty from drinking, and all of us had our arms thrown about each others shoulders with big wide smiles, falling down laughing.  We were only half looking at the camera.  That picture is still on the coffee table of my apartment.

She sent me an eight-inch folding saw after I mentioned we planned to go out and find a small Christmas tree for our apartment, even though the building forbid them.  She always sent a letter with each box, and it seemed like half way through this note she recognized how bad of an idea this was.  She was aiding our illegal activities.  But Mom had sent it anyway, and I knew that she understood that regardless if she sent the saw or not, come December, Erica and I would be trudging through the woods—maybe readying to dull one of the knives from the set, and in a way only a mother can understand, she couldn’t bear to see us go unprepared.

The basement was filed with boxes, set out in rows, piled on the laundry machine, and balanced precariously on top of one another.  Some of the boxes were closed and sealed, she had already pressed a label in the center and in careful script written a name.  I looked at the closest one “Jillian Andrews”, it said, and a green post-it note stuck next to it told me my mother had enclosed a fake Christmas tree with miniature lights.  The box next to it was opened, with a small burrito of carefully rolled bubble wrap in it, with a note that said “Anna—Gravy boat”.  I lifted the box.

My mother was her things, and I remembered her by what she sent.  An clock with an alarm that sounds like you are being awoken by a butler which she had ordered from Sky Mall magazine on a trip to see her sister.  A cast-iron skillet for Anna, after she and Jeff moved to New Hampshire.  A Valentines Day teddy bear, after Jillian’s first boyfriend had dumped her just before the big day.  So much care, so much thought, my mother didn’t buy our love because half of the things she sent us were junk.  But she must have understood their importance to us.  She planned to play Santa Clause from the grave for the next four years, it seemed.

I grabbed the gravy boat box and removed the post-it, then I went back upstairs to Jeff.  His eyes were puffed, and he looked lost.  I handed him the box, grabbed the tape from the drawer in the kitchen, and began to wrap the china piece in the plastic.  I had him hold the bubble-wrap, while I secured a long piece of tape, and put it in the box.  He held the box shut, while I taped all of the edges.  For the first time, I felt like the older sister.

He took a long time putting the box in the car, but when he came back, he looked somehow resolved.

“I think I’m going to listen to her phone messages,” he said,  “maybe pack up her taxes to take a look at once we get home.”

“Alright, that’s a smart idea.” I said, “I’m going to work on the basement first.”

“I’ll come down once I’m all loaded up.”

“No, no,” I insisted, “I want to take care of it.” I did.

At Christmas, a package for Jeff, and Anna, and Jillian, arrived from the post office in Birmingham.  It was nothing special, a family of three felt elves with Velcro hands joined together in a ring in the bottom of the box.  I was glad I was not there to see them cry.

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