Wednesday, October 18, 2006


What does it mean to have my dead mother’s stuff?

Do I want her stuff?

Should I only have it if it has deep, emotional meaning? Does that mean wanting the flat screen TV is disrespectful?

When my great aunt died, she was the last of three generations who lived in the house where she was born. Relics dated back to the Civil War. Letters. Magazines. Clothes. Linens. Unbelievable furniture. An original Stickley rocker. Hand painted china actually from China that was a wedding present to my great grandmother. Old books with handwritten dates and names going as far back as the 1800’s.

It was completely clear wanting anything from the house was greedy and grabby. We were not to think about wanting to take the wooden bookcase, well over a hundred years old. Or baker’s table not just a decorative, yuppie touch, but bought brand new decades before as a modern appliance.

Books, I said. Just send me a few of the old books. I was afraid of how I would be seen if I asked for anything else.

Over a hundred years of family history was auctioned off or given to a local museum.

I have a few of the books. An old coffee mill. A single silver pitcher from my great-grandmother’s silver set with her initials engraved on it.

Walter once said to someone as he was showing one of his collections, of course, every piece has a story. I have a few now that have stories. They are happy reminders of my great aunts. Of the banter we had about The War. I see the mill in my own kitchen and remember what it was like to sit at the old enamel table, next to the stove, waiting for a biscuit, fresh from the oven.

It was Momma’s, one of my great aunts would sigh in sweet, Virginian drawl when asked about the coffee mill. We used it every morning. Now we have fancy coffee in cans. Imagine that.

There is more to my history with them but when I look at those pieces, I smile. I don’t remember the pain of keeping my life a secret from them. I remember how they would scratch my head and call me Miss Pittypat or tell me the definition of an eternity was a ham and two people.

When my kids ask about the items, I tell stories. They may never have met Ginsie and Ruth but they will know who they were and how I loved them.

Now I have to go through my mother’s things. Her stuff. What did she hold dear? Did she keep anything I gave her? Am I allowed to love the cherry dining room table and want it because it’s beautiful or is that greedy? I can buy my own cherry dining room table. I don’t need hers. I hear the rules again.

There are no rules, I try to remember.

And when I stop focusing on what my mother would or wouldn’t want, I hear the story of the cherry table instead. When she bought it and how surprised I was she had chosen something so traditional. She previously had a laminated goat skinned, ivory table. It was a shocking piece purchased after we had all moved away. It was… very contemporary. We all teased her relentlessly about it. It was so ugly. There was a matching buffet and chairs, as if the table wasn’t enough. While she was very proud of how exotic it was she laughed with us as we mentioned eating dinner on top of a dead animal skin was… kind of gross. When she bought the cherry table, almost Mission style, it was a pleasant surprise.

I fought with my mother at that table. She cried bitterly because I had not shared any details of my upcoming wedding with her. I laughed with her at that table. I teased her about her insistence ketchup be put in a bowl, with a spoon.

They are eating chicken nuggets, Mom. C’mon, cut me some slack here!

I cooked meals for her, all her grandchildren and served them at that table. My children have grabbed the ends and pulled, helping add leaves so everyone could fit around it.

I wonder what stories do my boys have about the table?

I’m not sure what it means to have my dead mother’s stuff. On one hand, it feels really wrong to want any of it. On the other, it’s about stories. History. I do want that in my life. I never want to forget where I came from and how it shaped me. For better and for worse. The table itself is beautiful but what makes it unique are the people who have sat around it. My children, my nieces, family, friends, all with nary a ketchup bottle in sight.

And my mother. Sometimes laughing. Sometimes crying. Always at the head of the table.

I know it is just stuff. It cannot replace my mother. It cannot erase painful memories. But if I listen carefully enough, if I can stop the rules from making so much noise, I believe I’ll have some great stories to tell.


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