“Best start putting first things first”
After my mother died in June, I was sorting through the papers in her small desk. It was an old-fashioned desk with a fold-down lid and lots of little cubby holes inside. She kept it to the right of the easy chair she liked to sit in so she could reach it without getting up.
At the back of the desk, there was a small locked cubicle. Opening that door with the key she left in the lock I found the old engraved nameplate from my father’s desk (“A. J. VAN DER LEUN”) propped up against a small glass container with a portion of my father’s ashes. My father died a relatively young man in 1972 from his third open-heart operation. My mother never married again and, as much as the family knew, never had a serious boyfriend. Instead, she kept my father close to her for nearly half a century. She was a one-man woman.
I took these ashes and his nameplate and put them carefully aside. Then I looked around her apartment where all the walls and tables and dressers held photographs of her family and her children and her friends. They were there in all their ages from my baby pictures up to the most recent marriages and births. Her mother and father were there also; as was her own family from their childhood in Fargo to their current homes there and elsewhere. In a special high bookcase across from her chair, my mother kept albums of the family sorted by year, or at times by epoch. She kept many pictures that I once had and that had all been lost in the fire.
My mother didn’t blink. Instead, she photographed everything she could and looked at them while sitting in her chair with my father at her right hand surrounded by images of those she loved most. Even if she did blink or drowse she was still surrounded by her family when she opened her eyes. Her home had become the interior of her memories in every room, on every wall. My brothers and I spent some days taking the pictures down and storing them away in boxes that I am now going through to salvage my own unblinking instants from the thousands she preserved.
Even at the end, my mother didn’t blink. Her son took her to see her 4-year-old great-granddaughter, she and Mimi talked for a bit, then Tom drove mom back to her room where she lay back in her bed and took a nap and then just extended it.
After her funeral in July, my brothers and I combined her ashes with my father’s and spread them onto the stream by the picnic table in the park where we all once went as a family over 50 years before. We were, for those few moments, a family again. In those few moments, we didn’t blink.