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

[Note: NOVEMBER 2018 Burned out of Paradise I have moved in with my mother in Chico. Yes, I have become that “72-year-old man who lives with his mother.” It’s not so bad. Not so bad at all to live with an active and sharp and sardonic and sweet mother as she enters her 104th year. ]

In her 104th 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 104 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.]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Venlet May 13, 2018, 8:23 AM

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

    And that’s all that really matters, though I like it too.

  • azlibertarian May 13, 2018, 8:54 AM

    I like your mother and her bulletin board too. Please extend to her my Happy Mother’s Day wishes.

  • BillH May 13, 2018, 9:27 AM

    No matter what lemons life hands you, you’re blessed if you have loving memories of your parents (pl.). Far too many people these days, perhaps for good reason, have negative feelings for one or both parents, or increasingly, never even knew one or both parents. Deep down, I know that’s what’s wrong.

  • Sam L. May 13, 2018, 2:48 PM

    Gerry, we like it too. Another classic that warrants annual visits.

  • Anderson May 13, 2018, 5:01 PM

    Every post you have done about your mother has enriched my life by just knowing that such a wonderful person exists. Thanks for sharing.

  • R Daneel May 13, 2018, 7:57 PM

    Both of you are very lucky!

  • PA Cat May 13, 2018, 9:57 PM

    Happy Mother’s Day, Gerard– and may you and your mother share many more.

  • SteveS May 13, 2018, 10:45 PM

    Thank you for that. That’s all I’m going to say. Thanks.

  • PA Cat November 13, 2018, 1:55 AM

    I hope your wonderful mother will find room on her bulletin board for a picture of your precious Miss Olive.

  • Phillipa Crawford November 13, 2018, 5:34 AM

    A 32 year old man who lives with his mother may be a little suspect. A 72 year old man who lives with mom is a fortunate man indeed.

  • DeAnn November 13, 2018, 5:35 AM

    “There isn’t time,
    so brief is life,
    for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account.
    There is only time for loving,
    and but an instant,
    so to speak, for that.”

    ~Mark Twain

    I especially like how the mementos have begun to climb from the cork board frame expanding their range to the trellis of nearby picture frames. Love is like that.

  • Callmelennie November 13, 2018, 6:29 AM

    I think the words “tiny” and “104 years old” go together somehow. You frequently hear of “little old ladies”; when is the last time you heard of a “humongous old man” or the phrase ” will you look at the guns on that 90 year old.”

  • Hangtown Bob November 13, 2018, 6:55 AM

    As hard as it must be to realize that you have lost your house, it is a blessing that you have been encouraged (forced?) to spend this time with your mother in her home. These upcoming days will never be forgotten by either of you.

  • BJM November 13, 2018, 10:22 AM

    This post always makes me smile and as the news from Paradise grows grimmer each day; smiles are badly needed. I can imagine that standing before your mom’s memory wall is a tonic for you too.

    We live in a town of 23,000 in the Sierra foothills and can’t imagine our farm and the town literally disappearing overnight; but it could and emergency planning just got real.

    There’s a very good free app called “Nextdoor” that allows a neighborhood (or road in our case) to setup a free private social network to communicate. It’s an invaluable tool for repair or service recommendations, lost & found pets, etc. We already have a neighborhood watch and an emergency call/text tree, but are now organizing bug out routes, assisting elders and large animal/horse evacuation.

  • Marica November 13, 2018, 10:39 AM

    “And yet, if you have anything that even resembles a functioning family… .”

    This reminded me of a favorite Mere Haggard song, “Sing a Family Song.” Chorus & favorite verses:

    Sing a family song, sing a family song
    When mom and me sang harmony, little sister, she hummed along
    Sing a family song, oh, sing a family song
    When dad would get the old guitar down and sing a family song

    Now maybe at first your memories of home
    Won’t resemble mine at all
    But there’s one thing I know we all have in common
    And that’s the God given gift to recall

    Maybe your dad didn’t play no guitar
    But I know that there was somethin’ he did
    That doesn’t make your old heart just well up and sad
    When you relive your life as a kid

  • John Condon November 13, 2018, 12:28 PM

    ” Burned out of Paradise I have moved in with my mother in Chico. Yes, I have become that “72-year-old man who lives with his mother.” It’s not so bad. Not so bad at all to live with an active and sharp and sardonic and sweet mother as she enters her 104th year. ”

    I was aware of the fires in California, but had taken little interest until I heard the town of Paradise was consumed, thus came here quickly to see if you are okay.

    You know, there is a silver lining to having your home lost, Gerard, and that is spending time with your mother in these last precious years that she has left on this earth. Though normally that is not how most people would choose to spend their time, I am confident you will see what a gift you have been given before her return back to eden.

    Thank God you are okay.

    Your Friend,

  • Melinda November 13, 2018, 6:06 PM

    I love it when you share with us about your Mom. Uplifting and humbling.

  • Toni November 14, 2018, 9:15 AM

    She is a treasure indeed.