By Joan Wickersham
Last week, I finally used the last of my mother's eye-makeup remover. I found it in her medicine cabinet as I cleared it out - when? In 2005, when she moved from her condo to assisted living? A year later, when she had to move into a nursing home? Or after her death in 2008?
Whatever its age, this fancy little bottle hung around long past its expiration date. There never was much call for it - my mother wasn't a big makeup-wearer, and neither am I - and it was carefully rationed. She would have eked it out because it was expensive, a small luxury bought on impulse, infrequently opened since each use meant it was closer to being used up. And I've hoarded it because I miss her.
Grief attaches itself to dumb little objects. A friend whose husband died six months ago hasn't moved his shoes from where he dropped them the last time he walked into the house. Another friend freaked out when someone accidentally overwatered her dead mother's begonia.
It's not that we're making a sentimental fetish of every object that belonged to the person we lost. We've handled the big stuff - donated the clothes, decided what to do with the car. We've gotten rid of many small items, too, throwing out curlers and underwear and anything else so personal that no one else should see it.
But after the big stuff and the intensely private stuff is gone, there is still ... the stuff that is left. It's just what happens to remain after all the obvious decisions have been made. But because it's left, it takes on a poignant significance.
My mother grew up poor. Her parents were Russian émigrés living in Brooklyn. There was a story, maybe apocryphal, that at one point her mother had to pawn her wedding ring to buy milk. Possessions, to my mother, meant security.
But that security was insecure; there was always the sense one could lose everything. Surveying the gifts piled high under our Christmas tree, my mother would say, "Quick, get the camera, so that when I'm a bag lady I can prove I used to be rich!" It was supposed to be funny, but I rolled my eyes. Such melodrama, I thought.
Ultimately, catastrophic illness did strip her of her possessions. Attacks of paralysis forced her to move to assisted living, rehab, and finally a nursing home. Some of the things she didn't have room for are still in my basement: shopping bags full of videotapes, half-finished knitting projects. When I look at her stuff now, I think not just of losing her, but of the series of losses - of mobility, autonomy - she experienced. I think, too, of what she held on to: her sanity, frankness, and curiosity.
Among the things of hers I've kept is a small, red change purse. My mother hoarded change, but she wouldn't have wanted me sobbing over her quarters. She was practical; if she were here, she'd tell me to drop them into parking meters.
She'd be happy to know I've been wiping my eyes with the fancy makeup remover, wrapping Christmas presents with her ribbons and tape, writing with her pens on her note cards. These few odds and ends speak to me about who she was, where she came from, what she had, and what she lost. As I use them, I feel close to her; as I use them up, she feels more gone.