My mom died on July 4th, 1999. She would have gotten a kick out of that coincidence. A quietly religious woman, she would have chuckled and affirmed that she did indeed get her independence on July 4th, 1999.
Some weeks after my mom’s memorial service, I went to the family home to clear out her bedroom, a difficult, dreaded task. Lisa, “my nieca,” was with me, which made the ordeal a bit lighter. No matter, I was on automatic pilot while clearing out her closet and drawers, the tabletops and walls. “Don’t think! Don’t feel! Just get it done!” was the mental mantra I used to get me through.
As I drove home that day, I sadly reflected upon how little of my mom was left behind. There were no mementos, nothing she had made with her own hands, just a few knick-knacks that had always been a part of her room. It left me feeling hollow and incredibly sad for my mom’s difficult life.
The silver lining of that emptiness was that it led me to a decision I had been grappling with for a long time--whether I should leave behind the volumes and volumes of journals I have filled throughout the years, since 1980 consistently. The journals are filled with my innards—hopes, dreams, love, lust—the La-La Land of my mind. The journals are where I puked out onto pages and pages the worry, fear, despair and desperation I felt as a single, out-of-control mother with three out-of-control kids. The journals are filled with the drunken ramblings of my alcoholism, the mystical wonder of my recovery, and my continuing sober journey. Yes. I’m leaving it all behind, warts and all, because it’s who I am and I want my children to have something of me when I’m gone.
Just recently, I found myself once again in the family home, this time helping that same niece clear out the entire place following her father’s/my brother’s death. I had sworn to myself that I’d never return after my brother died, but here I was again, rooting through drawers and cabinets, looking for anything that might be of value to the family.
I was going through things half-heartedly. My niece had already given me the family photographs, all I really cared about, and I found myself once again repeating the same mantra, “Don’t think! Don’t feel! Just get it done!” One cabinet contained my father’s boxed sets of opera recordings and I envisioned him sitting in his leather chair, eyes closed, listening with rapture to the music he loved best.
On the lower shelf of the same cabinet, I found a black strongbox. I’d never seen it before and I pulled it out, curious to see what it contained. Lo and behold, it was filled with mementos my mom had kept! I felt joy and relief digging through its contents, but I didn’t have time to go through it all then.
Once I was home and found the courage to release the ghosts contained in the strongbox, I opened it. I found my mother’s elementary school graduation certificate. This was special to her because she never went to high school—she had become pregnant and was robbed of her high school days, her youth, really. I also found my father’s birth certificate, a first-generation San Franciscan--his father had come from the Abruzzo Region of Italy, and his mother from Norway. My grandparents’ death certificates were in the strongbox, as well as my parents’ marriage certificate. It warmed me to find my baptism booklet and immunization records mixed among those of my siblings. There were a couple of news articles and a winning ribbon my younger brother was awarded for the 50 foot dash in Cub Scouts in 1957!
My plan is to organize the contents of the strongbox and give away those mementos which will have meaning to the recipients. In the meantime, I’m so happy that my mother cared enough about these events in her life, in our lives, to keep the memories. This brings to mind an evening when I was a child and my older brother was serving his mandatory two years in the U.S. Army sometime in the 1950s. Our family put their musical talents together and created a tape to send to him in El Paso, Texas. They changed the lyrics to Bob Hope’s song, “Thanks for the Memories,” and created a family masterpiece. I don’t know what happened to that tape, but I can say this: Thanks for the memories, Mom.