The power, and limitations, of memory-laden objects

At a Holiday Inn in Terre Haute, Indiana, where we'd come to bury my mom, this frog arrived in a crib delivered to our room.

At a Holiday Inn in Terre Haute, Indiana, where we’d come to bury my mom, this frog arrived in a crib that was delivered to our room.

January 9, 2014 marked the five year anniversary of my mom’s death.

And perhaps because we’re programmed to mark anniversaries that end in a 5 or a zero as more significant than others, I found myself honing in on objects and memories from the time of her death.

The squeezy plastic frog that has Holiday Inn stamped in script on its stomach, which arrived with a crib in our hotel room in Terre Haute. (My mom was buried in nearby Clay City, Indiana.) Lily, 8 months old at that time, loved the frog and often held it in her little hands, and I felt ridiculously grateful for this small gesture.

The snug, plain white ankle socks that I borrowed from my mother’s dresser drawer, in North Carolina, because I’d packed our bags in such a rushed, harried state that I’d packed no socks for myself in the coldest month of the year. These same socks are rolled up in my dresser drawer now. Pulling them onto my feet always makes me remember the trip. How we didn’t make it in time to see her alive on final time, despite our best efforts. How her life ended in the time when we were all hurtling through space toward her hospital room. How I knew, upon returning to the Asheville Airport’s car rental counters from the bathroom, that she was gone, simply by the expression on Joe’s face as he walked toward me. How, based on reports of my mother’s condition shortly before her death, I quickly decided that her timing may have been for the best. That the relatively casual, “How are you?” phone conversation I’d had with her days before would serve me well enough, since it ended with, “I love you.”

The yellow dress Lily wore to my mother’s memorial service in NC, and the purple dress she wore to the funeral in Indiana. Both had been gifts from friends, and though Lily had been dressed in nothing fancier than a onesie with pants up until that point, I folded the dresses into our suitcase, knowing we would probably need them. And one of the strongest memories I have of the memorial service is Lily sitting on the vestibule floor, playing in her yellow dress, with a matching headband circling her hair. My mom’s best friends, quilters all, arrived and extended their condolences, and shared their memories of my mom; but then, without fail, each one’s face brightened as she looked down at my oblivious little baby daughter say, “And this must by Lily! We’ve all seen pictures. Your mom was crazy about her.”

How, while watching an episode of “Monk” on the night of my mom’s death, I made a point of laughing at a funny scene. I’m not sure if I was doing it as a show to others in my family, or to myself – maybe both – that I was fine, and that I was taking all this in stride. But I remember feeling, even as I laughed, like I was trying too hard.

How I broke down crying in front of a room full of professional actors I’d come to the theater interview, one week after I’d returned to work, because a woman asked, “How’s your family?” She’d just meant to ask after baby Lily, but taken aback by the question, I said, “OK, under the circumstances,” my voice breaking on the last word.

The new Nicholas Sparks book I’d gotten my mom as a Christmas present, which may still be sitting on a shelf in my dad’s house, unread. I’d finally outgrown the tendency to get my mom what I thought she SHOULD enjoy, or read, or watch – chalk this up to the youthful arrogance that flames out of control while attending college and grad school – and instead, I started getting her what I knew she wanted: books with (mostly) happy endings, by an author she liked. She didn’t want stories about ugly cruelties and sadness. As a survivor of polio and repeated bouts of cancer, she’d experienced enough of that. She always wanted love to win out, in books and movies and life.

The Christmas dinner that preceded my mom’s death by just a couple of weeks was prepared for (and attended by) more than 10 people; and though she’d been extremely tired and sleepy throughout our visit to that point – constantly falling asleep in an armchair, her arms folded in front of her – she somehow worked up the energy to do most of what needed to be done for the meal, anyway. We had no idea how sick she was at the time, but after her death, I thought how about how she must have called on every last bit of strength she had in her cancer- and treatment-ravaged body in order to perform this last act for her family. (I can barely imagine taking on the task of making such a meal in good health.) It was a truly amazing gesture of love. She ate hardly any of the meal, of course, but I’ve come to think of that dinner, in retrospect, as the way she wanted to say goodbye to us, while we were all together for the last time.

My mom’s face and hair, which I kept touching after we arrived at the hospital. Her short, re-grown hair was steely, in texture and in hue, and I kissed the cool, smooth skin of her forehead and cheek numerous times, though I hadn’t done that since I was a child. I’ve never been an overly affectionate person, but having Lily the previous year had made me more physically expressive, so suddenly, the gesture felt wholly natural – even compulsive.

How when preparing to read Billy Collins’ poem “The Lanyard” at her funeral, I edited a couple of lines that reference breastfeeding, because I knew my mom hadn’t taken that path with us (and she grew annoyed with the intense pressure on women to do so), and because it would not fit with her sense of modesty. Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. While traveling with my family to Indiana for the funeral, I once sat in my father’s freezing cold van, in a restaurant parking lot, to nurse Lily; not ideal, but even so, it was a relief to carve out a quiet moment with Lily in the midst of sad chaos. And it was good to be reminded that I could provide what she needed and sustain her.

The sense that losing someone in the year’s coldest, starkest month, when the ground is hard and unyielding, somehow made more sense. Like the natural world was attuned to our loss, and our grief was made manifest in dark, bare trees, and the snow-shrouded landscape. Feeling this internal/external connection was a strange, surprising comfort.

My short-lived “House” addiction. At the same Holiday Inn where we got the frog, I got hooked into an episode of “House” one night. And then another episode came on. And then another. Then Joe went to bed and I, blanketed in the room’s darkness, watched one more, knowing I likely wouldn’t sleep easily, anyway. Something about the formula of the show was exactly what I needed and wanted that night. Problems that baffle you, and seem to have no answer, are eventually solved. There’s always some reason, some cause, and it’s just a matter of keeping at it, and figuring it out. I really, really wanted all that to be true.

Don’t we all?

But life doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes there really is no solution – as in, I really want my mom to be part of my family’s life, and see how the girls are growing and evolving, but cancer took her from us. Now what?

Even Dr. House would be stymied by that one.

Because we can put the quilts my mom made for Lily on her as she lies in bed, and show the girls photographs, and tell stories, but in the cold light of day, we all know such things never replace the actual presence of a person in your day-to-day life. And though it’s certainly true that part of my mom lives on in me – in appearance, speech, certain traits – that’s ultimately pretty unsatisfying, too.

So eventually, you loosen your grip on the impossible thing you want. You appreciate the family members and friends who are, and want to be, part of your family’s living life. And you stack pebbles in a canyon, doing the story-photo-quilt thing while knowing it can only do so much to resurrect a person.

You keep going.

You stop imagining how it might have been different.

You get up, you take care of your family, and you keep going.

You’re occasionally surprised by tears when you remember precisely when you got that plastic green Holiday Inn frog that’s in the bathtub.

But you shake it off.

And you keep going.

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4 thoughts on “The power, and limitations, of memory-laden objects

  1. David Livingstone says:

    Excellent, Jenn. A wonderful post, a wonderful thing to read. Thank you very much.

  2. Gwen L Oliver says:

    Your story about your Mom really touched my heart.

  3. Barb B says:

    Very touching Jenn. She was a wonderful mom.

  4. Danielle Magnuson says:

    Oh, Jenn. As always, just beautiful. I love the image of baby Lily in her bright dress.

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