On Friday afternoon, we got the call.
A week later, I locked the door on an almost-empty house.
Imagine that like my mother, you’re eighty-nine years old. You’re moving into a single room in a personal care home in less than a week. Look around. What possessions would you take with you?
If you haven’t been down this road with your parents, start your engines. According to the latest census (2011), almost one-third of seniors aged 85 and over live in collective dwellings—from care homes providing support services for elderly residents who are independent in most activities of daily living (like mom) to health facilities for those requiring advanced care.
After dad died, mom moved from the farm we grew up on to the small town of Birch Hills, Saskatchewan, 25 kilometres away. She’s been living alone there in a seniors’ housing duplex for 14 years, baking buns and cakes for family and friends, growing as many as four gardens, carpet bowling, playing crib, going on tours, curling in bonspiels… All this despite her macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataract scars and pterygias. “Did I tell you I looked directly at an eclipse of the sun when we were on Spiker place?” she announced, adding to the many things I learned about my mother’s life during this transition.
But like a balloon with a slow leak, her body’s health has been shrinking. We repeat ourselves as her hearing deteriorates. We cut her food when tremors shake her right hand. We slow down when the short walk to the post office shortens her breath. We say, “Yes mom, I love that story” when she tells us again about farmers giving Regan money when he wore a sweater she knit for him featuring an image of a John Deere tractor. A series of heart problems led, in October, to “my pacer” as she calls it and a slowdown requiring one of us six “kids” to be with her 24/7 for a month afterwards. My sister Judy arranged for a health assessment and two weeks later on a Friday afternoon, she got the call confirming what we’ve known for a few years: mom needs assisted living.
“You kids decide,” mom said when we presented her with the options. Like a Saskatchewan snowstorm, we blanketed each other’s inboxes with a flurry of emails over the weekend. On Tuesday morning, we moved mom and her possessions to Weldon Country Villa, a former school repurposed as a personal care home. She’s next door to her friend Bernice—a woman she’s known for 70 years.
Living the farthest away, I’ve done the least for mom over the years compared to my siblings. While Margie took her to appointments in the city, Judy picked her up for Aaron’s hockey games and Alex’s dance recitals, Joan visited often even though she lives five hours away, Norm drove her to places like Brooks to see Evan and Lily and Jenny and Mike, and Joyce came from northern Manitoba with pickerel and pickled beets and housecleaning genes, Magellan and I were gallivanting around the world. Being the oldest and an organizer, it made sense for me to be with her during her last week at home and winnow her lifetime’s collection of possessions to fit into a room of her own.
Where to start?
Logistics. One or more of us had already begun on a new will, living will and power of attorney. Next up was her rental agreement, change of address, SaskPower, SaskTel… Mom couldn’t find her 2016 tax return but she knew the exact location of the document from The Department of Education with her grade 12 marks. “History was my best mark,” she said. (It wasn’t; she got 99 in Algebra.)
Then the most arduous task: sorting photographs.
Mom had photos on the walls, above the kitchen counter, on end tables, on her dresser, on night stands, in boxes and arranged in about 20 albums. “Do you want this one?” I’d ask. “Is that Regan and Richelle?” she’d question, peering closely at a picture of Halle and Brennan while I twinged, realizing how poor her vision is now. “Do you want this photo of Lynn? It’s when you came to see her play in the Kiwanis music festival and she won first prize.” We reminisced. “Put it in that album you’re making for me.” As the days went by, the discard pile filled her recycle bin. Each of the boxes for us six kids grew bigger. Not Mom’s collection. She was making it easy. She kept only a few framed photos. One of her parents. Her wedding photo and another of dad not long before he died. One of Leigh, the granddaughter who predeceased her. The latest family weddings… “I don’t think you have pictures of all Joe’s kids,” I said, looking through the album that’s meant to include a photo of everyone in the family (the dozen grandchildren and baker’s dozen of great-grandchildren) along with pictures of significant events, like her Lifetime Achievement Award from the United Church.
Going through her clothes was next. Her most common phrase? “I hate to give that away.”
“Does it fit?” “Do you like it?” “When last did you wear it?” I’d ask.
“Well, to tell the truth…”
Gone! Like Lego, the boxes for each sibling and many more for Value Village began stacking up in the living room, so crammed together there was barely enough space for me to pull out the sofa bed each night.
Maybe growing up during the Great Depression is why mom kept so much stuff. Hundreds of crochet patterns going back to 1955. Strands of yarn, barely enough for a mouse’s hat. Tubs of frozen applesauce from 2012. About 30 pounds of flour. A gold-rimmed sugar bowl—the last of her good china bought 70 years ago. All the sympathy cards from when dad died. A few dozen gladioli corms hardening their crimsons for next summer. Unopened copies of The United Church Observer, which she can no longer read. Boxes of Yves Rocher cosmetics bought by a woman who, to my knowledge, has never worn face cream and prefers baking soda to bubble bath.
“Somebody told me that glass bowl of grandma’s is worth a lot now,” mom said, “Put it in the U-Pick box for you kids,” now boxes overflowing with items she felt we kids would want, like Christmas placemats, canister sets and coffee mugs with Mother painted on backgrounds of flowers. Confession: some U-Pick items (ornaments, towels, sheets…) strayed into the Value Village corner.
“Don’t you want to keep a few of your crocheted things?” I’d ask, thinking of the hours of work she’d devoted to so many intricate patterns. “I hate to see these go. Maybe Clare will want this tablecloth.” In the end, mom kept only four doilies—three of her own making and one she bought in Greece.
Pruning her books was a breeze. We sorted them into three destinations: the church, the local museum shop, and Value Village. All she kept was The Good News Bible, Justin Trudeau’s Common Ground (uncommonly, I said nothing), a book of poetry Joyce wrote and published, a book of her cruise to Alaska and Once Upon a Lifetime (which I’ll get to in a minute).
The hours flew by. There’s one thing I noticed that mom hasn’t lost. She brings to the table a hearty appetite and a side dish of speedy metabolism, possessions the six of us treasure. “Let’s put the pasta maker and bundt pan in Norm’s box for Jenny,” I suggested, “she likes to cook.” “Good idea. I hope Margie took the silverware?”mom asked. My box included an ice-cream maker, an angel food pan with a removable bottom, a jar of summer savoury mom grew herself, MacLeod tartan coffee mugs, a few of her diaries…
“What a pile of work. I’m going to be nicer to my kids,” said Judy, who took a day off to help clean. “That’s for sure,” said Margie on the last stretch of the three hours it took her to scrub mom’s much-used oven.
Speaking of kids and cooking, I found the most touching thing in a binder of mom’s recipes. Painstakingly glued onto the backs of recipe pages were clippings of what the family had written about her on posters displayed at her 80th and 85th birthday parties. Judy’s son Aaron, who was 10 at the time, wrote this:
Grandma, you’ve got amazing style. You make a heck of a meal. I think you’re in the top three grandmas. I just wanted you to know Happy 85th and don’t try to change.
Possessions. Do you know which ones were the most difficult for mom to give away? “Photos,” she said promptly. (And I’d thought she was being so stoic.) Her plants. (She took only the Hoya with her.) A huge bag of wool that included new skeins from Chile. (“I’m glad Carter and Melissa’s girls will use it for crafts,” she said.) Her knitting and crochet needles. (She’s a Wile Coyote—“I took a small crochet hook with me even though I’ll likely never use it again,” mom confessed.)
“Anything I can do from here?” Magellan asked. “Yes, techo-nerd, find her a phone for the elderly and a good AM/FM radio.”
And so it went. Far better than I could ever have expected, reminding me of lines from a poem Shawna Lemay quoted in her blog that week:
…more beautiful still was how the light moved on,
letting go each chair and coffee cup without regret.
One afternoon “Peachy,” my nickname for Margie’s husband Vern, along with his buddy Doug, hauled out loads of stuff to their trucks. Winded, they came in from the cold for coffee, joined by Kent, one of my mother’s favourite locals. By then the cupboards were so bare, Margie and I had to serve coffee in glass teacups destined for the museum. I’d forgotten how in the country, people take the time to socialize with each other. For an hour we sat around mom’s table telling stories and laughing. Doug imitating a legendary neighbour describe how he outwitted the police: “I was in de field on de Cockshutt…” Me telling them about the women in the town’s pharmacy knowing and selling me Doug’s favourite medication (Wiser’s Deluxe Whisky), payment for his trucking services. Margie sharing a local woman’s witty retort to an insulting comment about her weight gain: “It’s that f*****g Walmart’s fault. They sold me a defective mirror!” Much later when I was about to call it a day, Ethel, Doug’s wife and one of my roommates in second-year university, texted me: “I’m parked outside. Are you still up?” And again the next morning: “Want to meet at the café for breakfast?” More laughter and the kind of direct conversation you can only have with old friends. I thought about how this task was turning out—was exhilarating the word?
“Life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions,” sayeth Luke 12:15. I would say mom’s most treasured possessions in her new room are her wedding dress, the wall hanging that Richelle made featuring photos of all mom’s grandchildren and her cache of Jersey Milk chocolate bars. “And my photos,” she added when I asked her if I’d guessed right.
Every night round about nine o’clock, mom would say, “Are we going to do that book tonight?” Once Upon a Lifetime asks you 1001 questions about the stages of your life as a child, sibling, grandchild, teenager, lover, spouse, career person, parent and grandparent. Whew, did I hear some stories! Most of them I wrote in the book, like the answer to, “What do you remember about the times you cared for your grandchildren?” I’d forgotten how sick Fawn had been as a little girl with a deadly combo of chicken pox and encephalitis and that mom had stayed with her in the hospital every day for a week while Margie was teaching and Vern looked after Raina. But the most telling thing about my mother was her answer to the question, “What would you do if you won $10 million in a lottery?” There was little hesitation, barely enough time for me to imagine the places I’d go, the sculpture I’d buy, the pink sweater I covet. “Well,” mom said in her soft, slow voice, “I’d give it to the charities I support.” Remember that ancient phrase from the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus? “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
On her last nights at 437 Bellamy when mom was in bed, I’d massage her cold feet with lavender cream. “Raina gave me that cream for my birthday, right?” she’d ask again, amnesia clouding her night brain—and mine. “Along with a lot of other things, right? That girl is too generous.” “When you’re in Weldon, you and Bernice should give each other foot massages,” I suggested. “I don’t think you can expect a 100-year-old woman to give foot rubs,” said mom. “Will you put a piece of that chocolate in my hand for later in the night when I can’t sleep?” And then, as I turned out the lights, “Thank you for everything you kids did today.”
UPDATE: There’s a great book written by Margareta Magnusson, who says she’s “somewhere between eighty and one hundred,” called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Published by Scribner in 2018, it’s an international bestseller that I highly recommend, both for its practicality and wry sense of humour, like the section called “If it was Your Secret, Then Keep it That Way (or How to Death Clean Hidden, Dangerous, and Secret Things).” An article in The Guardian tells you more about the subject and this particular book:
Here’s the Clarity P300 phone Magellan found.
The poem quoted from Shawna Lemay’s blog (Transactions with Beauty) is called “This Morning” by Esther Morgan and can be found here.
Williams, Patricia A. Once Upon a Lifetime. Edmonton, Alberta: The Time Broker Inc. 1996.