Archives for posts with tag: memory

I had been waiting for the call for much of my life, the one that said my mother was dying. Over the years there have been many calls–for urgent care visits, doctor’s appointments, grocery runs, help cleaning the apartment. It’s always serious. This time, it was real. Interstitial lung disease has no cure. The lungs continue to develop scarring so that, with each cold or respiratory event, they can no longer take in sufficient levels of oxygen. This time, her lungs finally gave out. The times I saw her in the last six weeks, I could see, too, that she was sick of living.

“In case something happens” was an oft-repeated refrain. For my mother, the emotional earthquake of the divorce was compounded by a tsunami-force illness, and she almost died. I was seven or eight. Nothing was the same after that. The anger she threw at my father stormed around me, the only child of two deeply incompatible humans. Add to that the bitterness oriented toward her mother would rain down in phrases–“I am a much better mother than her” and, “you’re lucky to have me.” Meanwhile my child sized body absorbed her vitriol year after year, until I left.

My mother was not loving, but she was kind. Some years ago she shared a memory with me of a Mother’s Day elementary school assignment. Apparently I had been instructed to write something about my mother on that thin, off-white, lined paper–the kind with a dashed line between two solids an inch high and with space to draw a picture. While my classmates compared their mothers to sunshine and roses, I wrote, “my mother is kind.”

My mother was angry. Her gaze was like flint with her cool blue eyes and pale skin. When she smiled there was a kind of forced compulsion in her facial muscles to do so. And yet, I can’t truthfully say that she never smiled; it just always seemed awkward. Or perhaps that was just with me. Emotions are foreign territory for some families. I only remember seeing her cry twice in my life–the second time was around dusk when she thought she had run over a racoon and killed it. Any time she told me to do something I thought I had already gotten it wrong. The thought of ever trying to please her burrowed deep within me. It just wasn’t possible.

My mother seeped bitterness some days. The divorce and her illness took away a great deal of independence financially, emotionally, and vocationally. Searching through files for the title to her car, I found cards from my grandfather with notes saying things like, “I hope this helps get you through for the next little bit.” She hated needing assistance. She hated the one who left her vulnerable. She hated how I adored my dad and wanted to spend time with him. The worst thing I could ever do was become financially dependent upon a man.

My mother was not well. She stayed alive through sheer determination, and a fear that I would turn out like my father without her constant correction. On bad days, her conversations were disjointed, jumping between present to past back to present. I remember one particular phone conversation during a heat wave–in the midst of telling me the refrigerator in her apartment didn’t work, she suddenly recounted a story of when my father couldn’t fix the fridge in our first house. When I asked her why, in God’s name, is she bringing up something from 30 years ago, she thought it made perfect sense. A broken fridge is a broken fridge.

My mother had big dreams. The sheer number of organizational self-help books, notebooks from certificate courses, and health guidebooks she left behind, is fodder for black comedy. She never spoke much of travel, limited mobility and adult onset diabetes curtailed her energy and desire to do much. Yet she loved nature shows and calligraphy. I found prints and cards in her apartment that I had sent to her from South Korea, along with other drawings she had collected. She always said she was aiming for a Japanese style in her home.

My mother was kind. Cleaning out her kitchen, I found thank you notes left for her from neighbors. She had only been there less than six months.

This Mother’s Day was quiet, almost ordinary. The previous two had passed with no communication between us. After an especially distressing phone conversation a few years back, I had had enough. Yet there was always the weight of wondering when to get back in touch. Getting back in touch requires having something to say, and I could never find the words. So, as I learned from childhood, at some point you just stop talking.

On Sunday, while social media was a blur of flowers, hearts, deep thoughts, and sincere sayings all dedicated to the wonder of mothers, I sat in anticipation of this coming Friday when I’ll join her coworkers in remembering my mother.

I like the look of round tables. I especially like the idea of round tables, all the way back to Arthurian legends of benevolent, inclusive, leadership. But, I do not like working at round tables. There is a reason desks are linear; you can push books and plates of snacks off to the side to pull another resource close, and not worry about something immediately falling off due to the curve. The last thing I need when trying to meet a deadline is a broken plate of cookies to clean up.

IMG_0233My husband and I do not have a round table. Ours is long and very rectangular. Initially when we were moving into a space that required us to purchase a table, I had voted for a beautiful marble round table, one made in Vietnam. In the end we decided on one made in the states, with a range of options for the top. In five years of marriage, that was one of our more challenging decisions. Now that we’ve hosted friends and a few dinners, now that I’ve composed papers requiring piles of books on it, I cannot imagine giving up our six foot long, steel base dining table. I love it. And now, when we think about moving (which, really, we try not to) the space must accommodate our table. It might seem normal to need a home that has space for a dining table but, as we have learned when trying to find a place to live in a quickly growing city, new apartments are made for small round tables. They are made for young professionals on the move who do not cook for themselves. Some of these new homes do not even come with a full sized kitchen but only provide a stove too small to make a dozen cookies. That just doesn’t fly in our family.

Over the past school year, my husband and I have been living in two time zones. I attend school in CST while his work has kept him in PST. In anticipation of an adventure, we moved everything to an apartment near my school—sofa, tv, books, the table. However, that adventure got delayed due to exciting work prospects in PST and less than thrilling job openings in CST. It’s been a rough several months. At one point we thought we would need to just move everything back to the fast growing city we love so much. That’s when we started looking for an apartment or condo, a place that met the criteria of an architect, and found that there is no place for our table within our price range. Now, I am fully aware that a table is simply a material object, and that life is lived above the plane of physical things. However, as humans we imbue the objects of our home with significance. Some items, like a toothbrush, have purely functional value. Other objects—grandma’s quilt, a print made by a friend, rocks picked up at a beach on vacation—contain bits of memory and hope that set them apart from ‘mere’ showroom pieces. These are the things we make space for and that begin to place requirements on us for attention, for that space.

We have reached a point in our society where we have a very conflicted relationship with ‘things’. On the one hand, we claim a mastery of stuff. But then the space we live in feels cluttered, oppressive, so we get rid of or move stuff to ‘storage’ to clear the space, and start again. Our stuff makes demands on us: on our time for sorting or cleaning or clearing; on our mind/heart for making decisions about it; and ultimately on our environment once we’re done with it. We’ve even gotten to the point of creating a whole sector of the economy that deals with ‘used’ and ‘second hand’ stuff. Before we spiral into a tirade against the material world, I want to say that it is okay to love our stuff. In fact, it is necessary to love our stuff. When we don’t we are more likely to treat it like the trash it will someday become. When we love our stuff, there is no need to ‘master’ it. Instead, we can allow it to take up space in proportion with how we really feel about it.

Among the things that have moved with me multiple times is a collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls. Yes, the very ones I played with as a child. At one point we had them lining the tops of shelves in our living room, but now they sit in a bag, easily identifiable by their stochastic odor. These dolls have spent most of their life packed away, but before that they were a vital part of my room, play time by myself and with friends. They exist in physical form continuous from the moment I took them out of their box, even when my memories have splintered and shuffled to the back of my mind.

What’s important to be aware of are the things we hold on to because our memories are tied up with them, and the things we desire because we can see ribbons of hope wrapped around them. Objects are not mere things—they help us with our identity. I want to invite friends and family to enjoy meals and drinks around our big table, sharing stories of the past and pointing toward good things for the future.