Over the past 10 years, my brother and I watched our mother lose her mind. Slowly, steadily, the knots in her head expanded, eventually branching out to stem the flow of blood to her brain so that she could no longer walk, talk or fulfill the basic tasks of life.
She died a couple of months ago at age 75, not terribly old by today’s standards, leaving behind a three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.
When suddenly my brother and I were faced with the task of sorting out the apartment’s contents, we found ourselves at a loss. We had grown up on the 18th floor of a hulking brick building that never seemed all that homey, but it was as close to a family home as we ever had. The apartment was our last physical link to our parents and their world. What would we take, and what would we leave behind?
There were a few family heirlooms: a pair of huge, silver Sabbath candle sticks that once belonged to our great-grandmother; a collection of tattered prayer books and disheveled photographs that traced our family’s own private diaspora through Poland, England, Sweden, Cuba and New York. There was faux-French provincial living-room furniture and a pair of mid-century modern end tables that would be the envy of young Manhattanites — if not for their cracked glass tops. There was my father’s toolbox, closets filled with clothes, my mother’s beloved Royal Doulton figurines, coffee-table art books, costume jewelry and a seemingly endless supply of silk flowers.
Standard conceptions of value seemed to offer little guidance. “Your parents were working-class Jews,” said the wise cracking estate liquidator who came to the house, offering us $2,000 for more than a half-century’s worth of accumulated possessions. “There’s nothing here I can sell at Sotheby’s.” Such definitions of worth seemed to miss the point. The process of sorting out a parent’s estate inevitably entails settling emotional accounts and reckoning with the dead. What objects would help us to remember our parents, and our lives with them? Which things were meaningful to them, and to us?
First, a medical supply company retrieved the accoutrements of old age — a hospital bed, bed pan, wheelchair, walkers and Hoyer lift, and we discarded the diapers that had become my mother’s fate during her last months. Marjorie, the sweet-faced woman who had been her tireless home health attendant, took a bed for her son, a toaster oven and a set of dictionaries to remember her patient, who relentlessly insisted upon correcting her Southern-inflected black English. And I donated a couple of beds to a shelter for homeless gay youth in New Jersey.
My 35-year-old brother, the baby of the family, now an accomplished attorney, cleared out his former bedroom, taking his old record albums, heavy-metal posters and model rockets. He also took some of the living room furniture, magazines that my parents had saved from the day John F. Kennedy was shot and when the first man landed on the moon, along with one of dad’s hats and the family’s now-vintage pop-up toaster.
“I can’t believe how sentimental I’m getting,” he told me one day. Rarely one to betray his emotions, we had a few good cries together as we unearthed hidden treasures. “Remember this?” he asked me with a smile, pointing to a silver spatula with a distinctive yellow handle. “When I was about 7, we went downstairs to dig the car out of the snow with this. Can you imagine?” Suddenly, everything, no matter how ordinary or mundane, seemed invested with enormous emotional weight, making the process of selection all the more difficult.
Since I never really shared my parents’ taste in home furnishings, I had little interest in keeping more than a small bookcase and a painting or two. The apartment was furnished (how can I put it kindly?) tastefully, aspiring toward middle-class gentility — while my house veers toward the funky, the eclectic and the bohemian. Mom liked muted tones and floral prints; I favor bolder colors and ethnic tapestries. She coveted Royal Doulton china figurines depicting idealized images of rapturous young women in flowing dresses; I like “outsider” art.
These differences were emblematic of our relationship, which was always fraught with typical mother-daughter conflicts, layered on top of the complexities of immigration, education and sexuality. My mother, born in a small town in Poland, whose life was interrupted by war, never finished middle school; I hold a doctorate — an accomplishment which gave her pride ( nakhes, as she described it) but also inspired shame, reminding her of her own limitations. She spent her life in a traditional marriage; I live with my female partner and our young son.
When she tried to make me over in her own image, I went my own way, moving 3,000 miles away to live free of her influence, our once or twice yearly visits often ending in tears. In her dying years, these lifelong differences seemed to lose their corrosive power.
Now, in the apartment that had for so long been a site of conflict, I began to discover aspects of my mother’s life that had previously been invisible to me. As I went through her clothes, I was reminded that she was always quite a snappy dresser, managing to keep up with the latest styles on a very limited budget. My mother was also in her own way a talented and inventive homemaker, scouring secondhand stores for interesting paintings and bric-a-brac. And much to my surprise, I learned that she had kept every single birthday and Mother’s Day card that my brother and I had ever sent her.
I piled the car up with sweaters, nightgowns and other clothes that seemed distinctively hers, a couple of still-life paintings, some old cards and one of those hideous china figurines of a young woman in flouncy dress that she loved so much. When I came home, I unpacked the boxes, took out the figurine and placed it on my nightstand. It looked perfectly at home.