color: SOME SOLDIER'S MOM: Life and Death and Wasted Time

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Life and Death and Wasted Time

I have had many, many hours to compose this blog entry in my head and, being without internet access for the better part of two weeks, it may be more rambling than most, but I ask that you stick with it as I promise: there is a point or two along the way.

My dear mother-in-law was a collector. For all of her adult life, she collected what the family fondly referred to as “Mother’s Stuff”. Antiques, collectibles, mementos… along with every bill, receipt, note, letter and news clipping that interested her or in some other way passed into -- but never out of -- her life. For the most part and for many, many years, these items were categorized, filed and stored in a neat and orderly fashion. However, at some point, whether distracted by events in her life, the complexities of her collections or just the enormity of it, the orderliness of Ida’s “stuff” was displaced by a pile here, a stack there, a box over there… and eventually moved to warehouses, sheds, storage areas and the basement. Not unlike the spaces many of you or your parents have -- a life’s story and its work accumulated in a finite space.

A few years ago, my Mother in Law suffered a fire in her home of more than 50 years and some of her papers and her things were lost -- by fire, by water or just the efforts of the fire fighters to save her home. As a result, Ida moved to an apartment in town while a restoration company gathered up those things that had not been destroyed, cleaned them of soot and smoke (and dust), wrapped every item large or small first in bubble wrap, then in clean news print (paper without ink), and packed each into boxes. Many hundreds of boxes that were returned to the basement of Ida’s home after it had been repaired and restored. Given her advanced age and physical limitations, she could not maneuver the basement stairs and never had the opportunity to unpack or view these things again.

These many pieces of glassware, collectibles and furniture were collected in earnest for many, many years with the goal of opening a furniture and antique store. My husband’s parents were experienced and knowledgeable in their efforts and accumulated a collection that is surprising in both its quantity and quality -- not just the normal things or the normal quantities that you or I might collect in the span of a lifetime, but in quality and in a quantity that would have permitted them to conduct a robust business. It was a dream for many years. With Ida’s death, the last vestiges of that dream dispersed like smoke that wafts and disappears in the air.

But that still leaves us with those hundreds of boxes. In some of the boxes are the things of family -- a well-researched genealogy and family history painstakingly assembled over many hundreds of hours of research in old books, dusty basements, crumbling documents and then loving written by Ida on legal pads in excruciating detail. In another box are scraps of paper and notes of still more family information, but its importance and its source unnoted and now forever unknown. Another box holds the youngest brother’s college textbooks. Every check and check stub and every bill paid by the couple for most of the last 65 years are in boxes and each piece of paper contains copious notations of the who, what, where, when, why and how of each. She was seriously obsessive in her note taking. There are a number of boxes of family photographs, but now and forever the names of some of the relatives and friends are locked in the secrets of the pixels on the page.

In a small lock box tucked within a box, was a small stash of cash with the heartbreaking note inside the envelope that says, “For a trip around the world on our 40th anniversary.” There wasn’t much money in the box… and what was there was mostly $5 and $1 bills. The sons did send their parents to Hawaii for their 50th anniversary, but the folks had never gone on that trip around the world. A dream… a wish… tucked inside a small metal box and wistfully thought of from time to time but interrupted by life or events or something. A dream unrealized; an adventure unlived. When we showed the family our “find”, each sighed sadly that the trip had never materialized.

We have spent many, many hours UNpacking these boxes of Mother and Dad’s lovingly collected things in order to assess them and to plan for their disposition. Since these items did not come from the house in an orderly fashion after the fire, they were not cleaned, wrapped or repacked in any particular order, so it now requires that every item be unwrapped and removed from every box in order to sort and inventory them all (if there is a 60 piece set of china, the 60 pieces are spread in 60 boxes.)

I’ve stood many of the hours unpacking by myself -- plugged into my mp3 -- unwrapping the paper and the bubblewrap, examining the piece and determining whether a like item had been unpacked from any one of the hundreds of previously unpacked boxes and adding a piece to an existing stack or starting a new pile wherever space allows. There are many, many beautiful and exquisite pieces of china, dishware, serving ware, statues and bottles. There are some truly stunning items that when lifted from the paper immediately elicited a hearty, “Oh my Lord!” We joke that in every box there is at least one “OML” moment. Mostly the OML moments are in response to the striking beauty of a piece or a pattern or the delicacy of its construction and the awe that it not only survived through the years, but survived the fire and the process of cleaning, wrapping, packing, transporting and unpacking without a scratch. That’s not to say that a few of the OML moments come upon opening (what to me anyway) is some awesomely ugly piece or something that defies any attempt to determine what it is… and you find yourself saying, “OML, what were they thinking?” or “OML, what do you suppose this is?”

Many times I have unwrapped an item and said, “Oh, Ida, how beautiful!!” and was touched by a sense of sadness that I never had the opportunity to tell that to Ida directly because for all the things she collected, she never shared them with anyone. Even before the fire, these beautiful collections occupied an assortment of antique china cabinets, bookcases and shelving behind locked doors. Occasionally, she would escort us through the many rooms where her “stuff” resided, but the walks through these rooms were never long enough to stop and appreciate the beauty or to learn any of the stories that attached to each piece: who designed it, who made it, why it was important (or not) and how it came to be in Ida’s possession; for the most part, all the details lost. Of course I can research the pattern and the manufacturer, but the humanity of the glass or the dish or the woman who peers from the abalone picture frame has vanished now. I cannot count the times I have wondered over these past days whose glass it might have been or where Ida had found such a treasure… and even whether she had the same reaction to the beauty of a vase or lamp as I experienced. We would need a museum-sized home were we to take home all of the things that we covet for their beauty and elegance and timelessness.

Overall, as I have told my DH, I wish my MIL had taken more time to share her collection and the information with us and with other people for it is entirely evident to me that even if she had no intention of immediately selling anything, there are many, many people that would have enjoyed and celebrated the diversity and beauty of these things.

I have also had many solitary hours to think on larger things -- mostly in a series of bumper pool-like “conversations” conducted in my head. For instance, in thinking of the grave markers in my husband’s family plot and my family’s as well, I recalled that very early in our relationship while walking hand in hand through a very old graveyard, my husband and I had a conversation regarding some of the tombstones and the epitaphs they contained. In the course of our conversation, I asked him what he’d like to be remembered for when he died. After a few moments of thought, he responded that he’d like to be remembered as a good son, a good brother, a good husband and a good father. (Before I go on, I’d like to note here for the record that he has been a great son, brother, husband and father… there is no one better.)

Standing those many hours in the basement and a warehouse plugged into my mp3, I have also had the opportunity to sing aloud which I realized that I used to do all the time, but at some point I began to worry about what others thought of my singing instead of just enjoying the fun or emotion of the music, and I stopped sing when there are ears other than mine around. I also consciously thought how I needed to finish each night in time to get upstairs in time to catch “Baseball Tonight”… thought on conversations with Noah (doing OK) and the other kids (all good), chats with my sisters (they’re such good and fun people), discussions with my husband (I sure do love that man!) and trying to do some “big picture” planning of upcoming events over the next few months (still in flux). I thought about how Ida had never gotten to open that antique store… I thought of my own dear Mom and how much I miss her even after 17 years. And, every once in a while, many of these random thoughts and ideas would link up and morph into an entirely new train of thought such as answering the question of what I might want on my memorial marker some day far, far away and a long, long time from now.

As I thought about this, I decided that I didn’t want my marker to just be “titles” like Mother… wife… sister… but rather it should be a reflection of my life as I saw it. So, at the very top it would have my name and birth date… I suppose tradition dictates that the date of death be there. Here’s how I envision my memorial stone:

E, NOAH, J & H
BROTHERS & SISTERS (or maybe their names K, F, K, L, P & M)
NIECES & NEPHEWS (I think I'll list the 14 by name!)

I plan to run out of room on that stone.

Moral of the story: If you have a dream -- go live it!! If you have something precious -- share it!! If you have a gift -- use it!! You have a life -- GO LIVE IT!
Copyright 2007 Some Soldier's Mom. All rights reserved.


At 4/09/2007 6:07 AM , Blogger Stacy said...

Gosh how I would love to be there with you and DH. Don't think that we would get much unpacking done for all the talking though.

Glad you are back home, only if it's for a few days.

Thanks for sharing this beautiful story with us.

At 4/09/2007 7:01 AM , Blogger tamaraf said...

This is new to me....I am the mom of a soldier currently in Iraq. When back 'home' this weekend (we moved to Austin in Oct.)I found an article in the local magazine featuring women. I have been craving a connection to women experienced or experiencing this aspect of motherhood. I am not from a Military family, so this is an ongoing learning experience. Also, having raised our children back home, I think your Noah may be my sons high school friend. I didn't know Noah's last name at the time but the photo was incredibly familiar...I would love to write more and get to know all of you but having never done this I will sign off and see if this message ends up where it is intended to go.
Thank you for taking that extra step to organize this opportunity for us to be there for one another!

At 4/09/2007 9:31 AM , Blogger Some Soldier's Mom said...

tamaraf - you can email me at we're here for you, sister... every step of the way.

At 4/09/2007 5:45 PM , Blogger Butterfly Wife said...

I saw this post earlier today while I was still at work and after I scrolled down to see how long it was, I knew that I would by crying by the end of the post. So I waited until i was home to cry at my leisure. Sure enough, the tears came right at the end. Such a lovely message. I am deeply touched by your sharing. Thank you.

At 4/10/2007 12:18 AM , Blogger 8675309 said...

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with us. :)

At 4/10/2007 7:36 AM , Blogger kbug said...

Beautifully written...SSM. Life is such a beautiful gift. It should be lived to its fullest and enjoyed every second of every day and shared with those we care about. The people around us are a part of the gift of life. I can't imagine where I'd be without my family and friends...the people who love me no matter what. And I make sure they know just how much they mean to me..... :)

At 4/10/2007 10:48 AM , Anonymous Susan said...

Your MIL death spoke of a good life. Even though her treasures may not have always been shared they gave her immeasurable pleasure. Now when you look at them imagine to yourself how marvelous her eyes must have looked when she gazed on a certain vase or dish. She lived life and left a powerful legacy with her family and we who read your blog appreciate the goodness of heart she passed on. Thanks for keeping all of us closer who have family or friends in the military to protect our precious freedoms.

At 4/12/2007 9:54 AM , Anonymous Andi said...

Great post!

At 4/15/2007 3:13 PM , Anonymous Call Me Grandma said...

I would like to think that your MIL did make that trip around the world. We all do in due time.
I already have my tombstone and it has nothing but my name and praying hands above it. Dave's name is on the left side of the stone and Gene's is on the right side of the stone. They each have a rose above their names...nothing fancy.
We got this stone after Dave passed on. I could never bring myself to think of those things before.

At 5/10/2007 6:00 AM , Anonymous said...

I read the WHOLE thing. I'm crying. Thanks for sharing. It sounds like you have a terrific family.

I have my own "piles" of paperwork and I hate the thought of anyone else having to go through it all should something happen to me. Maybe your story will help me deal with this problem. Being a military family means we have moved every two years and I never seem to get organized. The old pictures and scrapbook type stuff alone fill an entire closet. Will I ever get to it?

Now we're in Germany and I'm again overwhelmed with finding a home for everything in the house. I have a chronic health condition which makes getting through every day a challenge. So, waiting for the right energy or the right time to tackle the crap isn't working for me. I think I'll have to hire someone. Want to be an adopted mom and come to Germany for a few weeks to help me with the junk? Wish I could find home organizers here...

My dh served in Afghanistan with the 18 Airborne Corps and with the 3ID in OIF1. I'm sorry your son is hurting from his wartime experience. Thank God he has you!

My parents have both passed. Dad died when I was a young girl. My sisters and I went through some of mom's stuff when she died 12 years ago. She had moved and downsized many times, so there wasn't too much stuff. I treasure her HS autograph book with the silly rhymes the kids wrote to her. What you have done is such an HUGE undertaking.

Anyway, just thought I'd let you know I read the whole story and more after stumbling upon your blog today. I enjoyed it very much. Your family is fortunate to have your love - let's hope that tomb stone isn't made for a very long time.


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