My mother had some homey expressions. If she went to the home of a woman wealthier than her (which was most women), she would say, “She has nice things.” When there was a wedding shower for a younger women, she would say, “She’s setting up housekeeping.” Conversely, an older woman moving out of her home was “breaking up housekeeping.”
My mother broke up housekeeping last year. As I helped her transition from her four-bedroom home to a one-bedroom apartment, I began dealing with her “things.” This got me thinking about her, her personality, what was important to her and what she meant to me.
My mother had eight children. Being a mother was a role she loved. Well, she better have loved it, because it was what was happening in her life.
Going through her personal things, she owned nothing fancy. No jewelry, no makeup, no fancy clothes. She had one frilly dress that she wore to about five weddings. She was still wearing tops I remember from when I was a teenager. Everything was utilitarian. All her coats had hoods and big pockets. Pants had elastic waistbands. Her shoes were flat. Her clothing was selected for the task of caring for children. Jewelry and makeup would mean time spent on her; therefore, there was none.
I was happy to see, when my mother began living among her peers, that she wanted to look a little nicer. I took her shopping for new clothes. When she died, I found those things we bought with the price tags still on them. She was probably thinking of returning them.
Her estate sale was hardly worth the effort. The few nice things she had were from the early days of her marriage, with some probably from her own wedding shower when she was “setting up housekeeping.” There were pretty plates I don’t ever remember her using, and silverware that only came out on Thanksgiving.
One of the hardest parts about my mother moving into assisted living was getting her to limit what things to take. She took a kitchen table that seats six. She just couldn’t imagine a time when a bunch of people wouldn’t be sitting at her kitchen table. She took an old green couch whose cushions were indented with 30 years of people’s behinds. We didn’t like to sit on that couch even at her old house, and no one sat on it at her apartment.
But still, it was there, in case someone needed a nap, or there was ever a bunch of people over. She was a woman living alone who had her apartment set up to accommodate a dozen guests.
I didn’t take many of my mother’s things. We didn’t have the same taste, and quite frankly, I was sort of mad at how cheaply she valued herself. I hated that most of her knickknacks were from the dollar store.
She was a great woman who deserved better than that, but I guess she didn’t think so. She was so used to putting others first, she never could think of herself, even at the end of her life when she had the chance to do so.
One thing I do have from her is a miniature bamboo armoire. I played with it as a child and had colored one of the drawers with crayon. On my last birthday, my mother wrapped it up in newspaper and gave it to me. I was surprised and delighted. She was too sick to shop anymore, but she remembered I loved it. I look at it every day. It reminds me of being her child.
In the end, in palliative care, my mother’s things were few: eyeglasses, photos, a threadbare quilt brought from her bed at the apartment. A lifetime of possessions whittled down to this.
I don’t know why she still had that old quilt. It’s something I would have thrown away long ago, but she died underneath it. I have the quilt now, and I won’t be throwing it away.
Fancy or plain. Expensive or cheap. Many or few.
It didn’t matter at the end of her life, and it won’t matter at the end of ours. What matters is being loved, being comforted and being together.