During the last 52 years, most people who visited Mom’s house commented on how peaceful they felt there. Friends, neighbors, even those who visited only once. Of course, it didn’t always ooze peace for those of us who lived there; we had our own brand of drama. But it was a wonderful place to live. It’s a modest house with three bedrooms, one and a half baths, and a fantastic den - my favorite room in the house. “Dad wanted this house because of the den,” Mom said recently. Yeah, I would’ve bought it for that reason, too. Back in the days when the only phone we had was in the den, I closed myself up in there to talk with girlfriends and boyfriends until all hours of the night, giggling and falling in love.
Among the wood paneling and bamboo shades lived an amazing monstrous mahogany desk and a wooden swivel chair. The kind of chair that you spin one way to make it go higher and the opposite way to lower it. There’s not a grandchild in the family who hasn’t made themselves dizzy in that chair.
"It takes up the whole room," Mom would lament over the desk. It was the focal point of the room. It would be the focal point in any room. Kind of like the president’s desk in the Oval Office. When my parents divorced in 1969, Dad asked for the desk and chair, and Mom agreed to that. But when Dad moved out, the duo stayed; it would never have fit into his two-bedroom apartment. When he later moved into a house, the pieces still remained at Mom’s. In front of my brother, Doc, Dad said, “I want Doc to have that desk and chair one day. Then he can bequeath it to Kim.”
So, when Mom wanted to turn the den into a formal dining room, which would require getting rid of the furniture, Doc said, “That’s my desk.” Well played, Dad. Mom never got her formal dining room, and the desk and chair stayed in the family. Several years ago, Doc bought a replacement chair for the old, wobbly, twirling one. Mom used the new one every day, but the original chair remained also. Getting my sentimentality from my father, I asked her to promise she’d keep it for me, since Doc didn’t want it at the time.
When Mom first started updating her house, she decided to take the phone shelf out of the den. It was a built into the sheetrock, flush with the wall; the shelf jutted out. The phone went on the shelf, and the phone book fit below. It had character. One day, when telling me of her latest renovations, Mom mentioned the impending departure of the phone shelf.
“What? The phone shelf? You can’t take out the phone shelf! Why would you do that? It’s great, Mom; I can’t believe you would do that.” Based on past experience, she thought I was being melodramatic. She’s couldn’t see the error of her ways.
Then she told our friend Birdie, during a long-distance phone call. Birdie exclaimed, “Oh, no, not the phone shelf!” And so it went. People from every walk of life who admired that little piece of antiquity were appalled at the notion of never seeing it again. But Mom, a brazen woman, removed it. She updated the room in the 90s. How status quo of her. After many support group meetings, the rest of us moved on.
With the passing of time, I didn’t think about that shelf every day, anymore. I hardly ever thought of it. Months went by, and Christmas came.
After all the other gifts had been opened, Mom picked up a large box and said that one was for both Doc and me. We were leery. After all, we lived in separate houses, so sharing a gift could be problematic. When we opened the box, the room erupted in roaring laughter. There was the phone shelf, painted gold. “It was the closest I could get to having it bronzed,” Mom explained, “and y’all can decide who gets to take it home.” Doc conceded to my being the proud owner. Flash was not so thrilled.
“Can we throw this out?”
“No,” I answered, incredulously.
“Why? It’s just sitting here in the garage.”
“We’re hanging it up.”
“We are not hanging it up.”
We repeated the conversation every time the garage got cleaned out. Now, the time has come; I will give it a home on the wall. Flash has his Naked Work-Out Room with a Harley Davidson theme; I can have a classy phone shelf. Of course, now I need a working rotary phone to set on the shelf.
Mom also periodically updated her furniture, much of which has lived through 11 presidents. The Year of the Re-covering, she spent five months looking for material to re-cover the Big Chair in the living room. The chair I used to sit in as a small child and once colored with red lipstick. It had already been reupholstered twice. And each time, finding the right fabric entailed a quest. As with all of her home improvements, it’s no holds barred when searching Houston and surrounding cities to find the right thing. Faucets, lamps, lampshades, bedspreads, ad nauseum.
Ms. Home Improvement also painted and stained furniture. When I was in elementary school, I was a pink fanatic. Mom painted the trim in my room dark pink, made pink butterfly curtains, sanded my furniture and painted it pink and white, and made a canopy bed for me. My grandmother made a white quilt with two-tone pink rosebuds and green embroidered stems sewn into it. It was a dream room.
But the piece de resistance in my childhood abode was the dining room table. I’m convinced it once belonged to Leonardo DiVinci and was used to pose models around for his Last Supper (L'Ultima Cena) painting. It has three leaves that can be added to it, and seats at least 10. It’s the perfect holiday table, with patterned wood of different shades on top. I’d love it in my home, but we’d have to use it in the driveway. Mom hosted decades of Christmases and Thanksgivings using that table. I’m surprised she didn’t replace it with a four-person dinette set, so someone else would host holiday dinners.
The table lives at Doc’s house now. Along with the mahogany desk. They found another home when Mom decided it was time for her to find a new home. “I want to go to assisted living,” she said six months ago. “Anything they can do for me, I want them to do.” It was a strange sentence to hear coming from the Most Independent Woman on the Face of the Earth. “Cleaning, cooking, laundry – they can do it all.”
She wanted her life back. For several months prior, life consisted of chore-filled days with little time for the things she wanted to do. She was merely surviving.
Once her decision was made, we began the cleaning-out phase before she moved out. It was a time of memories and stories as we weeded through the attic, the closets, under beds, and more closets. Although I treasured my time with Mom, the work seemed never-ending.
Doc and I talked often, splitting many of Mom’s belongings between us; she was delighted. “I’m enjoying seeing my kids act the way I always knew they would act after I was gone. I’m glad I’m here to see it.”
By Week Five of sifting through, I was becoming less sentimental. When Doc came to town to go through his belongings I’d organized in the garage, he was even less sentimental. “I don’t want any of that,” he said, pointing to the pile.
“Are you crazy? You’re not going through any of that?”
“I’ve lived this long without it.” My mother’s words were coming out of Doc’s mouth, and I wondered if I could have been adopted. Then I remembered Dad’s words years ago, “As soon as you throw something away, you’ll need it.” I am my father’s child.
“Oh really? Did you see these photos?”
“Oh wow!” He flipped through pictures of long-ago friends.
For a couple of hours, I pulled things out of the Doc Pile, and he gave them the thumbs up or down. But after he left town, I hit pay dirt.
“After you drove off, I found your Mad magazines. I love these things; I took them home to read.” I was thrilled at my uncovered treasure.
Doc was silent. I knew what that meant.
“You want these?” I had to ask. Thou shall not steal, and all that jazz.
“I think I do.” How quickly my treasure was lost. I’m still waiting to be paid my finder’s fee.
The only thing we both asked for, several years ago, was the painting that hung in Mom’s dining room. Painted by my maternal grandmother when Doc was a kid, it’s a striking picture of aspens. Since Doc was there when it was painted and he helped with it, we thought he should have the original. Then, before I could have it copied, Mom had it copied and framed for me.
At Week Six, Mom’s house was empty. She left three days before I finished up the details of cleaning. Every week afterwards, I went by the house to check on things. I walked the halls, often sobbing over the enormous changes happening too quickly.
“It’s the end of an era,” I told Doc. I thought perhaps he’d think I was being a little dramatic.
“It is,” he agreed, “that’s exactly what it is.”
Through every stage of this letting go process, Doc and I have grown closer. He’s become more than a brother; he’s been a friend who understands exactly what I’m feeling, even in the absence of words.
My grief has not been only about the house; it’s been about what these changes represent. When Mom was hospitalized out of town after falling last August, I went to her house every few days to check the mail, water plants, and pay her bills. As I sat on her never-been-reupholstered couch one day, I realized the truth. A truth I’d previously known in my head, but not in my heart. In the deafening silence, I heard, Without her, it’s just a house. It was a glimpse of what would follow three short months later.
Yes, indeed. She made it a home. And it was a great home. I know the peace felt in that house exuded from its owner. She brought the peace, the unconditional love, the persevering prayers for her children, and the acceptance of all who passed through its door. She made our house a home.