A couple of weeks before I arrived in Knoxville for my summer visit, my father tried to ask me a question over the telephone. “When you’re here, do you think you’ll have time to…” He paused. I finished the sentence. “Go through mother’s things?” Yes. That was it. Go through my mother’s things my mother dead for three months now go through her books, her clothes, her…things.
Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.
Of course I would. There was no one else to do it. I’m an only child, there are no other close relatives around and my father had already removed what he wanted to keep from the bedroom in which she died as well as from her corner of the great room, a spot where she could sit, surrounded by her books, listening to her music, watching the seasons change, watching the earth pass from life to death and back to life again.
So one afternoon in July, my father took my two older kids with him to a museum, and I put the baby in his bassinette, and I went to work. I worked and he lay quietly in the same room where his grandmother had left the world, but five days after he had entered it.
Here is what was there:
Two closets full of clothes, so well cared for, blazers, skirts, shirts and slacks, still hanging, still “crisp” the ideal she upheld for clothes, the ideal that I, with my sweaters, my jeans and my batik print dresses failed to meet, ever. Boxes full of lovely shoes. Double A width. I’m a D.
(“She has square feet,” my mother once reported a salesman at Gimbel’s had told her on a visit to New York City when I was three.)
Also in the closet: the fruits of her mail-order obsession multiple sets of kitchen utensils, decorative items and books. She never just ordered one thing. She ordered at least three one for herself, one for me, and one for anyone she might run across who might need a gravy separator or a reprint copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Mythology.
In the bureau: more clothes, scarves, jewelry, some linens embroidered by her aunt and her mother.
So far, there wasn’t much that I wanted to keep, either for myself or for my kids. The linens with their fine, perfect lines of colored thread evidence of that careful early 20th century French-Canadian convent training. The jewelry, maybe if I couldn’t use it, my daughter would like it. And some of it I did like and might indeed, sometime wear the bangles she loved, jaunty jingly things inlaid with turquoise and other colorful stones, the only evidence I could find, when I looked at mother from my teen years on, that she, who seemed so bitter and angry all the time, was indeed once that happy young woman in the black-and-white photographs, smiling in the Arizona sun, in full 50s regalia, taking time to pose for a teasing friend, on her way to play rehearsal, perhaps.
Now the books. Well, there was no way I could haul books on this trip, but I could pack boxes for a later time. And I did pack many of them good dictionaries of history and literature, the Frank Sheed volumes, the Newman.
But most of them would stay, because most of them had titles that screamed “heresy,” “betrayal,” and “destruction” and were all about the cause of my mother’s heart the supposed destruction of the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II.
No, they could be left for the leader of the local Latin Mass group to harvest, the leader who arranged her funeral Mass, a Tridentine affair conducted in the funeral home chapel by a priest involved with a schismatic sect a little further south, a priest who might have his regular ritual down pat, but who was obviously at sea in a Requiem Mass, who mispronounced words right and left, who even messed up his English, asking God, “perpetual rest grant unto him (my mother), oh Lord…”
I would take the Latin prayer books, though. My middle son, without comment, has recently started receiving Communion on the tongue, I’ve noticed. He might find them useful someday.
The afternoon waned, the baby stirred, the daytrippers would be back soon, and all that was left were things on the walls and on the shelves. A lovely porcelain Mary and Jesus on the back of a donkey, a piece I remember from my relatives’ home in Maine. Crucifixes. Rosaries, both whole and in pieces from the bedside table. These, purer expressions of faith, giving no cause for argument or division, I would take. I would take them all.
And I will show them to the baby, and he will grow up with them and pray with them, and I will tell him, as best I can, about the grandmother neither of us, it seems, would ever really know.