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Legal definition of home

With three probate attorneys in my employ, I grimace, my index finger hesitating, before clicking on the mouse to open an email marked Probate Inquiry from my English solicitor. The sky outside my study sluggishly lightens, yet I lost all sense of day and night weeks ago.

An insomniac driven not by an inability to sleep but by emails laden with documents to sign, notarize, and express mail return, I compile records requested by my English lawyer. Today’s list is the most overwhelming one to date:

  • an original death certificate;
  • original U.S. court-certified copy of my mother’s handwritten will;
  • original U.S. and Canadian court orders admitting my mother’s will to formal probate;
  • original U.S. and Canadian court orders appointing Steve and me as executors;
  • copies of my mother’s most recent British savings and checking account statements;
  • statements of the income and expenses for the bungalow in Bury St. Edmunds

As the moon ascends, I print out a lengthy document to read. The mini-tome, produced by the inheritance tax office of the HM Revenue and Customs department, meant to guide British citizens’ taxation responsibilities and/or working abroad, neglects to elucidate any answers to my frenzied questions. On the page, I scribble another set of words and definitions cited in the document.

Domicile: the place where a person has his/her permanent principal home to which he/she intends to return. Where a person has several “residences,” it may be a matter of proof as to which is considered a person’s permanent state of domicile;

Resident: person residing 183 or more days in the UK in the tax year; owned, rented, or lived in a home for at least 91 days in total or at least 30 days in a tax year;

Non-resident: a person spending less than 16 days in the UK (or 46 days if not classed as UK resident for the 3 previous tax years) or working abroad full-time (averaging at least 35 hours a week) and spending less than 91 days in the UK, of which less than 31 days were spent working;

Visitor: a person who visits, as for reasons of friendship, business, duty, travel, or the like.

“You and I are English, Anna,” my mother once maintained to me in a crowded Chicago terminal. England is the country in which you and I were born, and it is the country we are going to return to one day to live,” she insisted for decades, yet her bi-annual journeys of return to visit cast a shadow posthumously on my mother’s life.

Indeed, the question of her domicile, the nexus of not only my mother’s estate but also the definition of her life, pricked the interest of my attorney.

“I have been giving a lot of further thought to matters, particularly the domicile issue,” solicitor number three wrote. “The only possible stumbling blocks here are the visits your mother made to the UK, and the fact that she owned a property over here,” the man nearing retirement, who preferred handling our interactions by email rather than by phone, mused.

“I will need to know the frequency of your mother’s visits, whether she visited other countries other than England, and the duration of her visits,” he added, his inquiry confirming the amorphous and shifting boundaries of my mother’s and, as a consequence of her choices, my own life. “Playing devil’s advocate: it could be that our Revenue and Customs could say that your mother had not severed all ties with this country. All I can do is put everything forward and await the outcome,” he wrote after his email with a not so subtle tone of ambivalence.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, SuffolkIf my mother’s domicile were classified as England due to her regular visits and a bungalow encumbered with structural weaknesses, the estate worldwide would be subject to an inheritance tax, a third of which would land in the Queen’s coffers. A person has several “residencies,” it may be a matter of proof as to which is considered a person’s permanent state of domicile; the legal definition is about as clear as a pea fog. One person’s proof is another person’s obfuscation.

Has my mother’s life and mine been permanently tainted by the muddied question of domicile? As my mother neared her death, she referred to her Sioux Falls apartment as her ‘home’ embracing the protection of the only four walls she could claim, yet, nowhere in the Revenue and Customs definitions is a definition of ‘home,’ the only word that ever mattered to both my parents and to me.

Executor’s year begins

In the premature dark, the snow squeaks and crunches beneath our ginger steps. The icy winter resurfaced, plummeting the temperature below zero and into the negative double digits. Arms around each other, Steve and I bounce up and down on the street corner, desperate for the light to change from red to green.

“Of course, our appointment with an attorney we have never met has to be on one of the bitterest of nights since Mom died,” I mutter through my wool scarf. “The lawyer’s office is in the building is across the street, one with the time and temperature sign flashing. “How can sign’s electronics even register negative thirty,” I snort, my breath inside the scarf’s dampening the wool.

After crossing the freshly plowed road, Steve casts open a glass door. The cold air meets the stolid warmth inside, and a thick film of condensation forms on the glass. Pausing to knock the snow off his boots on the entryway’s beige carpet, Steve locates the office floor and suite number on the building’s wall index. I shift my weight on the carpet well-past its saturation point from a day’s worth of entrances and exits and chew another fingernail.

We ride the elevator in relieved silence. Earlier, the culmination of tension from the funeral, ceaseless, lengthy phone calls about the Canadian farmland and the house in England, and a handful of our own bills that passed their due date by one or two days had ignited a spark of simmering frustration between us. When Steve left the apartment to buy more U-Haul boxes, I beseeched Janet: “He is driving me nuts, Janet,” I sobbed, striking the dining room table with my fists. “When Steve was in Santa Fe, before the funeral, I had a routine. I have my own way of handling calls and meetings and letters and priorities. Steve doesn’t mean to, but he interferes, tells me I am doing things wrong. I have known the players in England and Canada for years. Tell him to get off my bloody back,” I railed, the onset of tears dissolving into a foul puddle of marital discord.

Later, after I left the apartment upon Steve’s return, fleeing to Barnes and Noble under the pretense that I needed a book about the legalities of settling an estate, Janet quietly approached my husband. “Anna is in “campaign mode.” You know she gets like this, and I learned years ago to stand back and allow her to move at her own speed. Believe me, I know her behavior drives all of us crazy sometimes, but part of her mania is a way of dealing with her grief, too,” Janet reasoned, soon soothing Steve’s own anxiety. Janet recognized another truth: my frenzy to pack up my mother’s apartment and understand my responsibilities for a moderate yet intricate estate was a response not only instigated by grief and practical necessity but also by a compulsion to erase a life without my mother in it. I returned to the apartment and calmer marital waters.

The elevator door opens, and Steve and I peer out into a nearly colorless, symmetrical passageway. Decorated in a palette restricted to brown shades, both sides of the hallway host equally nondescript artwork featuring Latin legal lexicons and graphic allusions to justice being blind. “I hope our lawyer is more invigorating than this hall,” I quip, forcing a tepid smile.

Near the end of the hallway, a light casts a shadow on my boots. Steve nods and follows me into a seemingly barren office. While we struggle out of our winter coats, a slight and wiry man with a hooked nose appears, his bony hand outstretched towards both of us. Whether due to my grief, the lateness of the hour on a frigid winter evening, or simply our lawyer’s way of doing business, introductions are made and disposed of expeditiously.

After Steve and I are seated, the man with a face like one of the Gringott bankers in Harry Potter listens. At the same time, I begin retracing an abbreviated version of the events leading up to our visit, beginning with my mother’s stroke, winding through the discovery of the covert will she penned after my visit in August, before culminating with her death.

“As well, my mother’s bank and investment representatives froze all accounts after her death.” The gnome-faced lawyer nods without comment.

I fail to mention that the bank manager has turned a blind eye to any checks I write for bills.

Bending over a fresh piece of yellow legal paper, he records the events described with an expensive Montblanc fountain pen, its tip scratching across the once virgin page. “Do you have a copy of your mother’s will?” he inquires without looking up.

“Two wills, actually.” The fervent note-taking ceases for a moment, and the lawyer shoots me a penetrating look through his round spectacles. Worried that the admission suggests nefarious behavior on my part, I continue without allowing our counsel to interject. “I have a copy of the will she had drawn up in the early 1980s by an attorney after my father died. All of the beneficiaries mentioned in this will are dead. But I also have a handwritten will that my mother wrote herself five months ago,” I state, cautiously choosing my words and handing both wills across the desk. For a few minutes, no one speaks.

With effort, I suppress the urge to chew another fingernail.

“Well, the handwritten will is the most current demonstration of your mother’s wishes, thereby nullifying the one drafted thirty years ago.” The breath I have been holding expires like a punctured balloon. “Of course, you are Anna, and you are Steve,” he affirms, glancing first at me and then to Steve. We both nod. “A holographic or handwritten will does not present a problem in and of itself. Many states, including South Dakota, accept handwritten directives as part of probate proceedings.” I breathe out again with what sounds more like a moan as the familiar pinpricks of tears gather in the corners of my eyes. I will never know my mother’s motivations behind her writing another will, nor will I ever learn her reasons for keeping it a secret from me. “But, there is a problem with your mother’s will in that there is only one witness signature,” the Gringott banker’s doppelganger continues.

The room falls into silence once more. I turn to Steve and mouth the words, “Now what?” drumming the stubs of my fingernails on the armrest. The proximity of my rising anger overtakes the threat of an embarrassing wave of tears. Has my mother made a legal mess because of her stubbornness?

“Interestingly enough, only two states allow use of a holographic will with only one signature in matters of probate. Once again, South Dakota is one of those states. However, you will have to sign a legally binding affidavit attesting to the fact that this is your mother’s handwriting,” he announces.

Shooting me another probing glance before continuing to scribble notes, he asks, “Can you attest to this writing being in your mother’s hand?”

“Yes, I can. Without question, the most current will was written by my mother,” I answer without hesitation. While over the years, the words my mother wrote shrunk, the letters growing closer together, the directive printed in block letters on a piece of gray paper was undoubtedly written by my mother, signed by her, and witnessed by her closest friend in Sioux Falls, Margaret.

“With this holographic will and your signature on an affidavit attesting to the validity of the writing, I can request the court to open probate proceedings on behalf of your mother’s estate. Customarily, such a request is made, and a judge assigned to the case appoints the named parties as executors, you and Steve, within two weeks. However, given that Christmas is two days away and several district court judges are on vacation, I anticipate this result will take longer. In the interim, you may not access your mother’s bank and investment accounts, nor will you be able to sell or change any lease agreements with regards to the property in England and Canada.” Upon completing his recitation of the ins and outs of prairie probate proceedings, the man who will be the first of five lawyers to settle my mother’s estate lays down his pen. Reaching for a tissue, lawyer “number one” removes his circular glasses and wipes a fleck of dust from the lens before an afterthought occurs to him.

“Do you have legal counsel in Canada and England?” I shake my head, picking at the corner of my index finger’s half bitten nail sensing my responsibilities tighten into a legal pretzel. “Probate proceedings differ from country to country, even state to state, so I strongly advise you to retain legal counsel in both England and Canada as it is likely that separate probate proceedings will be required.

Once you are named executors in this country, your standing will be legally established and may be useful as you proceed in other countries.”

One day after my mother’s funeral and two days before Christmas and my executor’s year has begun.

Last will and testament

In my effort to categorize my mother’s world, I discover that my mother still has her instinct to hide envelopes of money around the apartment. Burying bills between the folds of her bras and underwear, underneath my grandmother’s pearls in her jewelry case, on the lower shelf of her closet in an old Tiffany’s box, in every pocket of her purses and wallets, she maintained her obsession to save every dollar for an emergency. At first, I count the found envelopes’ contents, marking the totals on the adhesive flaps, and occasionally cram a twenty or two into my own wallet to pay for hospital parking or gas, but rarely to pay for food. A week since my mother’s stroke, I am still not eating.

Turning a blind eye to the paper maze on the bed and envelopes of money, another web of questions that cannot be answered arises. At lunch earlier today, my mother’s friend, Margaret, asked me if I had found my mother’s handwritten will recalling that she had witnessed my mother’s signature. To shield my shock and growing unease, I lied, saying that though I had not found this will, my mother had told me that she had written it.

I turn away from the closet and survey the room. Why did my mother handwrite a second will? What does it say, and in a silhouette of Ukrainian paranoia, I wonder if she has sliced me out of her will like an amputation? Where did she bury it? Why did she hide it, to begin with, and fail to tell me that it existed in the first place? The will my mother had prepared by an attorney thirty years ago after my father died was the only will I knew existed.

To say that my mother is private is an understatement, but there is an uncomfortable undercurrent to her behavior. A lack of trust between us budded before my father died and bloomed with the glory of spring after his death when my answer to a question she asked to set our course for the next twenty years.

Do you want to return to England to live? Even in the tenderness of grief, I realized the question had only one correct answer to assuage my mother’s brittle state. Yes. But, in a flood of tears, I answered incorrectly. My mother created a mythology of her England in time, subsisting on a diet of remorse, bitterness, and longing until she became a reluctant American.

Only when I read the condolence letters my mother received after my father died did I realize that I might have put myself in the invisible prison as well. Living straddled between two countries and cultures, with no steady footing in either one, I considered that I really did deserve the subtle punishment my mother unwittingly inflicted upon me when I said I did not want to return to England to live. In the end, however, the decision she made to stay in South Dakota, a decision she made in a spinning world of crisis, built an impenetrable wall between us long into my adulthood.

Frantic to replace all that I believed I stole from my mother, I read the same books as she did, all about England, all about the Second World War, trying to understand her England. As before, when I was a child, I listened to the intonations of her accent, trying to mimic each syllable. Each morning, I scoured British newspapers and websites, searching for a common thread to discuss with my mother with authority. Television programs written with a British lens of self-deprecation or shrewd and dry humor became my cultural lifeline, severing connection to the culture and country in which I lived.

Over time, I metamorphosed into a life that did not belong to me.

A show pony that just wanted to be pastured, I obediently produced hollow success, too. Ribbons and trophies when I was in high school, excellent grades, for the most part, scholarships and awards, my reputation in my mother’s eyes improved when I succeeded, but plummeted when I stumbled. Knowing that errors in practice or judgment would compromise a scholarship or, more likely, her respect, I denigrated myself for every mistake I made, blaming myself for every failure, real or perceived. The undercurrent of her sacrifice subsumed me; though my mother relinquished her country for me, to be anything less than worthy of the decision, she forced herself to make would be tantamount to betrayal.

Writing cases. I should have thought to look for the other will in her two writing cases. The newer ones, a dark wood box with her initials engraved on a piece of metal, is the one she uses most often, but where is the scarlet red, leather box my mother received for her twenty-first birthday? Crouching on my knees, my hands tap the dark space of her desk touching emptiness until…leaning deeper into the cavity my index finger rubs against a hardened object. Inching the unknown object closer to me, the abandoned, forgotten writing case emerges.

With my mother’s writing box under my arm and a wine glass in my left hand, I clear enough space on the bed to sit and lay the case beside me. Once always firmly clasped to prevent curious eyes, the lock releases with a press of a button. Contents spill over the sides onto the floor. Clippings detail the demise of the local coop in Bury St. Edmunds, and the latest innovation in heart treatment at Papworth Hospital, the fateful location where my parents met working on the medical ward.

Turquoise colored airmail letters in my grandmother’s handwriting leak with regret she felt for being unsuccessful in her attempts to discourage my mother’s marriage. Dozens upon dozens of obituaries recap my sixth-grade teacher’s life, my riding instructor’s father, long past doctors, and nurses that comprised my father’s daily life, librarians who my mother worked with over seventeen years, and one of my mother’s first boyfriends. To feed the inclination, to sum up, decades of life, but abbreviated entries in any local paper neglect to verify a history of spent dreams or devastating loss or joyful moments peeking through the too familiar clouds of disappointment.

The fact that my mother kept each obituary, refusing to throw away memory or history failed to surprise me. All these years, ever since I was a small child, my mother kept track of all those who entered her circle, even those whose stay was brief. I did not inherit her commitment to keeping track of those crossing into my life over the years. I severe connections with employers, lovers, and friends alike, placing the memory in a chest that remains unopened like her writing box once did.

Buried between the pages, I find a letter written in my own hand at the age of ten, imploring my mother to return from England. Upon my great aunt Stella’s death, my mother returned home, leaving me at the age of ten to care for my father.

In a child’s handwriting, the letters cascade into a steeper slant with each desperate line. In places, the paper puckers. Our dog was dying before my eyes. Why couldn’t my father see the dog was dying, I wrote? How long did the letter take to arrive in my mother’s hands? Was the dog still alive when she read my pleas? Memory fails me on that score, but I remember hiding in my bedroom closet. Wedged between a dented wagon and Barbie’s pumpkin orange mobile camper, writing. I hid from my father for fear that he would see my letter as a betrayal. Even at the tender age of ten, I feared the consequences of speaking uncomfortable truths, burying my voice in the silence.

After two hours reading faded newspaper clippings, opening each envelope including the one I penned, scanning the lines of each letter, I acquiesced to the knowledge that the writing case did not hide the secret will.

Something else portended my mother’s fate, however.

When I go to close the lid, a passport-sized, black and white photo of my mother, wedged between the folds of a leather pocket, catches my eye. Sliding it out of the compartment, I stare at the image of my mother clad in a turtleneck sweater, her everyday hairpiece perfectly coiffed. A thought as faint as her ambiguous expression in the image crosses my mind.

I have found the photo to use for her obituary, the obituary I know I will have to write. Tucking the unfamiliar photograph in my wallet, the last of my faith in my mother’s recovery slip away.

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.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

Treading another’s path of loss

Three days before my mother’s memorial in Bury St. Edmunds, my husband and I enter my mother’s, now my own bungalow with the estate agent. I walk across the house’s slanted floorboards, my fingers tracing the wall cracks brought on by damp, and purse my lips in disappointment. The house that my mother once told me was her last tie with England was a dump. When a gleam of light in the middle of the living room’s wall catches my eye, I discover that I can put my finger in a small hole through the mortar and have a keyhole view of the front garden.

Though my mother had spent thousands of pounds a few years ago to refurbish the kitchen and the bathroom, the well-executed improvements had the appearance of roses blooming in a patch of thistles. Marginally better outfitted and constructed than one of the college houses I preferred to forget, this house was legally mine. With the conclusion of probate maze, my husband and I were now absentee landowners of a dilapidated house built between the First and Second World Wars when building materials were in short supply.

The house my parents bought for $4,000 pounds from old Mrs. Ridley, a friend of my grandmother’s whose failing memory lead to her death when she forgot to turn the gas off the stove and accidentally asphyxiated herself, the house that once had been the answer to my mother’s dream of reclamation of her English life was the cornerstone of my modest inheritance.

The scales abruptly fall from my eyes; the prospect of ever living in this house has never been dimmer. The diagonal crack in the wall may indicate damp seeping through the plaster but may, in fact, be more damaging; the house is likely sinking into the earth recently saturated by weeks of rain.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

“I’m afraid this house should be torn down,” Steve whispered as I opened the back door to the rickety conservatory my parents had built in the 1970s. Upon invitation, I played with the tenant’s children in this narrow tube, scuttling in and out of the open doors. Painfully overgrown and neglected foliage blocks any view of the cantilevered fence I once climbed over from my great Aunt Stella’s garden. I can neither see the present nor the past in this garden, in this house and now the prospect of its future dissolves.

“With the departure of the current tenants, new ones will have to be found unless you want to sell,” my mother’s estate agent muses. “Trees will have to be seen to and clipped back, too. The garden is truly in a wretched state,” the woman, with a verbal pace of any Londoner, frowns.

Tracing a pattern with my shoe in the dirt, I pick dead leaves off a bush. Thinking? Dreaming? Panicking? Finally, turning my attention from the bush in need of much more help than my distracted pruning, I respond.“I think it’s best, Pat, if we find another tenant. Though my mother made some improvements to the bungalow over the years, I fear that the house has some structural issues that should be addressed before we hope to sell it. I agree that the trees in both the front and back gardens are sorely overgrown. Please go ahead and contact a trimmer as soon as possible so it can be done before another tenant moves in,” I answer, noting that my statement is my first instruction uttered as a property owner and will likely be far from the last one.

I turn away, not quite ready to tread my mother’s path of loss.

Each morning, a cacophony of crisis emails flood my inbox. Cracks in the house’s interior walls widen. Plaster disintegrates into dust. Rainwater and birds destroy the roofing—roots from a tree near the front door rupture the concrete walkway. Bit by bit, stone by stone, tree by tree, the property that was once my mother’s salvation has become my inherited nightmare. Though I approve bids for repairs long overdue and request detailed accounts of work completed, paying invoices from contractors suggested by the estate agent, the house, and its future, like my mother ignoring her chronic, life-threatening symptoms, is terminal.

The proverbial shoe I waited for dropped like a bomb six months into my overseas ownership: the degrading of the mortar in the brickwork jointing was due to a chemical reaction, probably a sulfate attack requiring mortar/brick testing to be taken from the affected walls for laboratory testing. A sulfate attack, the source of the house’s crumbling in the mortar joint, had been evidenced when I poked my finger through the brickwork after my mother’s memorial. The rapid expansion of the evident plaster cracks diagonally crossing the house’s interior walls suggested a weakening of its structure.

With this internal assault of chemistry and its resultant damage, all my suspicions pointed in one direction; my mother’s house, the first house I have ever owned, was crumbling.

Other Side of Sadness Found in Objects

After the funeral and the memorial, after delivering twenty boxes of clothes and kitchen wares to the local domestic violence shelter, and before the task of stripping the walls of my mother’s apartment of her coveted ‘art gallery’ of English scenes of memory, one morning I fled the four walls that had cosseted me in high school to seek sanctuary from my grief.

I fled to a local book store.

Wandering the aisles of self-help tomes, the titles of which made me cringe, I read the spines of assorted books on how to manage grief. Workbooks outlined Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, posing the question, how do you know if you are progressing? Texts outlining how belief in God was the only path to recovering from acute sadness. One or two admonishing the reader to dig down and focus on survival alone.

Needless to say, my place of sanctuary transposed into four walls of dread….until I located one book tucked in the corner of the ‘grief shelf,’ a manuscript that flew in the face of the conventional view of grieving, encapsulated in the mantra of five stages, suggesting that the only option any of us have when a loved one dies is to accept and endure. In other words, get over it and mind you do so quickly.

The book that became my solace and a reminder of not only my inner strength to not only accept and endure but learn how to thrive again is The Other Side of Sadness: What New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.

Author George A. Bonanno guides the reader through topics both real and uncomfortable for some to acknowledge, each one pointing to the central tenet of resiliency.

After my mother died and after the initial few months of death’s aftermath, yes, feelings of loss overtook me sometimes, but also a recognition that my life was now my own and not lived in the shadow of her history or my father’s life.

While eight months later, grief resurfaced, I understood that the decisions I made regarding my mother’s estate were mine to make. No eyebrow would raise in doubt. No sigh would undermine my confidence in knowing that it was the correct decision to leave my job and focus on my writing. I did not have to explain my shift in priorities or defend choices to anyone, even myself.

After clearing my mother’s apartment, my husband and I drove back a sixteen-foot truck half full of my mother’s things. At the time, even recognizing that I had to be ruthless in my choices and that most of the life she built would be given away to friends or charity shops, parting with her artwork, commemorative Royal wedding mugs, English cottage sculptures, and the jewelry that she loved was a decision that I was not ready to make.

Over time, however, the presence of my oldest friend, Janet termed ‘motherabilia’ suffocated my ability to move up a generation.

Last Saturday, I said goodbye to the last cherished, ‘motherabilia’ at a local flea market.

Among the items that brought joy to others were: 44 pairs of earrings; 13 watches; 82 silver and gold necklace chains with about 24 different charms; 59 rings; 12 commemorative Royal Family wedding mugs; and 11 porcelain boxes.

Some readers may find the term ‘motherabilia’ and the act of selling off a parent’s effects churlish. In my case, I discovered that keeping the most meaningful items instead of cramming others into boxes that never see the light of day imbues good memories of my mother. I kept and still enjoy many of her books. Others were donated to a local library for the quarterly book sale. This act would please my mother, I know. All of my mother’s bookmarks receive regular attention and use, too.

We build our lives around objects through the decades, but sometimes ridding ourselves of symbols of another’s life is the only way to the other side of sadness for good.