Once a refuge, now a haunting

A lavender scent lingers on the pillows piled neatly on my mother’s king-sized bed in which I will never sleep. True, a panoply of annuity and investment records, brown-edged deeds to overseas properties, crisp cream bank statements, tax filings dating back to my father’s death thirty years ago, and a heap of my mother’s American and British passports, my father’s too, as well as my own, rise like a loaf of freshly baked bread disclosing our collective web of identity.

Mounds of paper I handle with aplomb, but the thought of stripping the walls bare and folding and stacking sweaters still smelling of her scent cripples me. Yet, to clear the past away of items that may form the nexus of my future seems a defilement of my mother’s waning life. More like an evidence room than a bedroom, I have fallen into my mother’s habit of preserving the past, too.

Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room, stacking them on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, and pile is worn blankets, duvets, and pillows on the bony mattress. I read by the light of Christmas tree lights, which glow day and night. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot sleep, if only drifting off for an hour or two.

The home my mother created gave her sanctuary from her memories of my father’s arbitrary, war-induced rages, her loss of England, and the foundation for a new life. When my mother turned the key in the lock eight days ago, she could not have known it would be for the last time.

These four walls that were once a refuge for my mother are now haunting for me.

As evening hours tick into another day, I frantically cull and file, sort, and discard. My ‘dinners’ of sherry and bowls of nuts and crackers remain uneaten. Most nights, I wander through the apartment, absently entering and exiting each room and mentally sifting through my mother’s belongings: what to save and pack, what to give away, or discard. I silently categorize the paintings on the wall she has collected with care, the china figurines of a nurse and a woman dressed in hunt attire that has sat on the bookshelves since I was in high school, the paperweights on the piano that is never played, and assorted mementos from my grandmother’s house in England that my mother cleared and sold when I was in college.

Once upon a time, my mother’s job was to sort through her own family’s belongings in another country. The candlesticks from the front room mantelpiece, the silver hairbrush, comb, and dimpled mirror engraved with my grandmother’s initials, the brass turtle and maiden handbell, original watercolor of Westminster Abbey, painted from the Dean’s Yard, a couple of pins belonging to her Aunt Stella, Shetland wool throws, the hand-carved mahogany bellows from the front hall and a small collection of books by the Bronte sisters. Diligently she sorted linens from bustles and pearls, emptying each drawer and wardrobe of cardigans, cotton nightgowns, handkerchiefs, and blouses. There were blankets and comforters, cast iron pots, and crystal vases ready for sale. In an old cedar trunk, she found brand new sweaters from a woolen shop in Scotland, still sealed in the original plastic bags.

Sixteen years later, these hints of her family home blend into my mother’s apartment. The hand-carved wooden bellows hang in her hallway, retired from duty, silent and breathless—the mahogany chest of drawers stores her winter sweaters and the local telephone book. My grandmother’s vanity set lay on the dresser, unused. My mother regretted not taking an engraved warming-pan that hung next to the bellows in the front hallway. I am not like my mother, am I? I don’t live in the past anymore, yet, I am the one left behind to salvage an unfinished life.

The hallway between the front door and the bedrooms are lined with floor to ceiling closets. Each shelf, every inch of the floor, is locked in a war for space. In the ‘office supply’ end of the far closet opposite my adolescent bedroom, stacks of envelopes of every size lean precariously cascading to the floor if the door is closed too sharply. Battery stashes and dozens of unopened rolls of scotch tape. Post-it note packages of every size and color packed into a cardboard box with the Union Jack on its lid. Paper clips and file folders, padded envelopes, white and yellow, large and small. Tubes of brightly colored Christmas paper scattered with images of scarf clad penguins and bow-tied teddy bears. Bags of bows. Every item is diligently saved for a day that will never come.

From room to room, I wander, plucking random objects infused with potent memory my mother and I both understand, hers perhaps more indelible like a scar, mine skating on the surface like a blemish. Objects I lived with through high school and college, and still, others that my mother added after I left home, I recognize. Others, appearing during the years when I tried to put my own life in order, are silent. No trace of security echoes in my fingertips when I hold an unfamiliar vase or a silver salt savor. Instead, my hand strokes each object like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the nagging sense of impending loss away from my mind. I move slowly and without focus, hunting through one drawer – boxes and garbage bags beside me – before leaving the room and starting another unfocused search for what I do not know in another room.

This sorting is not unfamiliar to me; I have been sorting since I was five years old, first my belongings, and now, with my mother’s stroke, the remainders of a life she will likely leave behind. In a routine I carve through a haze of sleep deprivation and grief, I dismantle my mother’s life, yet, I did not anticipate the discovery of hauntings of my father’s life and death, too.

Earlier I had retrieved a metal lockbox from my mother’s bedroom shelf. I tried the latch, and it opened easily. Inside, the box was full of expired pill samples, some of the bottles stamped with use-by dates back in the 1970s. Most of them were pharmaceutical samples my father received from drug company representatives visiting the hospital. I had a vague recollection of sitting on my parents’ bed, the pillbox open, and my father filling a syringe with smallpox vaccination. He gave my mother and me inoculations before we went to Peru the spring I turned ten, and I remember being relieved that he was the one giving me the shot. I was afraid of going to the doctor. The waiting room smelled like burnt onions and antiseptic; the doctor reeked of cigarette smoke and fading breath mints. The nurse wore orthopedic shoes that did not make any noise when she walked; her bedside manner was a witch from a fairy tale.

Behind the pillbox, I find a plastic bag full of condolence letters with envelopes 1980 or early 1981. These letters poured in during the summer after my father’s death. My mother answered each one faithfully with a handwritten note and a copy of his obituary printed in one of the national medical journals. I remember her sitting on the couch, packed boxes ready to move stacked up around her, reading each letter. She read them out loud, her voice reedy and swaying. I remember hating to hear the tone of her voice I had not heard before, the words of adulation for the man who was my father, a man I sometimes think I barely knew. These letters had been too much for me to face at the time. On the cusp of what I believe will be my mother’s death, I wanted to read each one. I knew so few of the people who wrote. I was so embittered at the time. How could these strangers write as if they knew my father better than I, even though many did? I left my mother alone to respond to them.

I carefully divide the letters into piles on the floor. Ones from professional colleagues. Ones from patients. Ones from England. Ones from people I know, others from those I don’t. I slip one out of an envelope, quietly unfolding the thin paper. I will be up for hours at this rate, but I am determined to read each one. Some were delivered by hand to West Road; the envelopes quietly popped through the letterbox. There are letters written by people who had seen the newspaper’s announcement or had heard the news in the town. Letters came from old colleagues at Papworth, people both my mother and father had known, from patients of my father’s, from nurses and other doctors, from my mother’s friends, and those of my grandmother, the handwriting slanting from old age. There was a letter from my riding club and one from my sixth-grade teacher.

I wipe my running nose and my eyes on the sleeve of my sweatshirt by three a.m. I am exhausted; my mind is racing. I count the number of letters remaining — eight. Only eight letters from more than one hundred, but the prospect of finishing is daunting. I rise to look out of the window. The streetlights have gone out, but the moon is nearly full. I am completely overwhelmed by these letters, by the poetry of some of the lines, the genuine kindness of people I never knew.

How did my mother manage to read these, respond to each one? I once believed I could never have done all she did, but now I know that I will do the same and answer every letter and card I know will come.

I look around my room in the half-light. The metal bookshelves with my mother’s paperback books. Since I was a child, the record player I had sitting in my old room listening to Peter Wolf and Fiddler on the Roof. In the closet, a formal I wore once in high school hangs out-of-date. My fingers spread out the remaining letters. One more. My hand circles the letters like I am picking a card for a magic trick. Some of the handwriting is too difficult for me to read. I look at the envelopes, selecting one written in black ink from a Mr. Bridges. A few hours ago, I read another one from this man and copied it on a yellow legal pad, his words so gentle, so calm and lucid. He wrote the second one in response to my mother’s holiday letter. He was a widower, a friend of my grandmother’s, a man who never met my father.

I read past his thanks for my mother’s Christmas card and various other incidentals, thinking that perhaps I won’t read the entire letter until I come across the following paragraph:

“I had realized before you told me that your mother would be shattered that you weren’t coming to live in England. She has not mentioned it to me, but, of course, as your Mother, she must have felt she wants to be close to help you. But I’m sure; by now, she must have realized (even if she is deeply disappointed) that you have made the right decision. In a majority of ways, Anna is an American and must finish her education in the U.S.A. You had already made this decision while Serhij was with you, and I’m sure both your decisions have been the right ones. The ‘pull’ to you, personally, back to England must be strong, but Anna’s is the young life, which holds the future, and you must – as you have done – put that first.”

I have always understood that my mother sacrificed her country, her family, her home for me. Reading this letter confirms what I have always known: it is time for my mother to go home.