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April 17, 2006

Covered in flowers

My mother’s front lawn is covered in violets. When I walk across it I try to walk around them to avoid crushing the beautiful purple flowers underfoot. They’ve crowded out the grass. It started years ago; first wild onion and now the violets. The yard is overgrown, with tree branches from long-ago storms uncleared and shallow roots lacing across the ground like netting.

I go to visit her once a month now. I used to see her about every six weeks or sometimes less, but her health is not what it was. I block the dates out half a year at a time in my organizer, six to nine months in advance. If I don’t, I put the visits off.

When I visit, I ask her to make a list of things she needs done. It’s always a simple one; change a light bulb, bring boxes up or down the stairs, assemble a new vacuum cleaner. Things she can’t reach or can’t haul. It takes me about twenty minutes to do what would take her half a day.

In my head, I’m making a list of the things we aren’t doing; cleaning the place up, throwing papers out, packing things up. Getting her ready to move. She has difficulty getting up and down the stairs, getting into the tub. She climbed the seven or so steps from the entry landing up to the main floor. It took her more than a minute. I asked if she wanted help. “What would I do if you’re not here?” she asked.

She won’t move out. I’ve given up trying. Mom’s been a prisoner there since she and my father divorced; first a prisoner of her own stubbornness and pride when she refused to leave a house she couldn’t afford, now a prisoner of her infirmity. And time. The idea of living somewhere else; somewhere without steps so that she can get around attracts her. The idea of moving horrifies her.

The house is filled with stuff. Layers of stuff, like overlays of dust over dirt over yellowing varnish. Newspapers from six months ago with helpful hints she hasn’t gotten around to reading yet. The kitchen is filled with empty plastic containers spilling out of every cabinet and drawer, containers from supermarkets and delicatessens that she cleaned and frugally kept. More containers than she could ever possibly use. The refrigerator has expired coupons and two year old ads for Chinese buffets attached to it with magnets. They cover the entire surface.

Downstairs is worse than upstairs. There was a flood more than a decade ago. The parquet flooring buckled in protest and gave way. I think there was an insurance settlement, but Mom never got around to fixing it – probably she couldn’t find someone to do it for the money she got, or even someone she trusted to do the work. The black oilpaper is still exposed; boxes are still piled in the center of the playroom.

The door to my bedroom is shut. I haven’t opened it in about a decade. I don’t want to go in there; the room hasn’t changed since we moved into that house in 1967. It’s a sarcophagus of my childhood. I slept in the house once since 1985, and I couldn’t sleep in my room; I slept in my brother’s. Mom is now sleeping in my brother’s old room as well. She didn’t tell me; I noticed that the bed was being slept in. “My bed broke. I don’t have the strength to buy a new one.”

The visits recently have been much better. I even look forward to them. They’re short and structured. Mom meets me at the train station. Either we go out for a meal first or go to her home and do some tasks. I take her shopping. We go back to the train station; I go home about four hours later. I take Mom out for a Chinese meal; it is the only food she wants. She can eat Chinese food every time we go out, even the same entrée. Mom is steadfastly, maddeningly consistent. The furniture in the house has not changed since we moved there, except to become more worn and threadbare.

There was a Chinese restaurant right near her old office that we went to on occasion. It changed management and became one of the best Chinese restaurants in the county. The food is delicious, but we’ve discovered that the restaurant’s real gift is for daily specials. They have no touch with Cantonese hit parade items, chicken and broccoli tastes like packing material; crispy shrimp with walnuts are soggy. But flounder sautéed in delicate cubes is served on a bed of its fried carcass with different vegetable each time; this time with Chinese greens. Beef sautéed with fresh mango is sharp and sweet. With a little cajoling I can get her to try a new dish every time.

Things are not going to get better. Maybe they’ll stay the same for a while. But the house is going to keep falling apart and the stairs are going to get harder to climb. The tree branches will fall on the roof and the lawn will be a carpet of violets. I’ll have to get her out then. I look around my own apartment when I get home. The floor is covered with laundry, papers are strewn where they lay or where the cat knocked them over. Tapes are in dusty piles, books are heaped on the bookshelves. There are dishes in the sink. I dream about having a clean room to live in before I’m covered with a carpet of violets.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at April 17, 2006 11:39 PM

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Well written. Thanks. My "stuff" has been inviting me to Get Organized for some time now, but it doesn't project images of violets.

Posted by: Diane in Chico at April 18, 2006 12:09 PM

Reminds me of a conversation I had just this morning with my father. We were talking about how we have too much "stuff". He's right when he says that anything you don't use regularly should probably be given away, and anything you plan to read "when I have time" should definitely be thrown out. It's so easy to be overwhelmed by "stuff", and to reach the point where you become a prisoner of things you thought were important.

Way back in the 60's, Jefferson Airplane had a song ("Crown of Creation") that's on point:

Life is change
How it differs from the rocks
I've seen their ways too often
For my liking

So, Leigh, keep moving.

Posted by: Your wicked stepmother at April 18, 2006 2:03 PM

A similar situation arose with my grandmother, but the siblings united to lay down the law before the roof collapsed on her. I know of another case where the old lady fell and broke her hip in the ancient bathroom, and what followed was awful for everyone concerned. On the other hand, they’re still adults, not children, and sometimes there really is nothing you can do.

Caitlin Flanagan’s recent remarks on woman’s deep need to clean house have only confirmed me in my wish to leave the books piled up (can’t help it; bookcases all full) and the CDs strewn about post-tornado style. That said, I do have concerns about being the old lady they find buried underneath a pile of fallen stuff and nobody notices until the newspapers have accumulated, there’s a funny smell, and they break down the door to find my cat nibbling at my extremities. If I had the money and leisure, I’d have servants running to and fro keeping everything spotless while I run my finger along the mantel checking for dust, but it’s not gonna happen.

Posted by: Alison at April 19, 2006 7:30 PM

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