“If you want to do this by yourself just say so and we will gladly leave! I don’t have the wealth of time that you do to sort though each and every piece of paper Mom has hoarded all of these years and the landlord wants this property ready to show by the weekend.”
Tim had been pressing his luck with Traci since before the funeral and she was close to taking him up on his offer to leave her to do it all. Knowing the time constraints, she swallowed her anger and replied, “If you could put her clothes in the boxes and pack up the dishes for the Goodwill truck, I can finish in here and I’ll do the bathroom next.”
“All that you need to do,” Tim replied through clenched teeth, ”is turn the damned dresser drawers upside down, into the trash bags and you’d be finished. There are no hidden treasures, no life insurance policies, nothing of any importance or worth the time you’re spending on cleaning out the damned place!” He stormed from the room before his sister could respond. His wife shrugged her shoulders as if to say she agreed and followed close behind.
Their mother had died with no burial insurance, no savings and the only final wishes she had made known were that she wanted to be cremated and not buried. Because she was indigent, the county would have paid to have her remains cremated and put in a cardboard box. Pride kept her brother from allowing this and he had contacted the funeral home and made arrangements for a large service including a viewing of the body, an urn, scheduling for the burial of the urn at a later date and a service, and a large headstone. The people in attendance didn’t know their mother but they knew Tim and the room was filled to over flowing with flowers, plants, memorial statues, and the music he felt appropriate played softy in the background. He stood stoically at the entrance of the room and received the guests, shaking hands and accepting hugs and offers of condolence. Their mother’s body was displayed at the front of the room in an impressive white and gold coffin and pictures of her that had been retouched by a professional photographer were placed on an intricately carved mahogany table near the coffin. Accenting the photographs, in gilded frames, were more flower arrangements and candles that flickered and were reflected in the glass prisms of a huge lamp that projected just the right amount of light to showcase the photos.
The service was conducted by the minister of the church Tim attended infrequently but supported on regular basis. Their mother’s body did not resemble her at any point in her life. She was dressed in clothing and jewelry chosen and purchased by Tim’s wife and apparently she had also directed the styling of her hair and the application of her make-up. All in all Tim was pleased and Traci felt as if she had attended the funeral of a complete stranger.
She startled as her sister-in-law stuck her head in the bedroom to let her know they were leaving. “Really Traci, you need to just get this done and go home. We already reek of tobacco smoke and cat urine from being here and you are sitting on the carpet! You’ll have to burn your clothing!”
Traci relaxed a little after they were gone and decided to make her self a pot of coffee. She retrieved the small aluminum canister from the refrigerator and could hear her mother sharing the tip that coffee stayed fresh longer when kept refrigerated. She looked for bottled water and finding none decided if she must, she would settle for tap although she’d never understand how her mother could have used it. It hadn’t dawned on either of the kids that their mother had done without what they had grown to consider basic necessities of living. Her small monthly check had barely covered the rent, utilities and medicine, let alone food for herself and her two cats. Traci was admittedly miffed and her brother furious when they found a large box that contained all of the expensive and lavish gifts they had given her over the years. There were many designer outfits with matching accessories, broaches and earrings from the finest jeweler in the state, imported perfumes and lotions, just everything she could have wanted. Why a woman in her mid-sixties trolled around in blue-jeans and t-shirts they could only attribute to her obvious dementia. She had refused dining invitations at the country club or any of the finer restaurants and would ask if they could pick up the ingredients for dinner which she could prepare for them at her apartment. Of course they refused. No one was going to sit in that stuffy apartment that smelled of cigarettes and cat. She could have had fine furniture as well if only she had followed their wishes and given up smoking and the destructive animals. She wondered if her mother even realized how difficult she had made their lives with her odd ways and stubborn refusals to conform to their simple requests.
She hadn’t always been that way. It was she who introduced them each to the classics and taught them manners that, had they been invited, they cold have dined with royalty in full confidence. She was the one who made sure they went to college, made sure they were involved in their community and instilled the need for a religious connection. Well, she had called it a personal relationship with Jesus, of all things, but they knew well enough it meant being visible at a prominent church. Many business contacts had begun there for both Traci and her brother. Their mother had been right about that.
Traci poured herself a mug of coffee and took it back into the bedroom, having cleaned out the bathroom while it was brewing. Nothing much in there and it all fit into a plastic garbage bag. She gave up looking for a coaster and put the hot cup down on the dresser where it seemed to have sat a hundred times before from the telling ring and warped laminate. She pulled at the covers of the bed and was trying to get them into a large trash bag when she saw the edge of something sticking out slightly from under the bed. She bent down and tried to move it but found it to be stuck so she reluctantly resumed her position on the floor and pulled on it. It was a box, a quite heavy box and it was overfilled so that the top had wedged itself under the drooping box springs of the bed. Once removed from its confines, it fairly opened itself from the release of pressure. Traci pulled back the other flaps and began to empty the contents onto the floor by hand. Lifting and dumping it was beyond her strength. She was confused with the contents. Ragged old stuffed animals, cars with wheels missing, mountains of tablet paper with the alphabet crudely written upon the yellowed sheets … report cards, belonging to her and to her brother, childish scribbling with crayon on pages torn from coloring books.
The tears never had a chance to well up in her eyes they just flowed like a waterfall and sobs shook her body as she realized that this box was filled with every thing that had any thing to do with their childhoods. She found a clay elephant with a trunk so short it more readily resembled a rhinoceros with a deformed tusk. There were homemade cards, a badly decomposed bouquet of violet and dandelions, a Christmas decoration made from a picture of Tim glued to a round wooden ring that had been painted gold. Each treasured find said how proud her mother had been of them, how she cherished their accomplishments and how, in her opinion, nothing they did was without meaning and value.
She felt, rather than heard someone behind her and hurriedly turned to find her brother staring down at the pile on the floor. “What, why?” she was puzzled at his presence.
“My cell, I left my cell – do you see that?” He retrieved one of the cars from the pile holding it in his large hand. “This was my very first racing car! I played with it every day and when it broke Mom fashioned an axle from some piece of junk from that drawer of hers … you remember that drawer that had everything in the world in it?”
‘YES, yes and no matter where we lived there was always a drawer just like it and whenever we broke something or needed some part she would reach into that mess and pull out just exactly what was needed and somehow make it fit or make it run, whatever … Traci’s voice faltered.
“Whatever we needed,” Tim finished. "She was like that with us too. I would call her and she knew before I did that something was wrong, something was missing and she always tried to leave me with a plan, with options I could try." He was sitting on the floor, oblivious to his surroundings, going through the things that their mother had kept. This was her treasure, her reminders of what her life had been about, of what mattered most.
“Did you make that?”, asked Traci holding back a giggle.
“What, this elephant? Well, yes, I guess I did … they both dissolved into a pile of laughter and tears. “It’s a bit hideous, isn’t it?” he asked choking on his tears and the laughter that his sister hadn’t heard in too long a while.
“A BIT? Do you think? It is horrendous Tim, absolutely macabre"
“Oh it isn’t that bad, well look at this – this - what is this anyway, a painting? Did you paint it with your toes? Her brother was back, full tilt to the teasing jokester of their youth, ribbing her about every find they came across that held her signature makers mark.
An unusually warm October day found two people, a man and a woman dressed in blue-jeans and t-shirts walking slowly through the park. It was a park where an older woman used to come frequently to feed the ducks and sit by the pond. They walked all the way around the pond, bent in mischievous laughter at times and seemed to be sprinkling sand from a cardboard box as they walked.