This Writer's Aha! Moment After Clearing Out Her Late Mother's House
She was born in Germany, two years before World War II began. Her mother was killed when a bomb struck their Bavarian farmhouse; her father was forced to send his children to an orphanage while he looked for work. "I didn't even have a toothbrush!" Mom would say when, as a kid, I balked at brushing. She was 11 when she crossed the Atlantic and first saw America—a dream for the taking if, she came to believe, one could stretch a dollar.
During my childhood, waste—of shampoo, paper towels, a squashed tuna sandwich in my sack lunch—was a crime. My sisters and I understood the concept of frugality but were baffled by our mother's definition of a "deal." She'd buy cartons of eggnog after Christmas—10 cents each since they were about to spoil—and cram them into our freezer; we'd drink them until Easter.
Now, at the Hopes', a snow globe glinted in the November sun, the flakes the same color as my mother's post-chemo hair. She picked up a 1950s-era colander—only a buck!—and ran her fingers over its metal rim.
Linda Hope, Bob and Dolores's first child, manned the nearest till. I wanted to speak to her. I wanted her to bestow some wisdom about the road of loss she had just traveled with her mother—the road I was now on.
"This must be weird," I said. Linda nodded as strangers rifled through her history. "But," she said, "life moves on." She rang up a woman clutching a turkey-shaped candle.
Linda's words pressed hard against my heart. How could she let it all go so easily? When my mother was gone, I told myself, I'd make a shrine of her things. I'd love my mother better than Linda had loved hers. I searched the crowd for my mom and found her near the white-brick house, behind which lay the lawn where Nixon's helicopter had once landed for a golf date. Mom looked like a stick figure in the yoga pants we'd bought in Target's children's section. She held a poster of the horses of San Marcos. "Cropped and framed," she said, beaming.
Soon after, a plunging blood count landed her in the hospital. A month later, I bought a dress at an outlet mall for her funeral: Calvin Klein, $19.99.
Photo: Richard Ressman
Afterward, my sisters and I sat on our mother's bed, sorting her possessions. A colorful pile of short shorts—Mom's Daisy Dukes, we joked—sat on a shelf, tags attached. COMPARE AT $29.99. CLEARANCE PRICE, $2.99. "What the hell was she doing with all this junk?" I asked. Eager to banish any reminder of the battle we'd just lost, I donated nearly everything.
Days later, this scattering of my mother's stuff began to sting. I understood now: The thrill of finding a diamond in T.J. Maxx's rough had helped remedy the desolation of her childhood. My mother had decided she would never again have nothing. The stuff had been a stockpile against loss.
One spring morning, I dug out my mother's denim short shorts and tried them on. They fit perfectly. Wearing them conjures the mom who climbed a ladder to trim her orange trees. She's up there in the California sun, her legs summer brown. The Hopes' colander is with me, too. When I use it to rinse bitter arugula and sweet strawberries, I no longer judge Linda for letting it go.
Suzanne Rico is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She is currently working on a memoir.