Monday, July 28, 2014

The Things We Love

She sits, rocking, for hours on end, at the corner of her wraparound porch.

Sometimes when I pass her, always in the same place, staring blankly from behind the bushes (or sleeping with her head tilted back, mouth open), I wonder if time stands still for her, wonder if that's what happens when you get to be ninety and people begin to fall away around you, or whether time speeds up, and you wonder why you're the one standing still.

Sometimes I see a spark of recognition.  Sometimes, not even that.

Her (possibly autistic) adult daughter who still lives at home attempted a yard sale a few weeks ago.  We went over and browsed, making small talk, like good neighbors should, feeling awkward, not wanting to take things, and yet also not wanting her to know how valueless we thought her treasures: the boxes of Christmas figurines, stacks of china, empty bottles that once held Avon perfume.  She tried to sell some chairs she'd found in the attic, marking the dusty broken wood with a sticker announcing "$2 each."  They were her father's.

He was the glue, perhaps, even through his wandering around the back yard, and his long absences while he talked with his old farmer friend across the street.  With him, their lives had purpose.  Make dinner, call him in.  His wife would shrill his name from the back door, again and again, until finally, his response from downhill, in the garden, or hiding in his basement, not a question but a retort: "What!"

Now, the daughter moves like a ghost, opening and closing the recycled bankers boxes stacked on the wraparound porch, avoiding her mother who admonishes her daughter from her post at the corner, both of them not daring to speak it, but anticipating the inevitable.

They will have to move.

They have family a few towns away, but the house is falling into disrepair, more than her well-intentioned local grandson can manage on his own.  The grey clapboard needs a new coat of paint, some of the shutters are missing, the wooden porch is beginning to rot.  They do what they can, sweeping and tidying, but the bushes continue to grow, and in the last big storm, a limb splintered from its trunk, making a U-shaped bend in the wires leading from the poles in the street.  The living room and kitchen boast 1930s vintage wallpaper and 1970s appliances.  There is the particular clutter of some older people, lace doilies and tables full of framed black and white pictures of handsome young men in uniform, sepia-toned women with perfectly curled hair.

We brought them food when the husband died, kept the refrigerator full for a while despite the guilt we felt when they wrote us thank you notes with every Tupperware return.  We couldn't alter the future.

And perhaps that's for the best.  We move on, we grow old, we die.  We'll share that fate: they'd lived in our house once, and there's a culture of house-swapping on our street that gives us an unusual glimpse into the future.

It's the things they loved that give me pause, though; the things in the bankers boxes on the porch that will have to go somewhere else when they leave, the things that may never find another home.  We say that the things don't matter, but they pack the boxes lovingly, nonetheless, pretending that they will open them somewhere else; we all know better.  Perhaps it's easier when you don't pack your own boxes, don't have to bid farewell to the things you loved: when you leave the task of inventory to the people who come when others go, when you don't have to watch other people decide the value of your valuables.

Or perhaps it's easier to pack them after all, to lay your things down tenderly in bubble wrap, sending them gently on their last journey, as you hope someone will send you gently on your own.

photo courtesy of flickr user Jeannie Fletcher
under a Creative Commons license
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  1. This is a beautiful post. I'm not sure what else to say, but I wanted you to know that it touched me, deeply.

  2. This year we were visited Sweden, and the main aim was to visit an old family friend who is 94 while we still could. Most of her old friends have died; my father and aunt are her oldest friends - they met in the late 40s when she was a young married woman and they were her friends' children. Her family is openly anticipating her death as her flat in central Stockholm is worth a fortune.

    When we arrived in Sweden and phoned her, there was no response. This was frightening: were we days too late? Eventually we tracked her down to a hospital where she was recovering from having a pace maker 'installed' (isn't the Swedish health care system grand!). We visited but tried not to exhaust her, then headed to the other end of the courtry to visit other relatives.

    We returned to her the day after she'd been discharged from hospital. She'd dressed up, she'd had the home care people purchase cakes for our visit, and she already had the coffee brewing when we arrived. She spent much of the visit trying to get us to take things she loves to give them a good home as her daughter had threatened to start clearing her flat out. We had to refuse most things but took a few things we could fit and that would survive the journey home.

    Words fail me to describe saying good bye to her. She pretended to not know how to call a taxi. There were many tears. We eventually left on foot to flag a taxi, weighed down by wooden horses, kitchen towels, and the knowledge that this was the last time we would see this beautiful, loving woman.


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