Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Tomorrow someone else will own my mother’s house. I sent the papers yesterday, Fed Ex. Today the title company got them, tomorrow the new owner will sign them. The deal will close. It’s not our house any more. It’s not Mother’s house any more.

We moved into the three bedroom house in 1967. I was nine. We moved because my mom decided we needed a bigger place, even though two of her four children were gone or leaving soon. My second-oldest sister was getting married in a few months and her fiancé’s parents were going to stay with us. Mom was embarrassed, I think, to have them see the old place. I also think she’d wanted to move for quite a while.

Dad loved the old house. He’d planted rose bushes around the perimeter of the back yard and took loving care of them for ten years. He and Mom had a nice vegetable garden in the back. There were lilac bushes back there, too. Dad cried the day we moved. Mom was all smiles.

The new house sits on about half an acre in a nicer neighborhood. Mother had a vegetable garden there for many years. Each year she’d till up a little more of the lawn. She’d freeze and can the surplus harvest every year. Dad built her shelves in the basement to store all the canned goods (and the year’s supply of food their religion requires members to store).

Mom decorated the house in the fashion of middle-class families of the time: Rust and brown furniture in the living room, Danish Modern dining room set. The décor never changed. The chairs got recovered eventually, in new patterns of rust and brown. Her children all moved out, her husband died. Dogs came, dogs died. New cars parked in the garage. Neighbors moved away.

For years the house has been too much for her. She fell into the shrubbery last summer while turning on the sprinklers. She couldn’t get up and lay there for about an hour before finally crawling to the steps and pulling herself up. She had automatic sprinklers installed shortly after that. Her doctor told her to stop going into the basement. My sister and I emptied her food stores and moved everything upstairs. She slipped in the shower, so a cousin installed a hand shower and shower chair. Year after year, we’ve made adaptations to her changing body. She’s made adaptations. In the end, they’re just not enough. Last winter her doctor told her she can no longer live on her own.

Now, her house is going to belong to somebody else.

I’ve been “in charge” of the house sale, contacting the realtors, signing the papers, dealing with inspections. I think my oldest sister asked me to handle the sale because I’m meaner than my sisters. It can’t be due to my home-selling experience; I’m the only one of Mother’s four children who has never bought a house. For over 20 years I’ve yearned for a home of my own. My life’s been full of twists and turns, none of them leading to home ownership.

I talked to my mom about the sale over the weekend. She doesn’t want to lose her house. She doesn’t want to live in someone else’s home. She wants to go home. I feel that, deeply.

May the new owner of my mother’s house enjoy many years of health and happiness there. May her family always have plenty. May they share great love.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Violinist, Wife, Mother

“Do you ever regret that you didn’t keep up with the piano?”

Now this is an odd question for a number of reasons. I can’t recall the last time my mother asked me a question about myself that had any depth. Always self-absorbed, her world has narrowed even more in the last few years. Maybe she didn’t realize this one had depth. Because it came from my mother, it could have any number of Real Meanings:

Your father and I paid for piano lessons for over 10 years and went to countless recitals to hear you (and other little prodigies) play. Why are you wasting our investment?

I had hopes you’d become a famous pianist one day. My dreams are dashed.

I wish I’d kept up with the violin and I miss music. I hope you don’t feel that way.

Why don’t you own a house yet, for heaven’s sake? You keep living in these second-floor apartments too small for pianos. When are you going to grow up?

Or, simply, Do you regret not playing?

My mother studied violin from a very young age. Her father was an accomplished violinist and also played viola and piano. And ukulele. He taught me the ukulele when I was young. He made his first "violin" out of a cigar box when he was a little boy. He and my grandmother met when they were both playing with a little dance band in southern Idaho – she on piano, he on “fiddle.” He wouldn’t teach my mother violin so she took lessons from someone else. She played in the orchestra at school. She loved classical music, especially Chopin piano concertos.

I didn’t find out Mom played violin until I was about 10 or 11. She was in her mid-40’s by then. I was shocked to find out that her violin had actually been IN OUR HOUSE for all those years, tucked in the back of a closet. It was a little like finding loaded gun under the bed. A violin?! In that closet?! So out it came. Inside the case, it was zippered inside deep blue velvet. Mother took it out and tuned it, tightened up her bow and rosined it. I sat at the piano and asked her to play something with me. We settled on “Go Tell Aunt Rodie” since it was one of the few songs we both knew. She played like someone who hadn’t played in about 25 years, but the tune came out clear and sweet. I started crying.

“Why are you crying? Am I that bad?” she asked with a laugh.

I didn’t know. I just couldn’t stop.

I've had dozens of alternative explanations as I remembered this, over the years. I think it comes down to this: It was the first time I realized my mother had a life before marriage and children. She was happy in that life. Then she left it behind.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Treasures Lost

This week’s call was mostly about lost treasures and teeth.

“The thing that hurts the most about this root canal is what it’s going to cost me! Imagine! I have to go to the regular guy, then the root canal one, then back to the other one!”

“Did you think to ask about getting a bridge for those lower teeth?”


“You know, you might find you enjoy food more if you could chew it.”

She laughed. Every tooth conversation with my mother ends with her chuckling at my, what? My humor? My silliness? The sheer insanity of the suggesting she get a bridge? Yes. That one. See, she’s getting ready to die. She’s been preparing for this journey for every one of the 46 years I’ve been alive. Now she’s 80. She is ready to reunite with my dead father. And her parents. And her younger sister, who died years before it was her turn. But evidently my mother’s god has other plans and here she is, with two or three teeth left in her bottom jaw.

She’s not poor, my mother. She has dental insurance, Medicare, the works. But, “It doesn’t pay for everything, you know.” And given her fervent hope that she’s dead next year at this time, dental work just doesn’t seem like a sound investment.

“You might live to be 100, Mom!”

“Oh, I HOPE not!”

We have that conversation every month or two. Sometimes it’s 90 she doesn’t want to see, sometimes 81.

I grew up hearing a lot about the fluoride in Idaho’s drinking water. Every time I got a cavity, I heard about that fluoride. My mother had beautiful teeth – bright white, hardly a cavity. Mine? Rotten. Virtually every one of my baby teeth had a filling. So crooked they required years of orthodontia. “Your father’s teeth” she’d pronounce. “But the water in Idaho was fluoridated. We all had good teeth because of that fluoride.” Now her teeth are darker. Yellow, slightly gray. They are even a little crooked now because of the loss of bottom teeth and because it turns out she grinds her teeth when she sleeps. That’s a habit I’ve had all my life. Only in the past few years did we see evidence that Mom has the habit.

Maybe she’s grinding over her lost treasures. On the phone I asked her about the weather in Arizona – a weekly joke that still makes us both laugh. “Sunny!” she tells me, week after week. She talks about being homesick. “When will I start feeling better?”

“I don’t know, Mommy. I am just starting to feel at home here and I’ve been here six years. It can take a while.”

“I keep thinking of things I miss!”

“Like what?”

“Like, my camera.”

I laugh. I don’t mean to laugh, but the laugh escapes before my brain can stop it. Mother has Macular Degeneration. She’s legally blind. She can’t see well enough to drive or to care for herself any longer. That’s why she’s living in an “assisted living facility” in the desert. “How would you see to take a picture? And after you took it, how would you see it?”

Now Mom laughs. “It’s not that. There were still some pictures on there. I don’t know what they were. I think there was about half a roll of film left.”

Honestly, I don’t know where the camera is. I’m fairly sure we didn’t sell it at the massive garage sale in July. And I don’t remember any of her kids or grandkids taking it. Did we pack it up with her stuff? Doubt it. We probably thought we were sparing her some pain by making the decision for her. Better not to remind her of her disability. So she sits in the desert and wonders what happened to that camera and what was on those undeveloped pictures, lost forever.

I’m sure she’ll ask me about the camera again when I call next weekend.

Mom's beautiful teeth, circa 1948