By Gina Easley

By Lee Gulyás

Since my father died, my mother has tried to stay busy by selling antiques and collectibles. She fills up her time and clutters her house with dressers, armoires, vintage hats, children’s toys, and books: leather bound first editions, dusty Zane Gray westerns, school primers, old children’s books with full-color plates. All her purchases, full with their history of use, offer my mother hours of escape from a life steeped in the absence of my father.

When I visit my mother, the only meal we eat at home is cereal. A box from the pantry and milk from the refrigerator don’t interfere with the stacks of Depression glass, lead crystal, bone china, sterling flatware, and collectible spoons she has piled in the kitchen to clean and sell. Ultimately, we find ourselves in restaurants for a large chunk of my trip. After carefully considering specific words, as well as the tone of voice I should use, I muster up the courage to ask about her collecting. She doesn’t look up from her enchiladas, takes a swig of ice tea, and shrugs her shoulders.

“Well … it keeps me out of pool halls,” she snaps.

“No, really, Mom.”

“I don’t know. I like it and it keeps me busy,” she says, punctuating the inevitability of her pastime, as if she had no choice in the matter.

I can’t think of what to say next. I envision her old and frail, in a house so filled with things that to walk through it requires navigating through a maze, a system of paths through unknown territory. My intrepid mother won’t seem inconvenienced by the slow switchback trails between the bathroom and the kitchen—she just bushwhacks through the endless underbrush—stacks of books, boxes of costume jewelry, daguerreotypes, stereoscope cards, enamel kitchenware—and reveals the treasure beneath. “Look,” she says. “Look at this Depression-glass cake stand. What a score.” The extensive collection of objects with a past and a possibly profitable future now waits out the present in her midst.

“Are you done?” she says, jarring me back to my unfinished dinner. “I’m gonna go pay the bill. It’s almost time for Antiques Roadshow.”


Each time I go, the initial entry into my mother’s house is pleasant. It still smells like home, even though she doesn’t cook anymore. After I settle in, look through the pantry to see if there is anything worth eating, situate my things by the stairs in the hallway, I check out the newest magazines in her stacks, piles of Southern Living, Country Living, House & Garden, and Antiques and Collectibles. Then, the reality of my surroundings sinks in.

The piles are neat and orderly, but they cover almost all the kitchen counter space. There is enough room for the coffee maker, and we could easily pull the toaster out, if the desire for toast arises. The kitchen table is clear and clean; its glass top reflects carefully placed items on the display shelves above the windows. Vintage biscuit tins, teapots, and assorted ceramic curios tier the room. Grotesque pioneer faces on porcelain mugs look down with a cold, fixed gaze. I turn away from the stern faces, and notice the pocket door to the dining room is closed. I glide over, quietly slide back the door, and see jumbles of overloaded boxes, filled to the brim and beyond, overflowing with so many goods that not a single sliver of tabletop or floor space is visible. The hallway and sitting room suffer from the same condition. The TV room seems relatively clear; my mother can easily get to the couch and television. I circle back to the kitchen, past the wet bar, and my eyes become filled, cluttered with her accumulations, like the rest of the downstairs.

My head spins. This is what she does. She buys things, spruces them up, and resells them at a profit. This is her reason to wake up in the morning. But I can’t stop thinking how all her purchases will be my responsibility to dispose of after she is gone.


I lug my bags to the room at the top of the stairs, my brother’s former room. I glance around and realize I could be in an entirely different house than the one I left downstairs. The upstairs is clean, spare, and light. When my brother and I left home, my mother commandeered our rooms; his became the guest room, mine became her office. I place my things in the bathroom and drift into her bedroom. The walls are now a soft blue. Instead of my father’s desk, there is a white couch, and blue and white china plates hang on the wall in a geometric pattern. Antique, twin, brass beds occupy the place where the king-size bed used to be.

I remember when she started to change the room; it was several years after my father’s death. I was helping her put clothes away in the closet and she still had my father’s bathrobe hanging on what used to be his side. She became quiet, lowered her face against it, and sobbed, “It doesn’t even smell like him anymore.” Days later, she had fans of paint chips and new fabric to upholster a Victorian couch crammed into the garage. Now this room is hers, but it looks unused, sterile, especially in relation to the downstairs, the part of the house in which she really lives.

I venture downstairs and get comfortable on a couch, my mother already cozy on hers with a quilt and a pillow, ready for Antiques Roadshow to begin. Mom doesn’t just watch the show—she participates in the dialogue, interjects comments about the scarcity of a book, or informs the woman that her vase is, unfortunately, not a Tiffany. An expert asks a young computer executive about the piece of furniture he brought for appraisal. Mom chimes in. “That new-money idiot stripped the original finish from that Queen Anne highboy—bet that took about seventy-five thousand off the price.” The appraiser estimated removing the finish reduced the value by ninety thousand dollars.

Yet my mother is not solely interested in the monetary value. She reveres the heirlooms: the handmade rug with family names stitched around the border, the letters from a soldier to his family at home, the solitary item that a young woman retrieves from her grandparent’s estate. She beams when people relate the stories of who owned the item, and how it is important to them because it was important to their family. One woman, about sixty or so, brought a needlework mural that she thought was peculiar. The appraisers proclaim it the finest specimen of American decorative arts they have ever seen. My mother becomes speechless. The woman learns, via the strange embroidered cloth with a village scene of thatched cottages, hay wagons, and children, that her great-grandmother emigrated from England and had faithfully reproduced her former village onto a hanging that would be placed over a mantle. The woman sheds tears of joy, and my mother grows misty-eyed.

I’d like to think that this is the part where I tell her that everything will be okay, that in time she won’t turn around thinking my father called her name from another room, that she won’t absent-mindedly wait for him to pull his Mercury into the driveway. That in time she won’t dread the words Just one tonight? when she musters the will to get dressed, leave the house, and go out for dinner. Although it is hard for me to accept the sudden loss of my father, I have a husband and daughter at home. I worry about my mother alone in this house full of memories, wandering through rooms dense with echoes of family life.

But I don’t tell her it will be okay. I just sit here, next to her. Somehow, in our numb silence, I know she understands.


When my mom dies, I know it will take months just to get everything unpacked, spread over what little available space is left, and what will I do with it all? What’s important to me? I imagine myself emptying a dresser. I pull out a drawer just a bit too far. It falls to the ground and I spy an envelope taped underneath. I open it and see a sepia-toned photograph of my grandfather stashed next to a tiny key. I now know I will have to open every drawer, every wooden cigar box, every container, or I will inadvertently toss out something hidden away for safekeeping. I will have to search through jacket pockets, desk drawers, and shoeboxes, inside vases, books, and kitchen cabinets. I will have to organize items into piles. Piles to keep: family photographs, my father’s watch, my mother’s ring, a few letters, important papers. Piles to donate: towels, bedding, blankets, clothing. Everything else would fall into piles to sell: a multitude of books, furniture I have always loathed (the pair of round faux-Colonial end tables, the tufted brown leather sofa, embroidered footstools) and the hoards of items I neither care about, nor have room for in my own home.

I could look in the phone book under Estates, call people who specialize in selling the entire contents of households, but I stop short of letting absolute strangers peer into my mother’s solitary life, inviting in larger groups of strangers to speculate whether or not she was totally crazy or just mildly eccentric. I could call other antique dealers to come and buy her treasures, but I would constantly hear my mom’s voice chiding me that everything was worth much more and I’m being duped. The alternate scenario—me dealing with the house item by item—scares me so much that I shiver. Maybe I’ll just torch it all.

But I’m lucky—my mother’s still here. Since my father died just one year after his retirement, my mother had to quickly figure out a life on her own, difficult in a society that dismisses women and the elderly. So I tell her how proud I am—of her resilience, her stubbornness, and for proving that you are never too old to start again. She’s important to me. Not her house, or her things, no matter how many memories they may hold. I tell her, but even if I were silent, she would understand. She always does.


LEE GULYAS lives in Bellingham, Washington, and teaches at Western Washington University. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Prime Number, Event, Barn Owl Review, and The Common.

Pin It

The Rest of the Story

By Gina Kelly

By Lee Gulyas

My first date with the man who would become my husband was a disaster.

It was August, and the San Francisco fog rolled across Ghirardelli Square where we both worked selling things to tourists. As we walked, I noticed Ed had a slight limp, and in that optimistic way of seeing one thing connected to everything else, I thought about my friend who had just sprained his ankle and asked my date if he had sprained his.

“No,” Ed said. “I have a fake leg,” as he tilted his head and gave me a smile, leading me to think he was toying with me.

“Yeah, sure. That’s a good one,” I said, not about to let him, or anyone, play me for a fool.

We drove for coffee in the Mission, away from the water and fog, past the War Memorial Opera House, past the fortune cookie factory and into the sun. Light streamed onto our table and illuminated the twisted branches of the sidewalk trees, sad dogs on leashes, motes of dust revolving in the air. Ed talked about folk art, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Hungarian food. I told him about my love for classical music and punk rock. He didn’t blink, didn’t think the two were incompatible. After a moment of silence, I motioned to his leg and asked how it happened. “My friend shot it off when I was thirteen,” he said, smiling.

“Great, great,” I said, always the cynic. “Do you tell everyone the same story?”

After coffee, we agreed on dinner and more conversation. We talked about landscape and trains and music and literature as the sun disappeared and lights framed the city skyline. I lingered over my calzone and asked him to tell me more. “We were camping in the middle of the desert and my friend got the gun out of the truck and it just went off.” He flashed the same, sly smile, and his eyes gleamed.

“Wow,” I said. “Your story just keeps getting better. You’re really good at this.”

We decided to go for drinks. I took him to a dive bar close to my apartment. He was impressed with the extensive taxidermy, year-round Christmas decorations, dim lighting, and ample margaritas. I selected music on the jukebox—Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Ranchera. We sat on red vinyl-covered swivel stools and sipped drinks under the glow of Christmas lights draped over deer antlers. After a few drinks, we planned for a weekend hike on Mt. Tamalpais.

Later, while I described the mechanical beauty of vintage Italian motorcycles, Ed sat his drink on the bar, leaned over, raised his pant leg, pulled up his sock, and stuck it to the Velcro square on his hard, plastic leg.

I remember my stomach turning, growing tight. I felt queasy and it wasn’t the margaritas. I don’t remember the rest of the evening, what was said, how we parted. What I do know is that at the age of twenty-five, for the first time in my life, I called my mom to talk about a man. After blurting out the story, panicked that I couldn’t go hiking with him, that I’d made such an ass of myself, she set me straight. “It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.”

How could I argue with that?


I’ve never been known for my social grace, yet this blunder had my head spinning. I didn’t want to face Ed after spending the whole afternoon, evening, and night making fun of him, but I couldn’t figure a way out of our next date without making myself look worse. The awful thing was that I was falling for him, and it had seemed so long since this was possible. San Francisco in the eighties was a playground full of sex, drugs, and music, and I had played for years until my circle of friends became smaller (and more responsible). The party was winding down. We no longer danced till four a.m., heading out for breakfast after, tearing through the streets on motorcycles to get home to our beds before the sun came up. Now we worked at our jobs or went to school and met for breakfast on Saturday mornings. I hadn’t been on a date in years, but I was content enough with my job and my friends that being “dateless” didn’t bother me. And I never thought that I was missing anything until the possibility of missing my next encounter with this man outweighed any chance for the salvation of my pride.

The next day was sun and shadow, redwoods and ferns. I wondered if I should say something—apologize for my disbelief, my arrogance—but at first there didn’t seem to be a good time, and as the day went on an apology seemed irrelevant. We sat on a rock in the middle of a rushing stream. We feasted on pistachios and dried figs, listened to woodpeckers and ravens. We scrambled up hills and down ravines, stood above the fog line and peered across to San Francisco.

At the end of the day when his car stopped in front of my apartment, Ed leaned over, stared into my eyes and asked, “Can I do something?” I nodded tentatively and he reached around to the back of my head and took my unruly hair into his hand. He lingered, then let go.

In the coming weeks we walked all over the city to restaurants, movies, and cafés. At Point Reyes, we hiked two miles with full gear in the blue moonlight and made camp on a bluff overlooking the ocean. On a weekend trip to Squaw Valley, he taught me how to downhill ski and never laughed, even after the chair lift knocked me down. We backpacked our way through steep canyons and valleys in the Southwest, swam in cold, spring fed waters in Oak Creek Canyon. I was in new territory—I usually spent my time in restaurants and bars and my idea of outdoors activities took place on a motorcycle. Still, I was hesitant about Ed’s handicap, uncertain of how his disability could change my life.


I couldn’t figure out exactly what I was afraid of. It wasn’t that his prosthesis was limiting—he was way more active and daring than I was. It certainly wasn’t the idea of disability—my aunt had polio, my dad had a permanent tracheostomy, and I have friends with a range of conditions and array of medical apparatuses. So what was my problem?

That’s when I realized that I was my problem. I wasn’t afraid he would need me. I like being needed. I was afraid that I would need him.


It took years for my husband to tell me the rest of the story. How his leg blew open in front of him, how his friend’s father threw him in the back of the truck and drove like hell to the nearest hospital, miles away over rough desert roads. How he waited in the emergency room for hours while the hospital tried to locate his parents so they could authorize emergency treatment, so the doctors could do more than just resuscitate him each time he slipped away. How he spent months in the hospital enduring surgery after surgery, taking away more of his limb because of the spreading gangrene. How a young resident told him to leave the hospital, that he had been allergic to the antibiotic, but the attending doctor wouldn’t even consider allergic reaction a possibility. How leaving the hospital not only saved what was left of his leg, but also saved his life.

Over twenty years later I won’t lie. I won’t say that Ed’s leg has been problem free. Since he is active he often breaks his prosthetic foot. The costly legs have to be replaced every few years, the silicone liners every few months, and insurance doesn’t always cover the expenses. There are times when his skin gets irritated or chafed and then he can’t wear the leg at all. He’s undergone corrective surgery that required him to stay off his leg completely for two months straight—no prosthesis, no walking, no driving. He suffers from back problems; there are days at a time when all he can do is take muscle relaxants and lie flat on his back until the pain subsides. Then there’s the frustration and subsequent depression, a symptom of all the imposed inactivity. He experiences chronic pain, not phantom ones, though he gets those too. But he rarely asks for help; he hates being immobile, reliant on others for his basic needs.

Ed seldom slows down unless he has to. We visit relatives in Hungary. We’ve trekked through rural Mexico, traveled through Romania and Ethiopia, and lived in Yemen—all difficult places to get around. He gardens, bikes, swims, and has a long list of interests and projects, too many for me to keep track of. I’m content in the house, with a book. Ed’s the one that makes me get off the couch and out into the world.

Now he jokes that I married him for the parking space. I laugh, but I have to admit that it is convenient. The state we live in calls the rectangular blue placard that hangs from our rearview mirror “a privilege.” I see it as a courtesy, a small gesture that can only help make this single aspect of his life a little easier.

In the meantime, we’re proof that normal is relative. Sometimes our daughter, now a teenager, has to be reminded why we often can’t go skiing or for a hike, or why we get directed to the front of a crowded parking lot at Disneyland or the fair.

Sometimes I forget too, even though I know my future will include a long parade of orthopedic surgeons, dermatologists, prosthetists, physical therapists, and the accompanying bills. We’ll have to move from our cozy Victorian home to a more practical one-story house, ready for wheelchairs, accessible design, and all the accoutrements of “independent living,” even though there is no such thing, even though in the end it could be me who has to rely upon Ed for care. I suppose this is the rest of the story: nothing is certain—so we go forward the best way we know how.


LEE GULYAS lives in Bellingham, Washington, and teaches at Western Washington University. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Prime Number, Event, Barn Owl Review, and The Common.