In a brilliant monologue, George Carlin once talked about having "stuff." He said that life's about finding places for your stuff. Houses and apartments are giant storage units, and garages, closets, car trunks--all full of stuff. When we go on vacation, our suitcases hold only a small amount of our stuff, the most needed things. We're like astronauts with their life-packs. If we go to the beach while on vacation, then we break our stuff down to an even smaller unit--the stuff we need when away from our other stuff.
I'm thinking about this because movers arrived last week with some of my mother's things, which are now my things. My mother hasn't died, thankfully, but ever since her heart surgery two years ago and then her move into assisted living, she hasn't wanted much stuff. Her dresser stands in the middle of my office like the 2001: A Space Odyssey obelisk, waiting for my wife to move out her Ikea dresser to the garage to make room for this older yet better-built unit. It also holds more stuff.
It occurs to me that our possessions require our health. We have to be at the top of our game to shepherd our belongings. Ideally, we should know where all our things are. Cleaning supplies go in one place, sports stuff (skis, golf clubs, tennis racquets) in another. Pasta goes on the pasta shelf. Soups on the soup shelf. Jell-O goes where Jello-O always goes--on a back shelf only to be discovered in a move.
My wife and I have a kitchen drawer--perhaps most people have such a drawer--the chaos drawer. It's where keys for unknown locks go. A couple of take-out menus go in there, as do a few old photos from a wallet cleaning that have nowhere else to go. Add a small hammer, one Phillips screwdriver, one D battery, a couple of AA's, and a shoehorn.
When people are less than physically and mentally fit, their stuff can overwhelm. That's what seems to have happened to my mother. Her home of forty-five years had miles of bookshelves, where she kept all her mysteries, Crais, Connelly, Cornwell and more in alphabetical order. She had books on Frank Lloyd Wright, first editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as other things: plates from Portugal, Persian carpets, and walls covered by paintings and etchings.
When Mom moved into assisted living because she couldn't breathe well and because she's on over fifteen medications that have to be taken in four different time periods during the day, she took little with her: a few changes of clothes, a couple pairs of shoes, and a few books that she wanted to read. Perhaps she expected to come back.
She selected the smallest room in the assisted living home when she could have had the largest one that overlooks the woods. Instead, she sees the driveway. Hardly anything is in her room. She has one small bookshelf and one nightstand. She gives the books away when she's done with them.
She's in a different mindset, but doesn't talk about it. Then again, she can't really talk about it because talking wears her out. Her most prized possession is the oxygen line that she's on most of the day, and she only walks when she has to, such as to the dinner table. Her health she no longer owns.
After a year in assisted living, she'd burned through her savings. We had to sell the house--something she suggested--to pay for her assisted living, and we had to give away or sell much of her stuff. Her four adult children, me included, had homes full of stuff already, so we each selected things that meant much to us and would fit, and the rest went away.
She didn't ask about any of her stuff, such as what happened to her thesis on Fitzgerald? She didn't say hey where are the drafts of her resume from when times were tough and her husband, my stepfather, was out of work? What about her stamp collection that gave her many hours of peace in sorting? How about the boxes full of photographs that she'd meant to go through and put in order and never did?
I'm willing to tell her, don't worry, we have those things; they're in a storage unit, and my oldest cousin has patiently gone through the loose photos and used the same photo corners you love. But she doesn't ask.
I noticed her room doesn't have a lot of photos--none of her children and none of her beloved house and property, now owned by somebody else. There are a few shots of her grandchildren, but I suspect they were put there by my sister-in-law. My guess is my mother doesn't stare at them. Stuff has little meaning now.
My mother used to own a great laugh. Someone might mention my late uncle, her colorful brother, and she'd laugh so hard, she'd crinkle her eyes and remember how she'd ski with him in Sun Valley, Idaho. Or she'd talk excitedly about driving to college with him in her Studebaker--oh, she loved that Studebaker. She and her brother drove that Studebaker from Wayzata, Minnesota to Providence, Rhode Island where he went to Brown and she went to Pembroke. They drove on two-lane highways long before the Interstates came around. Oh, she loved to talk.
Her laugh is gone, as is the chatting. These things are intangible, but I want them. When I fly from L.A. to Minnesota to see her, we sit in her living room for twenty minutes twice a day. I do most of the talking, mentioning my wife, children, writing and more, yet while she's comforted I'm there, I feel like Daniel Webster orating away, hoping the mother I knew comes back. Some stuff is impossible.
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