In her 103rd year this happenstance kitchen collage of my mother’s life is growing both richer and deeper. The image above is of what once was a bulletin board. It is kept in my mother’s kitchen in her apartment to the rear of an unassuming but decent collection of apartments in the small city of Chico, California.
It’s too bad the image of it is so small here on the page. But no matter how much I might enlarge the image of it, it could never be as big as what it represents. Although small in scale it is larger than the lives it chronicles. It is the sum of all love.
You’d miss that. If I could show it to you in real time and at its actual size, you’d still miss it. It would remain much as you see it here — just a jumble of clips, slogans, photos, handicrafts and images. Aside from its complexity, it wouldn’t mean all that much to you. These icons of other people’s private lives never do.
And yet, if you have anything that even resembles a functioning family, there’s a bulletin board like this somewhere in the various dwellings of your family. If you’re lucky, there’s more than one. You don’t know what this one means, but you know what yours means. You know it all — for better and for worse.
Still, to know the worst of the stories that lie behind these images you not only need to know the lives these commonplace icons chronicle, you have to be looking hard for the worse and, in the end, dragging it out of your own memory. If you work at finding the worst in people, you can always locate it.
But if those who keep these family altars are like my own mother in their dedication to them, you won’t see them displayed. There will be no shadows there that you do not supply yourself.
My mother only adds the things of love to this board, never the things of disappointment, failure, heartbreak or betrayal. To do so would be a betrayal of the trust that keeping this board brings with it, and, to my mother at least, a waste of life.
My mother does not waste life.
In my mother’s home not a scrap of love — however faint or distant now — is ever discarded. Everything that does not meet her measure is tossed away without pause or regret. If something comes her way that she deems special — be it an out-of-focus photograph, a clipping from a far-away newspaper, a small note of thanks, or a pipe-cleaner figure made by one of the second graders she acts as a teacher’s aide for — it gets promoted to the bulletin board. Once there, as you can see, it stays. If something comes to her that’s a downer, out it goes.
That’s why my mother has two piles of scrap in the kitchen: one for recycling and one for the shredder. She gets a warm feeling by recycling, but she gets a real kick out of running things through the shredder.
At age 103 she’s tiny but sharp. Strong in will but delicate as a bird. Quick to empathize and quicker still to laugh. Playing tennis several times a week kept her on her game — until 95.5 when her knees quit — in more ways than one. So does bridge and working as a teacher’s aide with small children. She’s wise that way but without pretense. If you ever told her she was wise, she’d shrug and ask you if you’d like another German pancake, this time with lemon juice and powdered sugar. She hasn’t missed breakfast for nearly a century, which shows you, if you had any doubt, just how wise she is.
Years ago, after she sold her rooming house for college girls and moved into her apartment, she decided that the kitchen wall was perfect for a bulletin board that she could use to keep track of her busy schedule. Somewhere under everything else on the board we think there are things that pertain to schedules in the late 1980s, but it would take an archeological team to excavate them. Instead, one photo got put up, and then another, and then a clip of this and a note of that and, over time, it became the raucous riot of bits and pieces you can see here.
Babies and friends, present and past wives, can all be found. Girlfriends long let slide still peek out. Birthday parties and christenings, weddings, vacations, and graduations…. all the private triumphs and moments of personal happiness glisten and shine, one fit atop, against, behind, or aside the other as life rushed on and curved away, ebbed and then surged back again, brighter and larger than before.
If you knew all the pieces here as I do, you could review them and see the tokens of a life that begins before the end of the First World War and rolls along right up until today. It’s a very big life to be contained on such a small board in such a small apartment, but my mother’s genius when it comes to this collage is that, no matter how full it gets, she always finds room to add one more moment.
We don’t know how she does it. It’s a gift.
[Republished from 2007/2010 because…. well… because I like it.]