In writing the memoir of my mother, I've been thinking a lot about material things—things she gave me, things I gave her, things that were in her apartment in Naples and I lost when I got rid of them in a haste. At the time, I had such an urge to get the place cleaned up and could not deal with it myself: my mother had died there. She had been found dead. After quite a while. Not the kind of scenario anybody wants to deal with when it's time to "clean out the closets". Just being a couple of hours alone in the apartment was agony for me, so I took a perhaps too-swift decision and called for the local equivalent of "1-800-Got Junk"—a couple of guys with a rickety truck who came and took everything away.
Later, I realized not only that I'd given away things that were potentially precious from the monetary standpoint, but also things that I really should have kept as mementos.
One entire fragment (I prefer to call them that, rather than chapters) of my memoir deals with the "biography" of these lost things. Objects are such potent repositories of memory, of memories; and often the things we miss the most are not those that ought to be most valuable or important to us, either in financial or emotional terms.
Instead of bemoaning the loss of the Persian rug that I could have probably sold; or the wall clock that chimed Big Ben's tune (though my father had long stopped its mechanism, claiming he couldn't sleep; and after his death my mother had never restored the clock to its song); or the 1960s and 1970s furniture that I personally found horrid but in America sells as "vintage modern"—instead of missing any of these things, today, nearly five years after my mother's death, I still find myself obsessing about a pair of gloves.
A pair of gloves I'd bought for her in London, where I lived for 15 years prior to moving to North America. They were, as English fashion often is—a compensation for, as that Pink Floyd song had it, "hanging on in quiet desperation"?—a little eccentric, a little baroque (Vivienne Westwood's lesson): in a fake velvety material that was in fact synthetic yet still plush to the touch; of a color there are no exact words for, best described as a sort of burnt amber with a deep golden glow.
My mother, not usually given to eccentric outfits even in the throws of her most manic and absurd behaviors, fell in love with these gloves, and took to wearing them even around the house sometimes, to cover her mildly arthritic hands, their skin chapped by too many years of dishwashing.
She loved those gloves.
And I got rid of them.
Afraid that keeping anything too personal of hers would jinx me with some evil eye; my scarlet letter of guilt, the guilt of having abandoned her because there was nothing else I could do, nothing I could do for her, short of allowing myself to slowly die next to her.
Or, in a more rational version of this story, afraid of contamination because the gloves were in the room where she died and was found.
I kept them separate from all the stuff I had the Sri Lankan house cleaner who worked for one of my best friends stuff in big black trash bags; this was in the first few days of my stay in Naples, when I still believed some manner of sorting out of my mother's apartment was possible.
Later, having learned from my mother's nosy neighbors how she had died, the cleaner was spooked and disappeared, leaving all the trash bags sitting in the room. He would not come back to help any longer, didn't even ask for his wages, would not meet me; I ended up giving the money I owed him to my friend to give to him.
I was alone, help-less in the most literal sense, overwhelmed by the dirt in the apartment, the mess of useless things my mother had accumulated in the nearly 20 years since my father's death. She was not exactly a hoarder—rather, had always been a reluctant housewife; my father's stern military command had forced her into a housekeeping duty she did not embrace, a daily requirement that she cook, clean, be a dutiful wife. When he died, she saw no reason to maintain the place tidy, or even clean. She let it go, let herself go.
I stayed in Naples for a while, sleeping at a friend's house and going to the apartment every day, trying to sort things out, always leaving without having accomplished anything much other than feeling miserable, overpowered, wrecked, haunted.
All this time, the gloves sat on a green metal trunk covered with a mauve cloth bearing a design of nineteenth-century ladies on horseback, in the room where my mother had died. I meant to keep them; yet, on my last day of visiting the apartment, I did not take them with me, and did not leave them in what had been my teenager room, the contents of which were the only things I decided to salvage and have shipped over to North America.
Instead, I threw the gloves onto the pile of trash bags still filling the room, walking out on them, consigning them to the fate of all the other things in the apartment.
I recently came across a lovely post on writer/teacher Paul Lisicky's blog . You know that old, over-abused dictum —(that many theoretical essays on photography have sought to disprove)—"a photograph is worth a thousand words"? Well, the title alone of this post was worth a million photographs: "The Museum of My Mother" .
Lisicky's post was not dark; rather, it was a lyrical, nostalgic remembrance of his mother through the odd objects she left behind in the vacation house he inherited from her.
In his post, Lisicky says that the house is "ghosted with her presence"; my mind is ghosted with my mother's presence, and at the same time her absence. In my urgency to run away from her place of unhappy life and horrible death, I lost a great deal of objects, mementos; but their vivid images are forever burnt into the retina of my mind, haunting me all the same.
You can take your life out of the place of memories, but you can't take the place of memories out of your life.