My Mother's Closet 

Written for SevenPonds: Embracing the End of Life Experience. Published at http://blog.sevenponds.com/opening-our-hearts/my-mothers-closet, February 11, 2019.

 

Mother’s closet loomed large, one more mountain we had to conquer. The three daughters of Molly Johnson stood motionless, stunned by the reality of what we were about to do, this sad but necessary chore required of those who loved her most.

 

It’s not that we were surprised by her death. She had been in declining health, and we had seen the ravages of falls, infections, and hospital stays. Each of us had taken her to doctor’s appointments and understood the diagnosis of congestive heart failure and chronic kidney disease. No. We knew our 86-year-old mother was near the end of her life. What we didn’t know was how physically painful death could be.

 

Perhaps we thought all death was a quiet kind of passing, the slip into eternal sleep that my grandmother performed after breaking her hip. Or that, like Daddy, the end would come in a final chest rattle three days after a massive stroke. Maybe we had latched onto a romanticized idea of an angel swooping down to deftly lift Mother as she slept, stealing her away like an escaped sigh.

 

It wasn’t like that it all.

 

Mother suffered. Her pain was horrible. For the last three days of her life, every few minutes she would moan, “Help me!” No matter what the hospice nurses tried — frequent increases of morphine doses, different positions in the bed, gentle massage, ice chips on her lips — nothing appeased her pain. No matter what her daughters said or did, nothing soothed her mind and body. Our stoic mother who never complained about anything during her life was in agony each step of her journey to death.

 

We were still a little angry at God, bewildered by the amount of pain in our mother’s passing. Still sore from grief, fatigue, and the frenzy of planning a funeral, my sisters and I stood shoulder to shoulder gaining strength from each other. We forged ahead. It’s what we were taught to do.

 

The tiny space allocated as a closet wasn’t nearly big enough for everything my fashion-conscious mother had brought with her to assisted living. Never flashy, Mother was a quiet kind of attractive with a love of fashion and a taste for the classic. Her very essence floated, hanger by hanger, in front of us. Tops that smelled like her. Coats that had warmed her for years.

 

Every garment was connected to a memory. The white tunic trimmed in navy and coral she had worn the last time she was able to go out to lunch with me. The red wool blazer that she always wore to Indiana University games. Her zip-front purple bathrobe worn so many nights in front of the fireplace.

 

Dozens of shoes in all styles and colors dating back to the 1960s were neatly labeled and stacked in their original boxes. From the “Spectator pumps” Mother loved, to the woven leather Huaraches new in the box, Mother’s shoe obsession was on full display. Heels. Sandals. Slippers. Slides. Wedges. All in triple AAA width. In a place of honor, sitting atop a step stool, Mother had put her worn, white nursing shoes, the symbol of a profession passionately pursued for more than 40 years.

 

Her wardrobe awaited us, the last tangible link to her soul.

 

Without warning, an olfactory memory wafted into my brain as I stood teary-eyed in front of Mother’s closet. I swear I could smell the heady gardenia perfume Mother wore when I was a little girl. A scene from the movie Hope Floats plastered itself across my thoughts.  When Birdee Pruitt’s (Sandra Bullock) zany Mother has a massive stroke and dies instantly, Birdee acknowledges her loss by stepping into her mother’s closet. She pulls out her mom’s black dress, presses it to her face, and inhales the scent of the woman she loves. Sobbing, she dons the dress and wears it with panache to the funeral. Birdee finds comfort in the emotional residue left in that classic black sheath worn by her deceased mother.

 

Now my sisters and I had to decide. Would we wear our dead mother’s clothes?

 

Several years ago, Mother had “outgrown” a dress I had always liked.  It was a classic style in a knock-out fabric. “Missi, take this,” she insisted as she held out a dress bursting with orange poppies and turquoise paisley. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I accepted reluctantly. Would I really wear the same dress that my eighty-year-old Mother had worn?

Every time I wear that dress people exclaim, “Wow! I love your dress!” Why had I doubted?

 

The knowledge that Mother’s clothes sometimes worked on me didn’t make cleaning out her closet any easier.

 

The clock in the tiny bedroom ticked loudly, reminding us that time would not stand still.

 

The inevitable had come.

 

We divvied up our sweet mother’s clothes.

 

My younger sister, Michele, is a brilliant, articulate, passionate lawyer who lived closest to Mother and stopped by every night to check on her. When Mother could no longer shop for herself, Michele (herself a fashionista) had often purchased new clothes to fit Mother’s changing needs. That day, Michele’s usual vibrancy and bubbling wit were submerged, crushed under the weight of sadness. She watched as Melanie held up garment after garment, a memory attached like a concrete block to each piece. “Would either of you like this one?” Melanie gently asked.

 

“It would make me too sad.” Michele’s chin quivered as she looked at the blouse lofted in front of us. “It would make me miss her even more.”

 

Melanie paused and said, “I like it, but I would never wear it.” Melanie, the oldest of us, is a compassionate, energetic woman with totally different coloring from Mother’s. Where Mother was pale and gray-eyed, Melanie was tanned and brown-eyed with a totally different sense of style. No matter how much she loved her, Melanie wouldn’t look right in Mother’s clothes.

 

But me, I liked Mother’s style. My coloring is similar, and my eyes are the same gray-blue. Pause after pause, when Melanie held up a piece of Mother’s clothing and neither of my sisters claimed it, I heard myself saying “I’ll take it.”

 

An armload of Mother’s clothes came home with me. (Sadly, like a false Cinderella, I couldn’t shove my slightly bigger foot into those 5-l/2 Narrows.) I claimed her clothes, not because I would wear them all but because I couldn’t stand to see the essence of Mother go to charity grabs where someone would snatch up a piece she had loved for a quarter.

 

No stranger would understand how much our mother valued her clothing.

 

No bargain shopper would grieve for the person whose body had once given that garment life.

 

I would.

 

I would flaunt her fashion, wear her proudly, and stay close to her for a little while longer.

 

This summer, I wore one of my mother’s tops to a ball game where my own daughter said, “Mom. That’s a cute top!” Most of Mother’s other clothes, though, I’m remaking and repurposing, throwing them into an alternative existence by combining her taste with my quirks in an old-but-new-art-to-wear garment.

 

Sometimes, like Michele said, seeing Mother’s clothes hanging next to mine makes me a little sad. But most of the time, I find comfort in their colors, their contours, and their embedded memories of Mother.

 

Now and then, I catch the faintest whiff of gardenia lingering in the corners of my closet.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

Nothing Says Love Like a Letter

"My heart still palpitates every time I see one of those cute, but heartless, mail jeeps. The mailman probably thought I was in love with him from the calf eyes I made when he drove up....No one but a writer can understand the significance of the daily mail."

 

So quipped my friend the novelist, whose correspondence I've enjoyed for years. I understand exactly what she meant about mooning for the mailman, but I can't believe that writers are the only one who feel this way. In a society in which communication is a quick phone call, the permanence, eloquence, and tangibility of a letter are more valuable than ever.

 

My love affair with letters started when as a young girl, a letter my family had handed down for generations. Written by a soldier named W.K. Jordan during the 1812 war, it is addressed to Jordan's wife, Betsy, and includes the story of his capture by Indians, his captain's death, and his longing for his family. Jordan writes, "I had to surrender myself to four damned yellow Indians," and he goes on to describe what they did to his captain, Billy Wells: "...cut off his head and stuck it on a pole while the others took out his heart and divided it among the chiefs, and they ate it raw."

 

Eventually, my ancestor escaped and wrote Betsy: "I have two letters of yours and some of the soft hair of your head, some in plaid around my neck." He ended with a plea: "Tell me how you are, and how the children are, and for God's sake, send Mountford to school...So I conclude with my best respects to you till death, or till I see you..."

 

He never returned, dying of pneumonia.

 

My family history became real to me in that letter, and I see how much of my dad's down-to-earth, joy-of-living philosophy will become real to those who read his letters:

 

"Just wanted you to know that last night I grilled pork chops out back on

the grill you gave us. Thank you. I had kale out of my garden and macaroni.

When I was a kid I wouldn't have touched kale with a 10-foot-pole, but now

this old goat really likes it. In re-reading this paragraph, I'd like to clarify.

I did not grow the macaroni in my garden. It won't grow in Indiana. Also,

my roses are beautiful. If you were here, I'd give you a bouquet."

 

The essence of Daddy is stored in that paragraph, and long after he's gone, his voice will ring true, preserved like a crisp pickle in the letters and notes he sends.

 

Today, we have e-mail, scans, texts, and all kinds of virtual electronic communication, but those just don't compare to a letter on paper that has weight and permanence. My novelist friend once commented that we were "just hands clasping briefly in this ever-changing world through the postal service." Thus our depression when those cute but heartless mail trucks leave our outstretched hands without the letters that are such a blessing and such a rarity.

 

Ron Watson, a Kentucky poet I know, expressed the need for letters best: "Yes, I've come to know the silence well, and the wordless dread of the postman's empty hands, the wash of blue his back bears across the yard to the neighbor's box."

 

Write soon. As John Donne says, "More than kisses, sir, letters mingle souls."

Memories and Musings on the Family Porch

Stingray Bikes and Squirrel Tails

We had no doubt that he DID mean it. In fact, both my sister, Michele, and I had rarely heard Daddy use that stern tone, and never had we heard such strict rules on Christmas morning. We were almost scared, but we knew we hadn't misbehaved. Giggling, nervous, uncertain, we ran down the hall to our bedroom and shut the door. There we hovered like manic moths darting to and from the doorway, listening, watching each other, covering our mouths, and hopping from one foot to another.

 

"You can come out now, but you've got to close your eyes and hold hands."

 

Too scared to disobey, we clutched each other's fingers and walked tentatively to the living room.

 

Had we expected this? I don't remember. Had we known this might be it?

 

I don't think so, for if we had an inkling of what lay before us, I don't think we would have felt the intense joy and pleasure when we say those metallic-colored Stingray bicycles. A young girl's dream, these bikes came complete with white wicker baskets (trimmed with pink plastic roses, I'll have you know!) parked in the center of the living room. Mother and Daddy had selected them carefully for us based on the colors of our eyes: mine was blue. Michele's was green. Ever since that morning, bikes have had a special place in my childhood memories.

 

More than thirty years later, my bony butt doesn't feel comfortable on those hard little seats. My bad arm, once broken and still misbehaving after a long-ago injury, hurts after leaning on bicycle handles. Now I'm worried about traffic and gears, helmets, injuries, and getting lost on back country roads. Nothing seems quite as simple as those days careening around the neighborhood on my blue bike.

 

For years, I rode up and down driveways and as fast as possible around the block, over the curbs and around the parked cars lining Driftwood Drive. There's something wonderful about the speed and freedom of propelling yourself forward, breeze blowing on sweaty skin, peripheral vision blurred, feeling like nothing in the world could hold you back.

 

When adulthood and age come crashing down on me, I have a longing for that blue bike and the summer days when I was young and carefree, when the greatest pleasure came from simply moving my legs in circles and pushing myself forward into the world. Thinking about those days reminded me of my Dad.

 

My Dad was raised in the country. For years, he had enjoyed hiking, swimming in the river, and hunting. Every once in a while, he got the urge to go squirrel hunting. About once a year, we would eat squirrel meat, gravy, and biscuits, not because we needed the food, but because my dad wanted to use what he had hunted. I was not, however, appalled by the idea. Instead, I thought it was "cool" that Daddy might bring home something different for dinner.

 

How does this relate to bicycles, you ask? Well, the memory I had was of myself and my sister standing in the garage, watching Daddy clean those squirrels, begging, "Please, please, please, Daddy."

 

For weeks afterward, we toured around the neighborhood on our pretty Stingrays, as proud as if we were driving Mercedes, red squirrel tails flapping behind us

 

Looking back, animal rights groups would have been horrified. People would have wondered what kind of character my Dad was to let us flaunt the butchered body parts of a defenseless animal on the back of a bike. Neighbors might have worried about those strange little Johnson girls as we pedaled furiously on banana-seated bicycles with decaying rodent tails flying behind us.

 

But for us, those bikes and squirrel tails were magical, a talisman of summer and youth.

                                                                                              

Memories and Musings on the Family Porch

Important events happen on porches. Countless contests of jacks. First kisses. The sharing of secrets, the fellowship of friends. Cool drinks. Conversations, confessions, connections.

 

I think of the unnamed woman in Kentucky who so continually sat on her front porch, reading in the presence of the world She made me believe that old age wasn't so bad. I would drive by her house every day on my way home from work and she'd be sitting on the dark green metal glider on her porch.

 

Long, lanky, and very old, she'd be settled there reading a romance novel.

 

"How wonderful," I thought, "to want to read romance novels even when you're old and the chance for love has long disappeared. And how nice it is that she wants to sit outside and connect with the world."

 

For someone who has a phobia about the concept of being "shut-in," this gray, grizzled woman was a reassuring presence. She proved daily that growing old didn't mean being closeted in the house or closing your mind to adventure.

 

But without her front porch, I would never have known she existed.

 

Sitting outside was the way she could view the world around her; it was the way the world around could acknowledge her existence. Seeing this lady almost daily heavily influenced my belief that a porch, that bridge to the outside world, makes a home complete.

 

Sometimes I lament that we have gotten so busy with scheduled activities that there's no time just to sit and contemplate. Sometimes I wish I could go back a generation or two to the time when sitting on the front porch was considered a way of socializing. Sometimes I long for Sheriff Andy Taylor's ability to sit on his front porch in Mayberry, strum the guitar, discuss the town's activities, and work up a tremendous taste for ice cream.

 

Hopes of a restful Mayberry-like existence are depicted in my big, wooden porch swing. In warm weather, that's where you'll find me, swinging on the front porch, journaling, writing, mending, folding laundry.

 

Stop by. Chat. Watch the traffic go by. Connect with me. Connect with nature. Connect with our town. In our hurry-up-and-go world, connecting with each other is a dying art I'd like to preserve.

 

I recently went back to my old hometown in Kentucky. I was shocked to find that not a trace remains of the old woman and her porch. Her house has been torn down and made into an asphalt parking lot for a nearby church. Her favorite seat for relaxing, the old green glider, has long been rummaged off or given to relatives.

 

It was as if she had never been - except for the fact that my connection with her stays unbroken.

 

I can only hope that as I sit swinging on my front porch, watching the world, waving to passersby, reading whatever romance I can into the world, I am carrying on the legacy of that old woman I never met but felt I knew.

 

Her message: You're never too old to step out on the porch, look forward, and connect with the world.

 

Whether you know it or not, your presence matters.

Memories and Musings on the Family Porch

Important events happen on porches. Countless contests of jacks. First kisses. The sharing of secrets, the fellowship of friends. Cool drinks. Conversations, confessions, connections.

 

I think of the unnamed woman in Kentucky who so continually sat on her front porch, reading in the presence of the world She made me believe that old age wasn't so bad. I would drive by her house every day on my way home from work and she'd be sitting on the dark green metal glider on her porch.

 

Long, lanky, and very old, she'd be settled there reading a romance novel.

 

"How wonderful," I thought, "to want to read romance novels even when you're old and the chance for love has long disappeared. And how nice it is that she wants to sit outside and connect with the world."

 

For someone who has a phobia about the concept of being "shut-in," this gray, grizzled woman was a reassuring presence. She proved daily that growing old didn't mean being closeted in the house or closing your mind to adventure.

 

But without her front porch, I would never have known she existed.

 

Sitting outside was the way she could view the world around her; it was the way the world around could acknowledge her existence. Seeing this lady almost daily heavily influenced my belief that a porch, that bridge to the outside world, makes a home complete.

 

Sometimes I lament that we have gotten so busy with scheduled activities that there's no time just to sit and contemplate. Sometimes I wish I could go back a generation or two to the time when sitting on the front porch was considered a way of socializing. Sometimes I long for Sheriff Andy Taylor's ability to sit on his front porch in Mayberry, strum the guitar, discuss the town's activities, and work up a tremendous taste for ice cream.

 

Hopes of a restful Mayberry-like existence are depicted in my big, wooden porch swing. In warm weather, that's where you'll find me, swinging on the front porch, journaling, writing, mending, folding laundry.

 

Stop by. Chat. Watch the traffic go by. Connect with me. Connect with nature. Connect with our town. In our hurry-up-and-go world, connecting with each other is a dying art I'd like to preserve.

 

I recently went back to my old hometown in Kentucky. I was shocked to find that not a trace remains of the old woman and her porch. Her house has been torn down and made into an asphalt parking lot for a nearby church. Her favorite seat for relaxing, the old green glider, has long been rummaged off or given to relatives.

 

It was as if she had never been - except for the fact that my connection with her stays unbroken.

 

I can only hope that as I sit swinging on my front porch, watching the world, waving to passersby, reading whatever romance I can into the world, I am carrying on the legacy of that old woman I never met but felt I knew.

 

Her message: You're never too old to step out on the porch, look forward, and connect with the world.

 

Whether you know it or not, your presence matters.

Skating Lets the Soul Glide Free

Skating Lets the Soul Glide Free

I am six-years-old. All around me are noisy shouts. Nothing is visible except orange sparks against smoky blackness. The noise of metal scratching the surface of the frozen pond is unmistakable. I am laughing.

 

I am thirteen, in the seventh grade, and it is January 16th. In the daylight, I can actually see the pond where my Dad has taken us to skate. The shiny white skates that Daddy just bought me at Kmart contain more magic than Dorothy's ruby slippers ever did. I am proud and excited, feeling just like a figure skater as my sister, Michele, and I race around the frozen surface.

 

Like a gaggle of geese, we swoop around the pond, far from graceful, but exhilarated and energetic. We try jumping. We attempt skating backward. We work at cross-over turns at high speed. We are too young to know the danger and too full of ourselves to realize we couldn't really do any of the things we thought we were doing. We have fun.

 

My Dad and uncle join us, their skating as natural to them as our giggling is to us. Michele and I watch, fascinated, as Daddy and Uncle Virge act like kids and play crack-the-whip with my teenage cousins. They laugh and hoot, and we echo in near delirium. Daddy shows off the spread eagles he learned to do as a kid. Leaning in, arms straight out, his toes pointed outward, knees apart and locked in place, he loops in graceful majesty, his body in symmetry with the ice and sky.

 

My dad is skating with one of us on each side. A small twig lies on the surface of the gray ice and a sharp crack booms through the cold. Uncle Virge races toward us at break-neck speed, shouting, "Girls, get to the house NOW. Tell your aunt that your dad just broke his leg.

 

I'm sixteen, skating at the ice rink with a young man named Wayne. I wear my cranberry ribbed-knit turtleneck and my favorite bell-bottom jeans. Having traded in my cork-bottomed platform shoes for my old skates, I smile and move as gracefully as possible around the rink. Compared to my date, I look elegant, and I am warmed when he nicknames me "Tiny Dancer" after the Elton John song.

 

The snow floats down in giant flakes. Emerald pines drip white lace from the mountains that look down on us. A small public ice area is covered with the few souls who have braved the cold in this place called Breckinridge. I am thirty-two, far from a child, but am reassured by my old skates, tight-fitting and worn, but serviceable still. I have discovered that I cannot ski but haven't lost the enjoyment of skating, slowly and leisurely.

 

I watch my daughters act just like my sister and I acted years ago. They laugh. They try skating backward; they attempt complicated loops and turns years beyond their ability, but they have fun. Oblivious to the cold and scenery as they conquer both fear of the ice and weak ankles, my girls are gleeful.

 

I am 36. Katie has adopted my old skates, and Cassie begged for a pair of white skates for Christmas - just like the Olympic skaters wear. I am skating around the ice at the local civic center with my daughters and their cousins, contemplating how simple pleasures are such a gift and blessing Daddy for teaching me how to skate.

 

My Dad, who never let a leg broken in six places stop him from ice skating, knows that while we can't skate blissfully through life, an occasional glide through a winter afternoon is good for the soul.