Ordinary Artifacts

By slgckgc/ Flickr

By Samantha Vincenty

My gym bag’s zipper is broken. The crinkled fabric’s worn through at the bottom and it’s time to throw it in the trash, but I can’t. Not yet.

My boyfriend finds me in a daze on our bedroom floor, my hands on the empty bag in my lap like I’m clinging to a dead pet.

“You don’t have to throw it away,” he says, crouching down to look at me. He knows what it means, why I hold the receptacle for my sweaty socks in such high regard.

My mother died four years ago, but I’d cleaned out her apartment a few years before that when it became dangerous for her to keep living alone—she was one more forgotten stovetop fire away from harming herself and the other tenants in her building. I’d held on to the bag, among other things, ever since.

The bag is bright fire-engine red, not auburn red like the hair I was born with and the hair my mother dyed to match mine. Mom bought it at New York & Company, that bastion of career separates, as uncool as (or marginally cooler than) Ann Taylor. The zipper pulls resemble MTA subway tokens with an identical “NYC” cutout logo and the words “The NYC Style Authority” wrapping around the circle. I wonder if these details are why she wanted the bag. Maybe the faux tokens reminded her of riding the IRT by her childhood home in the Bronx, or commuting to her nursing job at Columbia Presbyterian before she gave birth to me and we moved to the suburbs that made her so restless.

The New York City subway stopped accepting tokens in 2003. My mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis came into full, horrific bloom that same year. I quit my job to become her part-time caregiver, using subway tokens to ride from Brooklyn to Grand Central. Three times a week I’d take a commuter train to Yonkers so I could take her on walks, clean up all of the nonsensical piles and mysterious stains she’d made around the apartment, and cook us steaks on her George Foreman grill. The oven was now officially off limits, and it was important to stay on-message: Never ever turn it on.

In 2003 my mother, an artist for most of her life, cried because she could no longer sketch or paint realistic likenesses. She forgot to love some of her favorite things (Pet Shop Boys lyrics, romance novels, tweezing her immaculate eyebrows), but I liked how she also forgot to refuse things that she’d previously sworn off (cream soda, sushi, a ludicrous soap opera called Passions). I was twenty-four and envious of the career pursuits my friends described over syrupy-sweet cocktails at happy hour. I drank more than I needed. I drank quickly, too, to forget how exhausting it all was but also to make sure I was having the fun I thought I so richly deserved. In those days my mother would call me constantly to ask when I’d be back, sometimes just hours after I’d been there. Her thoughts were getting foggier by the day, and she hated being alone with them. She still remembered who I was.

By 2004, subway tokens were out of circulation, and I used a Metrocard to get to Grand Central. Mom didn’t want to move into a nursing home, but at twenty-five I had burned through my savings and needed to find a job. Worry, about my future and hers, stole hours of sleep from me at night. My mother needed full-time supervision—in addition to the stove fires and sink floods, she had started wandering the streets alone, forgetting where she lived. So I returned to Yonkers to sort my mother’s things into three piles: Discard, donate, or keep. I kept the red bag because I wanted something she’d used in her normal, pre-illness life. It served me well for a very long time, but now the bag’s demise feels like another ending.

I know I’m not alone. A colleague who lost his father two years ago recently told me that he rummages through his parents’ drawers just to touch his dad’s folded clothes. “I like, lay on his side of the bed and try to smell the pillow and shit, even though I know it’s been washed.”

We’ve talked about that connection we all yearn for, between a lost one’s tangible things and their memory. We need the artifacts. No, I don’t want my small New York apartment to be a Dead Mom Museum. But should I let go of something if it feels like a fresh burial?

I’m still not sure. So the bright red bag remains on the floor, unused and un-useful, while I figure out what feels right. I may turn one of the subway-token zipper pulls into a keychain, as a functional monument to a time that fundamentally shaped me as a person.

There are two zipper pulls, actually, and I’m keeping them both: One for me and one for the woman I remember.


SAMANTHA VINCENTY is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Hairpin, Fuse.tv and BUST, and she is currently at work on a memoir. She tweets about music, pop culture, and weird stuff she finds on the street as @shermanther.

Pin It

Bringing Back the Dead

By netlancer2006/ Flickr

By Michael Laser

On this day thirty-nine years ago, my mother died.

Last night I went down to the kitchen and lit a candle for her, as I’ve done for many years. Standing before the flame, I remembered her face and certain moments when her playful, girlish spirit glowed most brightly. More ambitiously, I tried to open myself to these memories, to love her and grieve for her again—to cut through the hardened skin and reach the tender place that time has buried.

As always, I fell short.

It’s a Jewish tradition to light a yahrzeit candle (the word means “time of year” in Yiddish) the evening before the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I’ve been doing this for a long time—for my mother, for my sister’s first husband, who died when he was thirty-six, and for my father. You’re supposed to light the candle at sunset, but I wait longer, until my children are asleep and my wife is watching television upstairs. Bringing the dead back to life requires solitude, silence, and concentration.

The memory I reconstructed last night was the time my mother took me skiing at Sterling Forest. I was fourteen and itching to ski a second time, after a trip organized by a local Jewish center the winter before. My mother never managed to pass her driver’s test, so we took a bus from the Port Authority, after an hour-long bus and subway trip from Queens. (This took place during the two-year period of my parents’ divorce, before she gave up her dream of a happier life and married my father again.) She didn’t dare put on skis herself; instead, she spent the day in the heated lodge. Each time I checked in, she smiled a full-to-bursting smile. She may have been glad to see her son enjoying himself—or perhaps some handsome stranger had flirted with her. She had always craved adventure and romance, and rarely got any.

Looking back, her generosity seems almost superhuman. Getting there without a car had taken hours—and then she had to spend the day inside a soggy snack bar. Yet she never complained, or even sighed. (Of course, it’s possible that I’m misremembering.)

Not even this memory, though, could break open the locked place. The trouble is, I’ve used it before. My fund of memories is limited; I’ve gone back to the same ones too many times.

The candle burned on the stove all night, and it’s still burning today. Each time I pass through the kitchen, the pale flame reminds me to pause and think of her. Each sighting is another chance to pay her the tribute she deserves.

Again and again, I fail.


My parents never belonged to a synagogue. I grew up without Hebrew school, seders, or religious belief. I find it odd therefore, and a bit absurd, to catch myself lighting yahrzeit candles.

There’s a simple explanation: when I was young, I saw my mother do this for her mother. After she died, it seemed a comforting way to honor her. For me, the custom has nothing to do with faith. Rather, it’s a way of repaying through remembrance the love I owe to those I’ve lost.

But why is it so hard? It shouldn’t be. I’m not trying to contact the spirit world, or hold a soul in my hand, or see eternity.

The answer is scar tissue. My mother died when I was nineteen and away at college. She’d had a hysterectomy the year before, and it had gone badly; she swelled and never felt right again. Still, her sudden death, alone at home while my father worked, stunned and overwhelmed us all. Those first few days, I worked to keep hold of myself, to get through the hours without breaking down in tears. Then a little granule of thought or memory would set loose an overpowering wave of grief. I hated the feeling—like a seizure, or a psychotic episode—and fought it with all my will. Holding it together: the words describe perfectly the effort to keep from falling apart.

I resisted grief just as tenaciously as I resisted other difficult emotions. My parents’ raging fights had terrified me as a child; I closed the door and shut out their voices to keep the horror from touching me.

Those waves of pain after my mother’s death battered and breached my fortifications. Each one left me more determined not to give in to the next.

Since then, I’ve built more barricades. That’s the real reason why I can’t reach the place I seek as I stare at the yahrzeit flame: the armor is too thick. I’m no more capable of voluntarily returning to that pain than I am of strangling myself with my own hands. The older I get, the less of the mourner’s feeling remains. I linger at the flame, but eventually have to accept that I’m not getting any closer. Regretfully, I leave the candle behind and go upstairs.

It’s not that I’m no longer capable of grief, only that I can’t recover the sensation in these old wounds—not by concentrated effort, anyway.

When memories come unsolicited, though, I can still surprise myself. A few days before my father’s yahrzeit this year, a speaking engagement took me to Florida, where he had lived for the last twenty-four years of his life. As my wife and son and I stepped out of the jetway, the familiar blend of heat, air-conditioning, and humidity carried me back to the many times when I’d visited and found him waiting right here at the gate, searching for my face. The emotion I’ve been seeking at the candle nearly drowned me. For my wife and son, who’d known my father only in old age, this was an ordinary arrival, free of emotion. For me, it came with a crushing reminder that my father, whose bent leg I used to slide down, will never come to meet me again.


For some, religious ritual opens the door to the spirit. Not for me. Reluctant to say words I don’t believe, I avoid ceremonies and prayers of all kinds.

That doesn’t mean I deny the spiritual altogether. There’s more to us than earning a living, running errands, and watching TV. I don’t want to lapse into sentimental hooey, but I do believe that each of us has a soul—a stew of hopes and sorrows, ideals and memories, rarely perceived except in solitude.

Once, in Central Park, I found myself alone under the trees with rain falling quietly on the leaves around me and on the umbrella above my head. That unexpected peace filled me with bliss. Though inexperienced in such matters, I recognized the state as a gentle form of what others might call religious ecstasy.

Yahrzeit candles serve as another entryway to this mysterious place. If anything can inspire meditation, it’s a small, slender flame. (Think of Georges de La Tour’s paintings, especially “The Penitent Magdalen.”) Even a whisper will upset the fragile fire; a forceful breath will put it out. As the flame consumes wax and wick, you can’t help thinking of the span of a life.

By gazing at the candle, I remove myself from the tasks that keep me busy. Although my goal is more emotional than spiritual, the effort resembles a monk’s prayer: an attempt to contact something intangible. I find it ironic, even a bit embarrassing, that I—the most irreligious person I know—should end up in so devout a pose.

If my goal is unguarded love and sorrow, then I’ve never reached it. I can admit to myself now that I no longer expect to. Even so, there’s satisfaction in simply pausing before the candle and remembering. Though sometimes the memories that come back are exactly the wrong kind—my mother sobbing because the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, my father’s vicious words when they fought, my brother-in-law shouting, “Prick!” at another driver who’d cursed him—recalling these moments brings my lost family back into the world. That’s no small achievement, after so many years.

Rather than struggle to feel what I can’t, I intend to celebrate future yahrzeits by enjoying the memories: Danny, my brother-in-law, making waves with an air mattress at Aunt Dotty’s above-ground pool until the water splashed over the side, sending cousin Gregory and me to the highest heights of boyish happiness. And my father patiently driving me wherever I asked him to on those Saturday mornings when they were divorced—to Kennedy Airport to watch planes take off, and the new McDonald’s for lunch, and one Shell station after another, so I could collect a complete set of commemorative coins of the presidents. I see now why he indulged that ridiculous desire: like my mother taking me skiing by bus, he knew their battles had left me wounded, and would have done almost anything to repair the damage.

Those pointless coins have been lost for decades. The memory is still with me, though, rich enough to yield new understanding even now.


MICHAEL LASER writes novels for adults and adolescents. His most recent book is Hidden Away, about a teenager who disappears on the morning of the SAT. For more about him and his work, visit michaellaser.com.