April 29th marks the 13th anniversary of Mom’s “passing over.” Of course I think about this, because I can’t NOT think about it.
Part of the grief is still fresh, especially when I’m somehow caught by surprise, but many rough edges have been softened into cherished memories by time.
Mom’s lovely secretary, one of my favorite things, sits in my living room now. I am the steward.
Mom always referred to it as “Mother’s Secretary,” which is, not surprisingly, what I call it too. But now, it’s mine and someday maybe someone else in the family will eventually call it “Mother’s Secretary.”
A secretary is a type of desk with a drop-down front that is used as the writing surface. Mom’s had some secret cubbyholes inside after you lowered the front, and a couple of shelves below as well.
After Mom passed, I installed a few of her Avon award statues. She was extremely proud of her accomplishments, as was I, especially as a 3rd career that stretched well into her 80s. I know she would approve.
The lower shelves, at home, always held vintage books. Margaret Mitchell’s classic, “Gone with the Wind,” one of my all-time favorites always lived there as did Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry which I don’t think I’ve read even yet today.
The book of poetry was bound in soft painted leather and was simply beautiful to behold – it didn’t matter what was inside.
Books were an expensive luxury, so sometimes we bought discarded books from the classroom “library” at Lincoln School.
Most of those were sold at Mom’s estate auction or rummage sale years ago, but the rattiest, which means my favorites, didn’t sell. They still have the price tags on the front.
Other books on the shelf included several Bobbsey Twin books – some that had been Mother’s and a few newer ones, now 50+ years old, that were mine. Only two remain. I should give them to my granddaughters. I sure loved the Bobbsey twins and read those books several times each.
I devoured Gone with the Wind so many times that the book began to fall apart. Later, seeing the movie in color with Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh was a treat to die for. I loved the movie as much as the book, if that was possible. I learned so much about romance, handsome men and strong women! I also internalized lessons about slavery, freedom and alcoholism along with right and wrong. I’m not at all sure Mom meant for me to absorb ANY of those lessons with the veracity that I did.
A Sacred Space
In my childhood home, the secretary always stood in the living room, nestled in a corner beside the fireplace. For years I felt very grown-up having the privilege of sitting there doing my homework. I actually enjoyed homework, which was much better done at the special secretary instead of at the much-too-sterile Formica kitchen table.
Besides, the kitchen was busy, the living room wasn’t.
One day when I was about 10, I was absolutely horrified to discover that I had pressed so hard that my writing had gone through the paper and had marred the finish inside the desk. I never felt right again about doing homework at Mom’s secretary.
However, I would occasionally sit there to write “special” things. I seemed to connect with inspiration in that sheltered space.
I began reclusively writing poetry. Mom’s secretary seemed so embracing and safe, with its secret-compartment-like essence. Some of my poems were bright and sunny, but most reflected the darkness of grief, loss and heartache. The loss a child feels when they lose too many loved ones too quickly and are left lonely and alone.
As time moved on, so did the secretary. Mom remarried and moved to my step-father’s farm, taking the secretary along of course.
There too it always had its own reassuring secure place. Mom always kept certain items there, and today, in my home, it still has the same things in the same locations. I wonder if it was the same when it belonged to my grandmother. I’d bet so.
It always made me feel good to see the secretary although I didn’t really think about it at the time. I don’t recall that the thought ever occurred to me that someday it might be mine. The secretary was just always a warm friend greeting me as I walked into the living room, sometimes on an errand to retrieve something for mother.
Twenty-plus years later, after my step-father passed away, Mom moved to an apartment in town. The secretary, which had long before reached the antique stage, looked strangely out of place in the white-washed walls of mother’s new city apartment. By this time, the secretary, along with a table and mother’s bedroom furniture, were the only antiques among the upholstered chairs and carpet.
The secretary may have looked out of place, but as a silent sentinel, it was still welcoming and reassuring. Mom still used it as a desk as well as storage for its familiar stamps, envelopes and paper, along with her crossword puzzle books, a deck of cards, pens and pencils and some dice from the Yahtzee game so we could find them.
It was always beautiful with its carved and raised front. I remember tracing those beautiful wooden swirls so many times with my finger.
From there, Mom moved to another apartment near where my brother lived for the last nine months of her life. It was in this apartment that I first realized that my brother, sister-in-law and I would have to figure out what to do with mother’s things eventually.
While there wasn’t much of a physical nature that I wanted, I did want the secretary which had been such a quiet part of my life for so many years – nearly half a century.
By then I could open the desk and look at the homework marks and smile. Mom never mentioned them to me, but she couldn’t have missed them. Maybe she knew how badly I felt.
A New Home
After Mom’s passing, I brought the secretary home in a rented truck on one very sad Mother’s Day and installed it in the dining room in a little nook that seems to be made just for Mom’s secretary. For the longest time, I’d glance in that direction and be a little startled while reflexively thinking to myself “what’s Mom’s secretary doing here”?
Slowly, the startle went away, and now it’s just a warm presence in the corner, near me as I iron and quilt and sew. Keeping me company, surrounding me with something of Mom’s essence. My old friend, beckoning, saying hello, reminding me of happy times that Mom and I spent together across so many years and miles.
Sometimes I walk by and caress Mom’s secretary, smiling a little sadly and remembering. I open it from time to time and take out things that were hers, Avon notes and receipts in her increasingly shaky handwriting that mean absolutely nothing, but I can’t bring myself to throw away.
Mom’s Bibles, the one her mother gave her for Christmas in 1951, now much worn.
The one we got her when my kids were young when she asked for a new Bible for Christmas, and the one my father gave her. Her old one is my favorite, by far, with her handwriting throughout her life, holding obituaries and birth announcements inside the cover.
I imagine what Mom was thinking as she inscribed those important family dates; births, marriages and deaths. I can close my eyes and see her at the secretary, writing. It’s almost as if I could just reach out…
I think of her. I touch her things and smile, sometimes through tears as the ghostly memories transport me back to her.
The trinkets of her life still live in the little cubbies. I’ve added a few items of my own, like boxes of cards that I send with care quilts as they leave for their lives with their new owners. It’s kind of like Mom is with me a bit as I open the secretary to write an uplifting note. That only seems right, given that I make the quilts sitting at the table beside the secretary.
The 13th Anniversary
This year’s anniversary of Mom’s passing is a bit different. As fate would have it, I’ll be leaving the day before to speak about DNA at the NGS conference in St. Charles, Missouri and passing not terribly far from her grave. “Not far,” as in marked by hours.
Mom isn’t buried “near” to anyplace I travel with any regularity. I think I’ve only been to her grave 2 or 3 times, but this year, I’ll be visiting to say hello, on the same day I said goodbye 13 years ago. How’s that for irony.
I’ll chat with Mom, saying whatever comes to mind, as if she can hear me.
Perhaps I’ll sit on a quilt in the grass by her stone and tell her where I’m headed and what I’m doing. She encouraged me to “tell people’s stories” revealed by their DNA. She would be very surprised not only that I’ve done exactly that, but how the fledgling genetics industry she knew has prospered and grown. If she was still with me, I’d have her DNA in the newer databases too.
Mom gifted me a few days ago, in a very odd way, reminding me of her presence. I felt her near.
I was dusting the secretary, something I’ve done hundreds of times now. Mom collected toothpick holders. At the auction, a few either didn’t sell or perhaps she held them out because she particularly liked them. I remember her crying as the entire box sold for an obscenely low price, but by then, it was too late. I so desperately wish I had bought them.
In any case, as I moved a toothpick with a metal lid, I heard a faint “clink.” As I put the toothpick back on the secretary, I heard it again. Odd, I had NEVER heard that before.
I picked the toothpick up and opened the lid to discover my Mom’s cross that I had given her many years before. I wondered after she passed away what happened to the cross, but I presumed that another family member was cherishing the cross and never thought more about it.
Imagine my surprise. I couldn’t help but wonder why Mom put it in a toothpick holder, of all places.
The last few months of her life, mother was having multiple small undiagnosed strokes, which makes me wonder if she took the cross off for some reason, putting it in the little toothpick holder which probably was sitting near her chair, for safekeeping. Perhaps she forgot where she put it, and it’s clearly not someplace one would randomly stumble across looking for a piece of jewelry.
Odder still, there was no chain, just the cross. It had a chain when I gave it to her.
I cried when I realized that somehow, Mom had managed to gift me with her cross so many years later. A gift that had been waiting for me all that time – in her secretary.
Now I’m even more grateful to be the steward of her secretary, my silent forever friend – spanning 5 decades of our lives together across two states. The secretary has been in our family for parts of two or three centuries and at least three generations, if not more. I don’t know how, when or where my grandmother acquired it.
I still miss Mom. Perhaps more than ever as the years slowly increase, marking the cavernous time from the last time I heard her voice and held her hand. I remember both events clearly. I was driving home, talking to her, the evening before her “big stroke” and had to stop to remove a family of geese from the road. She was laughing at me, admonishing me to be careful. Just days later, I held her hand as she died.
Even her last message on my phone, which I replayed for years, disappeared one day.
Wearing Mom’s cross eases the pain of her passing a bit, that bottomless hole that will never even begin to fill, for a few minutes anyway, until it doesn’t anymore.
See you Tuesday, Mom.