My mom has been gone a few of months now, but I still feel her presence in my life every day. And not just metaphorically. As we speak, my spare room is full of stuff, random bits and pieces of my mom's 89 years on this planet, souvenirs of a long, full, and exuberant life.
I've always joked that my mom was a packrat who never threw anything away, but even I never realized how literally true that was until I went down to Hermosa Beach to help my two brothers excavate the house she'd lived in for the last 50+ years.
I was expecting to go through all of her stuff, and I did: clothes she wore to tatters and those that never escaped their shopping bags; family photos from the turn-of-the-century to the present day, mostly loose; her entire lifetime of correspondence-every single envelope marked with the date she answered the letter. I found one large drawer filled with dozens of small boxes for the necklaces, beads, and her favorite, rock pendants (malachite, lapis, turquoise) that she collected over the years, lovingly wrapped in Kleenex inside their boxes. (My mom never met a storage challenge that couldn't be solved with an extra layer of Kleenex.)
At the bottom of the drawer I found the ancient white leatherette musical jewelry box (now nicotine-stained to a burnished gold) that she kept on her dresser when we were kids; it played the old song, "Always" ("I'll be loving you, always"), when the lid was lifted. The instant I saw it, I remembered going in there as a child to play with Mom's 1950s costume jewelry, her old USN anchor pins, a fragile gold locket with its tiny pictures of Daddy, and my brother Mike as a toddler.
All were still inside when I opened it again. As soon as the antique mechanism began to chug into that familiar old tune ("Not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always"), I cried.
But once we'd dug down through the outer strata of Mom's things, I was flabbergasted to discover my entire childhood squirreled away underneath. Stuffed into the bottoms of the deep drawers Daddy built into the closet, I found every painting I ever made in kindergarten, every Valentine and Mother's Day card I ever gave her, school reports from the 4th grade, chalk portraits of rock stars I drew as a tween, 3-ring-binder notebooks from high school entirely covered over with my doodles and drawings. I found a paper doll with my face, so old I can't even remember playing with it.
The muu-muu Mom sewed for me when I was seven, in which I won the Most Original costume award in the Hawaiian Days parade in downtown Hermosa, my Girl Scout sash with all my merit badges (minus the ones I detached decades ago to decorate a canvas correspondent's shoulder bag from Banana Republic), the plastic turquoise transistor radio from Sears I wore plugged into my ear throughout junior high, my mom kept them all. Even though my brothers and I divided it all into conscientious piles (trash, recycle, Goodwill, family), Art Boy and I still came home with ten boxes of stuff.
Among Mom's things, I found a very poignant note she wrote to the family on the eve of a trip back to the Midwest in 1988, in case anything happened to her. She discusses the disposition of her things, and berates herself for the amount of "sheer junk!" accrued over her lifetime, which she hopes some day to straighten out. "I pray not to put my children through all this sorting and discarding," she frets.
It's okay, Mom. I relished every minute of it! My brothers and I unearthed treasures, shared memories, and swapped stories. We laughed a lot! Best of all, we felt your presence in every piece of your clothing we wrapped up for Goodwill, every childish thing of ours you couldn't bear to throw away, every piece of jewelry so carefully wrapped up in all that disintegrating Kleenex. It felt like you were right there with us the whole time.
My only regret is that she wasn't there in person to share the experience. Yes, it would have been a chore, but if we'd all done it together, it would have been fun. I really didn't mind the "chore" part—I'm a Virgo, after all—but I'm so sorry my mom missed out on the fun.