Two years after my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my brother and I moved her from her house in River Vale, New Jersey, to a nearby dementia unit called Memory Lane. I wish I could say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but since then she has continued to decline, and we’ve transferred her to a nursing home.
A few months after my mother was settled into Memory Lane, my brother and I put my mother’s house up for sale. My brother asked me to come by and help him sort what we would save from what we would sell, donate, or toss. I had heard other people describe this process– cleaning out their parents’ houses — and dreaded the day it would be my turn. My parents had lived in their house for 51 years. My mother had been an inveterate collector — Limoges teacups, framed etchings, Villeroy and Boch tableware, unusual pillows, contemporary pottery, and family photos were just some of her passions. She loved to shop and managed an extensive personal inventory of purses, shoes, sweaters, scarves, and jewelry. Every room – kitchen, dining room, living room, master and two smaller bedrooms — was completely furnished. Upstairs, my father’s office looked the same as it had the day he’d suffered a stroke, 13 years earlier. My bedroom was papered in the same blue-and-white check as the day I left for college in 1974; my high school yearbook and favorite board games were still in my closet. The house was our very own Frick, a mausoleum of possessions, family history, and memories.
On the appointed day I arrived, full of trepidation. As we’d agreed, my brother had started a few hours before my arrival and the rooms were in chaos: winter coats piled on the living room floor, my mother’s jewelry, both costume and fine, scattered all over her bed, shoes and purses lining the walls of her room and spilling into the hallway. I wanted to run away. I could not bear the disorder, the disruption of so many years of living. My mother had grown up poor during the Depression and developed a compulsive attachment to buying, hoarding, and refusing to throw things away. My brother counted 50 handbags in her closet, many with the original tags still attached.
Waves of anxiety washed over me. I told my brother I couldn’t help, that he could keep or discard whatever he wanted. He was not surprised, since I had warned him this might happen. “Just look through the jewelry,” he said, “and take what you want.” On an earlier visit he had found and given me a diamond anniversary band that had either belonged to my mother or grandmother – neither of us recognized it — and I decided I didn’t want anything else. I left without taking a single item, and eventually all the contents were disbursed or disposed of.
Lately I’ve been thinking about an owl I’d embroidered when I was a teenager, framed and hung in the kitchen of that house as a gift for my mother. Back then I had been obsessed with crewelwork, and owls were all the rage. The entire body of the bird had been done in closely worked brown and white satin stitches to resemble feathers, and I’d been proud of the effect I’d created. It had taken hours and hours to complete, had rested on the wall for 35 years, and then disappeared. I’m not saying I wish I had kept it— I wish my mother had kept it. But by the time she went into Memory Lane, she could no longer keep track of her things and was no longer interested in clothing, objects, or possessions.
Lately I’ve noticed that, after spending much of my life trying to run away from my mother, I’ve become more and more like her. My older son is 25, and his bedroom is furnished with the same navy-and-white striped paper, stuffed animals, and books as the day he left for college. My younger son is nearly 20, and his room has not changed, either. The wall above my living room couch is cluttered with framed etchings and prints, just like the living room wall in my mother’s house. I’m trying to clean house, donating my books to the library’s book sale, chatchkes to the hospice thrift shop, clothing to Goodwill, yet for every book I donate, I buy one to replace it; for every teacup or plate I give away, I purchase a plant or a photo frame. Clothes I still buy – after all, I need to be dressed.
Cleaning house is not as easy as it sounds. Though my possessions weigh me down, they also anchor me – burden and ballast — connecting me to a past I am not ready to let go of.
Nancy Gerber recently published an illustrated booklet, “My Mother’s Keeper,” chronicling her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s (The Feral Press, 2010). She is currently in enrolled in a psychoanalytic training program at the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis, in Livingston, New Jersey.