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In My Mother’s Small Home Are the Mansions of Memory

In her 95th year 99th year, ….. 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 apartment complex 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 103, she’s tiny but sharp. 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 plays bridge, attends church, manages her life, and has more social engagements in a month than her three sons combined. 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.


Mom on a bench created and dedicated to her by her friends and installed at the Chico Racquet Club in April, 2010.

[Republished from 2007/2010 because…. well… because I like it.]

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  • Cap'n Jan January 9, 2018, 11:48 AM

    I am a long time reader but rarely leave comments anywhere. Low profile.

    But this slice of your life brought me out of my silence. I believe it is the best piece I have ever read about a parent. I’m no writer, but I had such a Mom as yours. Long lived too – 95.

    Your reference to shredding the ‘shadows and bad things’ struck home with me. My folks never dwelled on the bad’. Once it was over, it was done with and put out to scrap. It does seem to me that now-a-days everyone has to ‘blog’ about their shortcomings, their ‘victimhood’, their autism spectrum issues, their heartbreaks and lousy parents. Picking scabs is something that will keep that wound alive for longer than is healthy.

    You remind me: Learn the lesson you can from the wound, let it heal and put it aside to be thrown out with the rest of the trash.

    It seems that psycia-trists/ologists are particularly interested in keeping those wounds open. Some wounds benefit from airing out, most do not.

    Fair Winds,

    Cap’n Jan

  • ghostsniper January 9, 2018, 12:44 PM

    Excellent.

  • Bunny January 9, 2018, 3:00 PM

    Thank you for republishing, I like it, too! What Cap’n Jan and GS said. It really rings true.

  • Webutante January 9, 2018, 3:46 PM

    I like the piece too, Gerard. Anything about your mother is always a favorite. I especially like hearing the stories about her boa and dancing on the coffee table. Such a dame….what else is to say.

  • ghostsniper January 9, 2018, 5:08 PM

    Speaking of dancing on the coffee table, this is not to be missed:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxmIYNmJcJQ

  • Webutante January 9, 2018, 6:09 PM

    Ghostsniper, what a terrific video! Now that’s real dancing, and on the coffee table no less. And what about those petticoats? Thanks for linking.

    When I was growing up as a little girl, and old enough to be left at home alone, my favorite thing to do was to check the windows to make sure the coast was clear. Then go into the living room and rev up the Victrola….strike up the band really loud with 78 records of Rogers and Ham….then begin dancing all over the house….running, twirling, jumping and pretending I was the most wonderful dance girl in the world. I would exhaust myself after dancing my heart out over 2 or 3 records and trying not to break the furniture or momma’s beautiful porcelin vases……

  • Alex Dumas January 9, 2018, 6:25 PM

    Love your mom stories.

    I had an epiphany today about why my mother’s refrigerator was such a disgusting mess. She would have pans of leftovers covering every horizontal surface and uncovered bowls of …… stuff tucked here and there. I, in my splendor, would lecture her about putting the leftovers in containers, which I supplied, so that she would have more room in the refrigerator, the food would stay fresher, all the reasons why my way was better. She tried, but the pans with uneaten food continued.

    During a recent bout of the flu, I managed in five days to finish one can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. Having no energy whatsoever, I heated up the soup in a pan, ate a small serving, and pushed the pan into the refrigerator where it was ready to snatch out for its next four reheatings. It made me think of my mother when I did it.

    If I had put the leftovers in a container each time, I would have dirtied the container and the pan, four times! Plus, probably spilled some on the counter while I was at it. This way, it was simple, pull the pan out of the refrigerator, put it on the stove, heat, and eat.

    Mom was a small eater. I remember as a child watching her eat Grape Nuts. She would pour out a portion, probably about the size of three heaping tablespoons, put in milk, sprinkle a bit of sugar on it and proceed to chew and chew and chew. Even as a six-year-old I thought that was a very small amount of cereal.

    So now I know, when you eat small you make concessions to make it easier to eat. One way to do that is to make it easy to reheat. I’m kind of excited to have finally learned this lesson from my mother.

    And I vow not to let the refrigerator get too disgusting.

  • MMinLamesa January 9, 2018, 11:55 PM

    Man I miss my mom-especially when I read your mom stories-been 22 years and it’s like yesterday sometimes talking with her.

  • ghostsniper January 10, 2018, 6:50 AM

    @Alex Dumas, the older we get the smarter our parents become.

    @Webutante, for christmas I gave my wife a victrola, a modern day version, see here: https://www.amazon.com/Victrola-Nostalgic-Bluetooth-Turntable-Entertainment/dp/B01GRYDU5Y/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1515595356&sr=8-6&keywords=B0196HEI8W%7C+B00NQL8Z16+%7CB06XHVDF6R%7C+B01GRYDTWI+%7CB01GRYDU1I+%7CB01GRYDU5Y+%7CB06XJF54CP+%7CB06XJFK5KG%7C+B00UMVVZKG%7C+B01GRYDU3Q%7C+B01GRYDTJQ+%7CB06XHY3J9N%7C+B06XHVHLQP+%7CB00DBA856W

    Wow! Tha’s a big’n!
    My wife’s a life long flautist, a flute player, starting when she was a child and in the high school band they created an album that has been in the closet for decades. She’s not allowed to touch my good stuff and has been recently saying she’d like to hear “her album” so I got the Victrola for her. We tested all the functions and it seems to do it all, and pretty good too. A CD player, cassette player, record player and a USB drive player. It can also record from record or cassette to CD or USB in MP3 format which is what she did with her album so that she can hear it anytime on her computers. And it’s remote controlled. I had been researching and watching several different models and this one seemed the best and right before I bought it the price dropped to just over $100 so it was a good deal.
    I also bought 6 extra stylus’s (needles) and a good quality album cleaner. Now, if it’ll just hold up for a few years…..

  • Webutante January 10, 2018, 4:00 PM

    GS, what a fabulous, thoughtful gift for your flutist wife, and you too! Sounds like it will hold up for a long time. Didn’t know you could still buy one.

    Best wishes to you both.

  • Uncle Mikey January 14, 2018, 5:44 PM

    I have loved your mother for years. She is an inspiration, as are you Gerard. Since

  • Uncle Mikey January 14, 2018, 5:46 PM

    I have loved your mother for years. She is an inspiration, as are you Gerard. Since I started reading blogs 17 years ago yours has been my one of my favorites