Peggy Keener: Memories from the dresser drawer

Published 3:48 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Some 50 years ago, we were living in Maryland sandwiched between our last home in Bangkok and our next home in Tokyo. It was the middle of the night. I had hostessed a dinner party that evening and after cleaning up had gone to bed in the wee hours of the morning. Suddenly my short sleep was interrupted by the shrill sound of the phone ringing. It shattered the night calm like a gunshot through a plate glass window.

Answering the phone I heard a man speak in a heavily accented voice. “I am sorry to tell you, Mrs. Keener, that your mother has expired.”

Expired? What did that mean? Wasn’t that what parking meters did? Or overdue library books? Even produce from the grocery store. But, my mother?

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Two years before, Mom had moved from Austin to an exclusive retirement home in Santa Barbara, California. It was the kind of snobby place that would have used the word “expired” instead of the harsher “died”. My thought processes were like paddling through pudding as I tried to understand that what the voice was saying was that Mom had unexpectedly passed away.

In the dispirited days to follow, I made arrangements for her things to be sent to me. On the morning of the delivery, I greeted the packers as they began moving them into the house. There was Mom’s dresser with the beautifully sculpted feet … and her velvet upholstered wing back chair with the ghostly imprint of her body forevermore imprinted upon the bent fibers of the velvet.

Seating myself in a corner of the room, I watched as the men opened box after box. What I didn’t know … and certainly didn’t expect … was how I was supposed to feel as Mom’s things were exposed. My first reaction was one of delight as I recognized old familiar objects. Yes, I remembered this … and that … and that, too. They felt like a motherly hug.

Then, without warning, I experienced a cold chill wash over me as the room began to fill up. The numbness quickly turned to anger. Then to outrage. What was happening to me? I wasn’t an angry person. But, now my emotions were all over the place. Why was I so out of control?

As the packers finished, I pulled myself together just enough to thank them. Then I went back indoors and returned to my place in the room. As I was trying to collect my thoughts, I was also looking over Mom’s things. They were beautiful! Wonderful! And I felt so completely privileged that her treasures were now mine.

And then it hit me. Mom’s treasures were now, indeed, mine. But, is that what I really wanted? Weren’t those things replacing her? No! It wasn’t those objects that I wanted. I wanted her, not her things.

Where was the fairness in wooden objects replacing flesh and blood?

And in that moment I began to grasp that this was the way of life … and of death. People’s bodies leave us. Their possessions remain … for generations to come. No, it’s not fair, but it is. And in time, I also learned that our emotions mellow and we become grateful for the memories that cling to those pieces of furniture. Without fail they repeatedly trigger memories of our loved ones. And we cherish them.

Recently, the poignancy of this recollection brought to mind the vivid realization that before long I, too, will be culling through my own treasures. You see, the future is running out on me, too. I will one day have to select what I will take to a retirement home. I wonder what my family will keep or reject from what is left behind. And should I care?

In Amor Towles’ book, “A Gentleman In Moscow,” Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov laments as he leaves behind his worldly possessions: “Tis a funny thing. From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family. We see our parents and siblings off at the station; we visit cousins, attend schools, join the regiment, marry or travel abroad. It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well, taking comfort from the notion that we will hear word of him soon enough.

“But, experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. For, unaware, we come to hold our most treasured objects more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity—all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance.

“We do so until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.”

Count Rostov is right. We do this. But, if we’re lucky we’ll soon realize that a thing is just that. A thing.

As I sat there in my Maryland home with Mom’s possessions all around me, I realized I truly no longer had her. Not her, but now her things. What I didn’t know then was that those objects would in time become precious to me as every time I glanced at them, fond memories of my mother washed over me.

Whenever I looked at her velvet chair, a warmth flooded through me as the imprint of her body felt like a companion to my sadness. Her dresser drawers were also soon filled with what I deemed as my important, even precious things. Would my children one day fill these same drawers with their own treasures?

Ultimately, this is the way of the world. The life cycle. Time marches on. I am now almost in that parade.

You may be facing your own parade; feeling the agony of deciding over things. The truth is that these things will continue to live on for countless more decades without us. Rather than lamenting over our departure from our treasures, perhaps we should feel a joy in that it’s time for us to share them with others. Let us give those folks—even strangers—the gift of also cleaving to these things for whatever tenure they may have. Our time with these furnishings has passed. Tick, tick, tick …. and we move on.