April 4, 2007

In My Mother's Small House Are Mansions of Memory


In her 92nd year, my mother's happenstance collages of her life are steadily growing both richer and deeper. The image above is of what once was a bulletin board in her small kitchen in her small 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 since in reality it is larger than the lives it chronicles. But if I could show it to you in real time and at its actual size, it would be to you 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 board like this somewhere in the various dwellings of your people. 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 for better and for worse.

Still, to know the worst of the stories that lie behind these images you not only have to have lived with 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 those who keep these altars for you are like my own mother in their dedication to them, there will be no shadows here 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 her home not a scrap of love -- however faint or distant now -- is ever discarded. Everything that does not meet this 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 92, she's tiny but sharp. Quick to empathize and quicker still to laugh. Playing tennis several times a week keeps her on her game 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. 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, ebbing 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 last Christmas. 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.

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Posted by Vanderleun at April 4, 2007 11:48 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

My mom passed three years ago and a day does not go by that I would not trade in everything I own to see her for one more hour. Nowing my mom she would spend the first fifty minutes dressing me down for spending so much money for something like that. Mothers are mothers and Gerard you are very fortunate to have her around and full of life. Cheers!!!

Posted by: Robert Hows at April 5, 2007 1:03 PM

I hope she'll add that beautiful tribute to her collection. A blessed Easter to both of you.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at April 6, 2007 3:10 PM

When I read your deeply-felt tributes to your wonderful mother, my mind often wanders back to a post that you did some time ago about your estranged daughter. Does she still ignore her grandmother's attempts to contact her?

I have a 17 year old daughter. There is a special bond between a father and a daughter, and I cannot even fathom the grief that I would feel if we became estranged. I'm not judging you or your daughter, because I don't know the back story. I only wish to say how sincerely sorry I am to know that the estrangement has separated her from both you and your very special mother.

David Kutzler

Posted by: David at April 11, 2007 2:30 AM

This was a wonderful post, the phrase "Mansions of Memory" has stayed with me. Thank you for the comment at my place, you are welcome anytime.

Posted by: Mary*Ann at April 15, 2007 7:42 PM
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