|The Weight of Stuff
I am sitting on a cardboard box in my childhood home, one in a circle of many cardboard boxes. Debby, my girlfriend, is sitting to my left. Michael and The Brit, two ex-boyfriends, are sitting across from me. On my right is Aunt Helen, an Auschwitz survivor. We are sitting shivah for my mother.
In the past, Aunt Helen had said she lived underground during the war, and throughout my childhood, I assumed she lived in a coffin-like contraption. I didn't know that underground was a term for in hiding. Now the only person who's underground is my mother. She was buried two days ago in a New Jersey cemetery.
I hadn't heard about my mother's death until she was buried and eulogized; I'd been traveling in Europe. Without success, my family and the State Department tried to find me. Finally my brother, with the help of a postcard I sent to Debby, tracked me down in London.
Gladys Krooks, the first person to greet me when I entered the house, used to drive me to Hebrew School and once shut the door of her Buick Elektra 225 on my finger. I hadn't seen her in years, and now tears flowed down her wrinkled face. She hugged me, said, Such a loss. What a tragedy.
After Gladys, my father threw his arms around my shoulders, the first and only meaningful hug he'd ever given me. It's all my fault, he said, shaking his head. It's all because of me. Before I left for Europe, my father bought my mother a used Nissan Sentra. Once and for all, at fifty-seven years, she was going to get her license. But before she had the chance to take the road test, on their way to a wedding, another car crashed into the passenger side of the Nissan and killed her.
To this day, I'm the only female in my family to obtain a driver's license. After failing the test the first time, my sister never took it again. She has lived in New York City all of her adult life and doesn't need a car. But in the suburbs, where I grew up, my father chauffeured my mother to meetings, work, shopping malls. He'd wait for hours in mall parking lots, sitting in the driver's seat, reading the newspaper. Although he complained every now and then: The woman is wild! She buys clothes one day and returns them the next! he didn't seem to mind his role.
At sixteen I got my learner's permit. While teaching me to drive, my father, an extremely nervous and impatient man, screamed the whole time. Brake! Brake! You moron! he'd say. What the hell are you doing, trying to kill us? At this point, both my brothers had their licenses. My father bought them a beat-up '72 yellow Impala to share. As one brother drove on the highway, the other sat in the back and dropped lit firecrackers through the hole of the rusted out car-floor.
When I passed the road test at seventeen, I began to chauffeur my mother to shopping malls, the only place where we bonded, sort of-over the half-price clothing tables at Alexander's, amid the sales racks at J.C. Penny's. She never asked about my personal life, not since junior high when she badgered me about why I didn't have any friends. My father often chimed in, offering to pay me five dollars if I called someone, knowing full well I didn't have anyone to call.
A year after I graduated college, while shopping in Filene's Basement, I told my mother I was moving to Minnesota with Michael, my boyfriend at the time. We're leaving in two days, I said.
My mother, who didn't appear surprised, angry, or that concerned, said, I'd like him better if he were Jewish. She continued to flip through the rack of pastel-colored sundresses.
He could pass for Jewish, couldn't he? I said, flipping through the rack too, trying to keep the momentum of distraction going. His friend who lives in Minneapolis is paying for the truck. We're taking some of his furniture.
Always one for finding good deals, my mother examined a price tag, lifted the dress from the rack, and said, Will his friend reimburse you for gas?
I think so, I said, eyeing the dress my mother held.
Moments later, she began to hum the theme from the Carol Burnett Show.
While sitting shivah, a seven-day grieving ritual, we're supposed to disregard our own vanity, our own mortal bodies and honor the life and spirit of the deceased. Mirrors are covered up. Now, as I mourn the loss of my mother, I feel like I have the same expression as Aunt Anna who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, staring vacantly ahead. I'm too numb to cry. But I find a hand mirror in the bathroom drawer and examine the mole on my left cheek, now a raised bump. When I'm stressed out, the mole feels bigger, tougher. I've always hated my mole. I want to get it removed. In photos of myself, I see the mole as the focal point. My friends tell me I shouldn't worry about the mole, that it gives me personality. My mother had the same mole in the same place. She didn't mind hers.
Before I departed for Europe, Debby had threatened to leave me. She said I needed to come out, that we couldn't live a secretive life. I told her I wasn't ready; I needed more time. I knew that if I told people I had a girlfriend, if I verbalized it, then it would be true. And I didn't want to accept the truth. Instead, as if lugging around a boulder on my back, I carried the burden of this secret with me.
But now death puts a halt to our impending break-up. No one knows that Debby is my girlfriend and I don't correct friends and family when they refer to Michael as my boyfriend. He doesn't know either. I feel grateful for Michael and the Brit, who have made the trip out to Long Island to show their sympathy, to share in my grief. And it doesn't hurt to have living, breathing proof of my heterosexuality.
Like Aunt Helen, I feel like I'm underground, in hiding. Although there are no Nazis ready to pounce on me if I'm found out, in my mind, my situation feels just as dire. The thought of settling into an atypical life, a life without a husband and children, frightens me to the point of paralysis, as if having to hold my breath at moment's notice, in case a soldier might be passing by.
In my childhood bedroom, still covered in fluorescent orange and pink wallpaper with hippies flashing the peace-sign, Grandma Becky sits on the bed, her head in her hands. Florence, my only child gone, she says in her thick accent, reminding me of the Yiddish she and my mother often used.
I wrap my arm around her shoulder. I'm here for you, I say.
With her shaky fingers, she caresses her wedding band, twisting it clockwise, then counterclockwise. My grandmother once told me she never loved my grandfather. When she was sixteen, she met Grandpa Harry, both of them fresh off the boat from Russia, trying to make a new life in Montreal. Soon after their brief love affair, his family moved to Brooklyn, and two years later, when her family settled in Brooklyn, they reunited. But my grandmother didn't feel any passion when they met again. I felt pressure to marry him, she said. Because of this, I never was happy. A year after my mother was born, during the height of the depression, my grandmother had an abortion. We couldn't afford to have another child just then, she told me. But the abortion left her sterile. And while my grandfather pieced fur coats together in the garment district, rumor has it that my grandmother carried on an affair with his best friend. During the last years of her life, my grandmother's humped back grew bigger, heavier, until her legs finally gave out.
Remnants of my mother are in full view all over the house-antique washboards, irons, vintage tin cans and carnival glass. She loved roaming through antique shops for hours at a time, and during my childhood, when she brought me along, I'd beg to leave after fifteen or twenty minutes. Old things scare me. The dusty clothes, the faded postcards, the ornate furniture. I'd beg again and again to get out of the shop and if we didn't leave, huge tears would dribble down my face. I felt overwhelmed by the musty smell of time gone by, stuff piled atop of more stuff, stuff blocking light from streaming through grimy windows. What a relief it was to walk outside, in the daylight, to take a deep breath of fresh air and exhale the dark, smelly, dead weight of clutter.
My mother refused to part with anything. She held onto newspapers, broken bicycles, travel brochures, expired coupons, old clothes, baby shoes. Leftover birthday cakes from years past crammed the freezer shelves. Our two-car garage was piled to the ceiling with her possessions, including items she solicited as head of the rummage sale committee for two Jewish women's organizations.
Perhaps my mother, the only child of immigrant parents, felt lost, in isolation, out of control, caught between different languages and cultures. I suspect that she found power in objects, that they made her feel grounded in time and place and, like a life raft, kept her afloat. Clutter is tangible, always there in times of suffering. It's weighty and takes up space, providing, perhaps, a sense of security. After all, who would have taken pleasure in a broken Chatty Kathy doll? In a musty, moth-ridden pink dress made for a three-year-old? Feng Shui experts believe that every object gives off energy, has its own history. Maybe that's why clutter piled high makes me nervous and antique shops frighten me. The collective force of all the objects is like listening to hundreds of staticky radio stations all at once.
My mother studied painting with abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell at Hunter College. But when she married, she gave up her art. One of her framed blue and green abstract paintings hung in our living room, a testament to her younger years, before babies and a garage full of possessions. In a photograph taken in the Hunter College cafeteria, she's huddled together with eight women, a genuine smile upon her face. Perhaps to fill her creative void, she retreated into clutter, television, antiques, shopping, humming the Israeli National Anthem to Cindy, our poodle.
A few months before my sixteenth birthday, my mother organized her own surprise twenty-fifth wedding anniversary party on the pretense that my siblings and I had planned it for her. One night at the kitchen table, my brother and I signed cards and addressed envelopes from a long list of her friends and relatives. At one point, my mother insisted that I write neater. On the cards, as my mother instructed, we wrote: Keep this a secret! When you call to RSVP, please ask for Terry, Ricky, Dana or Lori. At the time, I didn't understand why my mother couldn't just throw the party-why did it need to be a surprise that wasn't really a surprise? She even made the decorations--two large cardboard hearts covered with aluminum foil, overlapping, one with the word HAPPY, the other with ANNIVERSARY. When my mother walked into the roomful of guests, she truly looked surprised. Oh my god! she said. My children are wonderful!
Her lies didn't end there. One day, when I was driving my mother around with only my learner's permit, I hit a car in the Fortunoff's parking lot, creating a huge dent in its side. The owner, who just happened to stroll to her car right after I hit it, examined the dent. My mother denied any involvement in the accident. We didn't do that, my mother said.
Of course you did! Who else could have done it? the woman said.
I stood silent.
What are you talking about? my mother said.
The woman fingered the streaks of paint on her car, the same turquoise blue as ours. That's from your car, she said.
Although my mother never admitted I caused the damage, she gave the woman our phone number. It cost seventy-five dollars to knock the dent out. I gave my mother thirty dollars earned from babysitting and she paid the rest.
After I drive Michael and the Brit back to the train station, Debby spends the night in Long Island. We sleep on the ground floor of my house, in my mother's Oriental room. Japanese lanterns, ivory figurines and jade sculptures line the redwood cabinets. Upon the golden oval of carpet, Debby and I wrap our arms around each other and I get lost in her smells and curves and I clutch her as if I am in the middle of a violent sea and I have no choice but to hold on.
The next morning, while Debby showers, my father sits in the kitchen, nibbling on a bagel. He says, over and over, Your friend is cute. Maybe I should date her.
My sister, who doesn't know about my relationship with Debby, chimes in: Imagine, Debby could be your stepmother.
I try to breathe in, but instead, take a few tiny half-breaths. I fake smile and clutch tighter to my secret, repositioning the burden-my imaginary boulder-so it doesn't slide off my back. I pop up from the turquoise kitchen chair and open our refrigerator, hiding behind the door, staring at the racks full of tiny red milk cartons. My mother, a kindergarten teacher, brought home the leftover little milk parcels from her class, jamming up both the refrigerator and freezer with them. Every so often, when I opened the freezer door, a frozen milk carton would fly out as if it were a little land mine. One Halloween, when my brothers were in high school, my mother suggested that instead of throwing eggs, they could throw the rotted milk containers.
Following the seven days of shivah, I go through boxes of coupons, maps, newspapers, put them in huge Glad Bags and throw them to the curb. I dispose of bug-ridden food in the pantry. There's a canister of dehydrated vegetable bits that my mother shook into our chicken soup; every so often, along with the carrots, onions and parsley, I'd find tiny dead beetles. When I'd point out a floating beetle, she'd fish the black particle out with her long fingernail. It's just pepper, she'd say.
A year after my mother's death, I visit her gravesite with my family. We add rocks to the top of her tombstone. I later find out from a Jewish scholar that this is a symbolic act indicating that members of a family or friends have not forgotten the deceased. I find a small orange stone and place it in the middle of the other stones. I think of my mother's red hair; random strands still cling to her purple wool coat, now hanging in my closet.
Debby and I hung on for another two years. When she broke up with me, the burden of my secret became too much to bear. My back appeared to be in a permanent hunch, as if my imaginary boulder had grown. I had to make a choice-either I fall down, or gently set the weight of my secret to the ground. So I began to reveal the truth to family, friends. When I told my roommate from college, she looked at me and laughed. We used to sit around the suite in junior year and talk about how you'd make a great dyke, she said. With each revelation, I could stand just a little taller, breathe just a little easier.
Nine years after my mother's death, a plastic surgeon removed my mole for a five-dollar co-pay. But two years after the surgery, a shadow of the mole resurfaced. Little hairs began to sprout from it. I'm comforted to know my mother won't leave me.
I am different than my mother. I never gave up my art. A year after Debby and I broke up, I enrolled in a creative writing graduate program.
Perhaps I'm more like my Aunt Irene. She owned a car, traveled the world and never married. After she died at the age of fifty-seven, in her apartment overlooking the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, relatives tssked. While scavenging through her possessions, her brother, Uncle George, said, Such a beautiful woman. What a pity she never married.
Plenty of men proposed, but no one was good enough, Aunt Anna said.
And look what happened, my father said.
I am different than my mother. When I'm surrounded by clutter, my chest tightens, my back hunches, I can't breathe. Like my mother, I'm allergic to dust. But she still spent time in dusty antique shops and rummaging through junk in our mildew-filled garage. Every so often, she'd have an asthma attack, some worse than others. During one attack, the day after my ninth birthday, she sat in our kitchen and held her chest and neck. Her face turned red. She eeked in a breath, pointed to her bedroom and mouthed the words, My sprayer. Find my sprayer. No one else was home. I ran into her bedroom, searched through her pocketbooks, pulling out lipstick smeared tissues, loose change, supermarket coupons. But no sprayer. Her gasps got louder, deeper. With my own chest tightened from fear, I searched her purses again, thinking to myself please god, don't let her die, don't let her die. Finally, I found her inhaler and ran back to the kitchen and handed it to her and after three long sprays to her lungs, she took a deep breath.
And then, so did I.