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.