Our lunches could be excruciating. Seated with me at her small dining table, my mother would point to items in her china cabinet or curio cabinet and tell me their stories in great detail.
This sterling silver charger was a wedding present 73 years ago from cousin Connie. The big brass trivet was a gift from Fran Koob, one of her best friends from the past 60 years. The Delft plate was a gift she brought home from Holland for my grandmother after my mother’s one and only trip to Europe half a century ago.
Did I want any of these treasures? If I didn’t, who might? My sister, my brother, my children, her great-grandchildren living in New Zealand? Where should all these things go? Who would remember how important they are? These conversations broke my heart.
I turned 70 two weeks ago, and my recent visit to my mother’s in New York was the first one during which my 95-year-old mother did not treat me like her child. She didn’t remind me how to load the dishwasher. She didn’t feel it necessary to instruct me on how to make her bed.
She assumed I would know how to hang up her clothes so they wouldn’t wrinkle. To my surprise, the absence of these conversations also broke my heart. She is wearing out. She is marshalling what remains of her strength.
What would be a good ending for all this? My mother still plays bridge three afternoons a week and Scrabble several evenings each week. She dresses stylishly for dinners in her senior-citizen complex and arranges tables of her friends who make good conversationalists on everything from climate change to Trump to the new rules for professional baseball.
She would no more miss the evening news than she would fail to brush her teeth, all of which are hers. Limitations from a broken arm sustained in a fall three years ago sometimes make it difficult for her to dress herself, but she perseveres. The bi-monthly jazz piano programs, the sing-alongs, and the Thursday evening wine socials are not to be missed.
However, she is exhausted easily. She lies down during the day to rest, something she has scorned throughout her life as one of the seven deadly sins. Her hearing is starting to fail, but she refuses to entertain the idea of getting hearing aids.
Her eyesight is failing too. She has trouble reading at night before she goes to sleep and sorely misses the companionship of books and ideas. She doesn’t want audio books or a Kindle; it’s too much new technology. My sister and I recently insisted that she get an aide for the mornings when she takes a shower. She finally accepted the idea, but she protested all the live-long day.
And yet, if anyone at the facility where she lives asks how she is doing, my mother replies, “Oh, I’m getting on.” It seems to be the only answer anyone there gives. Although walkers line the perimeter of the dining room in the evening and cause traffic snarls when diners get up to leave, everyone there says, if asked, that they are getting on.
It is, in some ways, the most astonishingly sanguine place I have ever been. Everyone is getting on despite their frailties. Like her, they are grateful for this soft landing during their final years, for the warmth and friendship they have found at a time in their lives when they are so vulnerable. If anyone’s grandchildren or great-grandchildren visit, they light up the entire place like a sun.
In every apartment at my mother’s complex, however, are the treasures and clutter of a lifetime, all of it with an uncertain future. Her mother and her maternal grandmother both lived into their 90s. Some of their dishes, now almost 150 years old, are among my mother’s precious belongings and, like the Royal Worcester asparagus serving dish she received as a Christmas gift five decades ago, part of my inheritance.
The hard part at the end will be to decide how to curate this heritage. Many stories will inevitably be lost, and once the stories are lost, the objects will have to stand on their own.
My mother would be distressed if she knew how few of her belongings I will actually take. But at my age, I have already started paring my own belongings in preparation for eventually downsizing and so as not to burden my children with this enormous task.
What strikes me, however, is that my mother’s treasures and collections present not so much as individual physical objects but as the tangible evidence of values that guided my parents’ lives. All these things came into their lives because of love, generosity, kindness, faith, and gratitude. This may be my true inheritance.
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