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Caren Osten Gerszberg Headshot

In Her Closet

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Last week, I prepared to enter my mother's walk-in closet. Over the past several months, I've been going to her house -- my childhood home -- a couple of times a week, sifting through piles of papers, plastic containers and desk drawers. Discarding trivial things, such as my school bus form from seventh grade and dried out pens, is a snap. Figuring out what to keep is not.

When I was growing up, my mom kept her closet locked and alarmed -- the kind that would alert the police if someone tripped it. She showed me regularly where she kept the key and how to disarm the alarm (there was a small hidden switch in a different closet), meant to protect her precious jewelry inside. There were shelves too, with old Lord & Taylor boxes overflowing with piles of papers -- newspaper and magazine articles, old theater Playbills, etc. -- and lucite boxes holding an abundance of photo envelopes stacked from front to back. On the highest shelf, there was a row of large, round hat boxes, housing the wide-brimmed beauties that my mom sported only at special events, like springtime weddings (mine) and bar mitzvahs (my brother's).

Born in France, my mother was the epitome of chic. A business executive by day, she dressed for work in a tailored skirt or slacks, with long strands of pearls strewn over a blouse or sweater. She favored dresses for evenings out, particularly those with a plunging neckline to highlight her décolleté. She rarely emerged from the house without her preferred fashion accessory, a silk scarf tied around her neck or the strap of her handbag.

Her closet still contains all of these things -- not to mention dozens of Charles Jourdan shoes -- and being inside those four walls stirs up childhood memories of my lying on her bed, watching her primp and prepare for a Saturday night on the town with my dad. She'd come out of her closet, looking like a movie star and make her way to her vanity table to put on her maquillage. There was always red lipstick. And perfume.

Life was in rapid motion for her then -- busy with kids, husband, work, a home, a dog and aging parents. Those hectic and happy days are long gone, and now in her late 70s, my mom suffers from acute anxiety and depression. My father's death in 2006 voided her of vitality, leaving her lost and sad, and I can't get her back. My mother has tried therapy and medication, but a different sort of French accessory -- wine -- became her choice for self-soothing.

Eventually, it became vodka.

When my father was sick in the hospital, my mother used to lie beside him in his hospital bed. He would talk to me and occasionally rest his eyes; hers were closed too because she was passed out and drunk. During that time, I went to their house and into her closet to move her jewelry out and into a bank safe. When my arm touched the wall, I heard a clank. I reached over to the side of the safe, a beige metal box bolted to the floor, and felt a round piece of glass. It was an empty bottle. I reached back again, further this time, and pulled out a half dozen more. She hid the wine bottles in the safety of her closet, where I imagine she escaped to take a swig or ten, and left the empties behind.

It's been seven years since I found those bottles. My mom now lives in an assisted living facility just ten minutes away from her house. She no longer has access to alcohol and instead takes a daily cocktail of meds, yet she still suffers from anxiety and depression.

In my effort to clean out her house and ready it for the real estate market, I knew I'd have to spend time in that closet. Fearful of how I might feel in there, even with the comforting presence of my shaggy goldendoodle, I decided to bring a glass of wine along with me. I knew it was bad to drive there with open wine in my car, but I did it anyway, saving those few ounces of liquid courage for the hours I'd need to sift through her things while enduring the memories they would trigger. I realized the irony -- here I was, bringing wine into the tiny room where I found my mother's empty bottles, once replete with the substance in which I was now seeking solace. But I did it anyway.

Cleaning out my mother's house has been both painful and eye-opening. Her photos, keepsakes and written words remind me of the amazing woman she once was, and highlight the glaring contrast between her then and now. It won't be much longer until her closet is clean, her clothes donated, her photos digitized. But the next time I go, I'll leave the wine behind. I learned last time that no amount of alcohol can strip away the memories, not hers or mine.