In 30 days, it will be two years since my mother died. During the first year, I visited home three times. This was written the first time I was in the house with just my father and our memories.
My mother was a shelf-stocker: she bought on sale and filled pantry and basement shelves with canned goods and a freezer with the more perishable items. It took my father six months after my mother’s memorial service to eat all of the Cheerios she had squirreled away. Then he found two more huge, warehouse store-sized boxes in another cabinet.
I’ve been home three other times since my mother’s death: while she was dying; for her memorial; and during the holidays. All of those trips included large family gatherings. This is the first time I’ve been in the house with just my father and our memories.
Grief: Experiencing An Absent Life as ‘Phantom Limb’
Dad says he can feel Mom in the house, “not like she’s a ghost or something, but when I’m sitting watching TV, I can feel her coming in to tell me something or when I’m in that brown chair in the corner of the living room, I can feel her coming into the room to let me know something.” I ask him if it is perhaps like “phantom limb,” where an amputee never fully loses the feeling that the arm or leg that is part of them is still there. Dad says maybe that’s more nearly what the feeling resembles.
I live so far from my parents that the familial “limbs” have long since been much attenuated. Since I married, my own home has been about 900 miles from my childhood home. I talked to my mother every weekend and visited Maine once or twice a year. After my mother died, the weekend telephone calls ceased, as did the occasional mailed envelope that enclosed a recipe or a news clipping with her hand-written “Thought you might enjoy” written across the top. Letters were never her strong suit. Nor were hugs, expressions of pride, or even the standard signature line: “Love, Mom.” This past year has not felt much different from any other year, except for the occasional emails about probate.
Grieving: Clutching What Remains of the Past
What brought me to tears on this visit was opening the chest freezer in the basement and seeing that it is still stocked with eight or ten large plastic boxes of cookies Mom baked. Dad isn’t eating them. I would guess that when the cookies are gone, Mom will finally and completely be gone, and he’s not ready to let that happen.
For myself, as the only daughter who apparently left home before Mom was ready to open her jewelry box to her girls, I had become upset soon after the funeral to realize I was the only daughter not to own any of her jewelry. My youngest sister couldn’t understand how much I wanted Mom’s 1948 high school class ring. She sent it almost immediately, beautifully wrapped. Jewelry is a personal passion and I truly believe it grew from seeing the quality pieces my mother bought for herself while she was single and inherited from her college-educated mother and aunts. One of my first vintage purchases was a round sterling cutout brooch of tiger lilies, from the same series as a pine cone and tassel brooch my mother owned.
It turns out that I, more than most of my brothers and sisters, capture memories in objects. I have a 1920s glass bowl in the shape of a swan that was an anniversary gift to my mother’s childhood employer; a framed mirror that was a wedding present to her parents; Arabiaware mugs she and Dad bought from a crowded discount shop when I was just a kid; a Victrola given to her grandmother by her mother and her aunt in gratitude for the opportunity to graduate from college. I wear my mother’s pink chenille bathrobe. I like to hope that the memories I can touch have meaningful lives: that they are different from the insects that become trapped and die in hardening amber.
One of my strongest “living” memories of my mother is her resistance to being memorialized. She would have no funeral, no memorial service, no gravestone or printed obituary. She especially objected to the common practice of printing, with obituaries, photographs many decades old. “Why are they putting in a picture that doesn’t look how she does?” Mom would ask, time and time again. It never made sense to her that perhaps, a classmate who hadn’t seen the deceased in decades would recognize the photo of the younger self more readily.
So this is not a memorial to my mother, Edith Mae Hill. But in keeping with her wishes, I’m not including a photo of her as a young woman. My cousins from California took this photo of Dad and Mom in our blueberry fields during the last harvest before her death. The vegan diet she chose for her health at age 79 brought her down to her high school weight. So perhaps her high school friends would recognize Edith Mae Larrabee anyway.
We miss you, Mom. Here’s to amother good harvest at Larrabee Maine Wild Blueberry Farm.