Most of us spend the bulk of our adult lives getting over our childhoods. Coming to terms with how we were loved is some of the most important work we do, arguably more important than what we do for a living.
When I was little, I was furious that Mother wasn’t the kind of mother I wanted. Also heartbroken. But the fury and heartbreak have had their uses, and I don’t regret them. Besides, Mother may not have been cuddly, but she wasn’t clingy either. She was smart, lively and, lord knows, honest. She never expected me to take care of her or accused me of not spending enough time with her or prodded me to give her grandchildren. (I sometimes think I carried out one of her secret fantasies by refusing to have children of my own, though she’d have been horrified by this thought.) She seemed happy to have as much of my company as I was willing to give her. By the end of her life I understood that she was in a great deal of emotional pain and probably always had been—but that she’d still managed to live on her own terms and have a pretty good time.
In the end she refused to make the decision to leave the house, so life made it for her. She’d gotten as far as admitting she might consider moving to an assisted living facility near my brother Robert in Virginia Beach, and Robert, a prince among men, had gone ahead and visited every facility in his area, interviewing the staff, sampling the food. By the time Mother fell and broke her hip, in June 2004, we already had a deposit on an apartment even though she hadn’t yet agreed to go. She fell in her bedroom while emptying a wastebasket and managed to slide herself over to the phone but couldn’t figure out how to dial it. So she sat there for three hours till I called. I phoned the neighbors, they phoned 911, the ambulance came and whisked Mother out of the house. She never saw it again.
She was a trouper through surgery and five weeks of rehab, although the anesthetic and pain medications increased her dementia, and she was frequently agitated, especially at night. She knew she couldn’t be in the house anymore (indeed, she never learned to negotiate stairs again) and professed to be relieved when we sold it. For the last 13 months of her life, she was determined to appreciate her new place in Virginia, which was as elegant and gracious as a place can possibly be where people are waiting to die. “It’s very nice,” she would say, “but it’s not home.”
It had always seemed to me that a house as well built as ours—large rooms, plaster walls, high ceilings—would be worth significantly more than its smaller, flimsier neighbors. But it actually fetched less, after languishing on the market for months. People seemed daunted by the steam-heat system and by the amount of work needed to spruce the place up. Mother had maintained the plumbing and heating and roof, but it had been years since she’d made any cosmetic improvements, and the ones she did make had a slapdash feel. The floors were a crazy quilt of mismatched carpets and linoleum, the kitchen appliances were on their last legs, and the curtains and window shades were falling to shreds and harbored generations of dead ladybugs.
We finally found a buyer in December 2004, after we’d reduced our asking price several times. The buyer wanted to close by February, so I took on the job of emptying the house, not that there was much to empty. Mother had systematically gotten rid of stuff for years. She’d given us most of her jewelry, the antiques, the silver, the good china, the glass candy dish whose lid we used to replace as quietly as possible after sneaking a gumdrop. The closets were nearly empty. There was nothing at all in the cellar, and hardly anything in the attic except for some boxes of papers belonging to my brothers and me, and my father’s black medical bag.
I knew how exceptional this was. Ted and I had been house-hunting a few years earlier and encountered any number of little old ladies who’d kept everything they’d ever owned and the box it came in. Not Mother. Once she left in that ambulance, there was little trace of her. There wasn’t even enough for a tag sale. Mother had seen no reason to spend money on anything new, not even a new mattress when all the old ones were rock hard and hurt her back.