In 2004, my parents sold their four bedroom house where they had lived for over 40 years, to move into a retirement community. A whole house full of memories were pared down to a two bedroom apartment. After my father died in 2007 my mother didn't need such a large apartment. In 2008, we moved my mother into a lovely one bedroom; pretty, and pleasant, where I could stay overnight with her on my twice-monthly visits.
In June, we moved my mother into a room in the Assisted Living wing of the retirement community where she currently lives. We initially thought that having hospice aides come in for two hours a day would be enough, but sadly, it wasn't enough. This decision was not an easy one to make. It would mean my mother losing her independent living status. It would also mean letting go of her apartment and moving my mother into a single room with an ample patio. My mother was a pastel artist her whole life, pastel portraits commissioned and as well as numerous paintings of her family, gardens, and still life arrangements, now cherished by everyone in the family.
In her last move she decided to give away her easel and pastels. That part of her life seemed to have ended. It is hard to witness the end of her life as an artist. The way she saw color, the impressionistic approach she saw in everyday life, was remarkable. She still does small sketches for the retirement community bulletin. She asked me to judge which ones I thought were good enough. Actually she had x-ed out some that I thought were wonderful. Artists are passionate people and often there own harshest critics. I remembered seeing a wonderful pastel she did with a large moon behind a tree while she was still living in the two bedroom apartment after my father passed on. When I went back to her studio it was missing so I asked her where it went. She said she threw it out because she didn't think it was good enough. Lord, how I mourned the loss of that mysterious moon pastel.
In this final move we as a family have had to decide what to keep and what to throw out. It is never an easy decision to make. I have stood thinking and weighing each item as if letting anything go is too final. I have more than once gone back into the garbage bag and pulled something out, literally saving a memory from the past. Anyone who has gone through continually paring down a family's memory base will know exactly what families go through when making these final decisions.
In cleaning out my mother's apartment, I came across the following; in a little worn blue velvet album with the clasp broken. I found the following words that my mother had written. "My Darling -- Is there a better reason to be so happy?" And then on the inside was the poem titled "My True-Love Hath My Heart" by Sir Philip Sidney. My true-love hath my heart, and I have his, By just exchange one for the other given: I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss; There never was a bargain better driven. I showed this to my mother and she said "Your father and I were always finding interesting ways to express our love." I also found in a cast lead font the letters H=C+W. Which translated meant Happiness equals Cottingham plus Waldeck which must have gone way back to when they first were dating because Waldeck was my mother's maiden name. My father too was a graphic designer and art director. They both met at Federal Advertising when my father returned from World War II.
An old ash tray from The Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City that held razor blades and paper clips was found in her kitchen drawer. Remember when smoking was allowed, in offices, restaurants, and hotel lobbies? Now smoking is even taboo in some New York City parks. A small green Irish flag with a winged angel in the shape of a harp and the words "Erin Go Bragh" on it, which will no doubt be pulled out the next time the clan celebrates St. Patrick's Day. Also discovered in the back of a drawer was a small black wooden harp with tiny shamrocks running up the side, which now sits between the photos of my father's Irish mother and father.
On my overnights with my mother before she became ill we would go down to dinner together in the large restaurant in the retirement center. Returning to the apartment we would turn on Channel Thirteen and watch This Old House and As Time Goes By, which now is more poignant then ever, with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer. Sipping our wine my mother would reach out and hold my hand and squeeze it. I usually responded by kissing her hand. In realizing I would no longer have these overnights with my mother I mourned the loss of them, literally sobbed for two whole days. My relationship with my mother only resolved itself oddly after my father died. So you could say we only had the past four years, which is why it felt initially like such a loss. And yet I realize now what a blessing it was for the both of us to have had this precious time together.
My mother now has the large wardrobe in her single room. It contains family photo albums, albums of all of her pastel portraits, framed photos, keepsakes, and clothes. The wardrobe contains all the memories and to open it feels like stepping into C.S. Lewis's The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, traveling back in time. Of course life never stands still; babies are born, family members pass on. Then there is the last move those are the most bitter sweet; when time seems to stand still for a moment and we get to reflect. The heart strings get tugged and life moves on.