Published on August 8th, 2016 | by Jennifer Baum


SHE LIKED TO SAVE THINGS: Jennifer Baum Shares What Her Mother Left Behind

My mother wasn’t a hoarder, but she liked to save things. Everything had a purpose, everything could be useful at one time or another, she said over the years when my sister and I told her to throw stuff away.

The bedroom I grew up in on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was initially my father’s office, where he stored his tools, telescopes, cameras and liquor. My sister and I shared a room, but once I turned six and my sister eight, my parents separated us.

Wagon, Telescope lenses, espresso maker boxes (1)

As the small room was already crowded with his things, my father built another closet for me with sliding shoji screen doors. My bed, bookcase, dresser and desk squeezed into the 13’ by 15’ space. My electric train set nailed to a board leaned up on the wall behind the door and my gymnastics mat squished under my bed.

After my father died when I was ten, my mother left his belongings intact because they reminded her of him. Some objects were useful – the liquor, and hammers and nails. Others became obsolete, like his slide projector and 8mm film camera. Still others, like his micrometer caliper or his tungsten carbide rod saw, we just didn’t have a clue how to use.

After I moved out, my room became the guest room. My mother removed my desk and replaced my bed with a fold-out couch for visitors. Because I was transient, living in tiny spaces in Brooklyn, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Paris, many of my possessions remained, among them coin and button collections, books, photo albums, journals, and the letters my parents, sister, friends, and I exchanged over the years. My mother also began adding her own books, clothes, and papers, in the room, as well.

After my mother’s partner Ike had a stroke, she installed him in the apartment and my former bedroom turned guest room became his study. A long plywood Ikea desk spanned much of the wall where my desk and dresser had been. Though Ike kept his suburban New Jersey condo where they went on weekends for jaunts into the country, she moved many of his possessions into her jam-packed home. The office was now stuffed with his stuff, more papers, books, clothes, on top of my mother’s, father’s, and my belongings.

Toy and Junk closesr (1)

By the end, leading up to my mother’s sudden death from a heart attack at age 77, my former bedroom became more like a dumping ground, a place where my mother stored things that had no other place to go or for which she had no energy to dispose. She was so spent, so wasted, so exhausted taking care of Ike, showering him, dressing him, bringing him to the doctor, deflecting his “You idiot” remarks, shopping, cooking, maintaining two homes, plus still working as an education advocate that she had little time to care for the apartment or herself. The beautiful closet my dad built for me bulged, the doors no longer staying on their track, the shoji screen panels torn, revealing clothes meant to give away, crumpled wrapping paper, old toys, thirty-year-old stained sleeping bags, and mounds and mounds of documents to be shredded.

As my sister and I were emptying out the apartment, after my mother died, in the shoji screen closet we found numerous toiletry kits, soap containers, travel-sized shampoos and mouthwashes. They were for her trips to visit me. She was too busy or tired to dig them out, so she kept buying new ones instead.

We also discovered heaps of bags—plastic bags, reusable canvas bags, shopping bags from department stores like Macy’s, B. Altman’s, Lord and Taylor, Saks, and Bloomingdales. It was as if she were leaving them there on purpose, or perhaps subconsciously, for us to use to clean out the apartment once she was gone.

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I shipped home to Arizona my father’s tools and telescopes and the letters my mother and I exchanged over the years. It was hard to clean out that space. But reading these letters, I am left ever grateful for my mother’s belief in saving things. Whenever I miss her, I can open my drawer and read a letter, her voice, love, concern, intelligence, and sharp wit momentarily coming alive. They speak to a culture and time I might otherwise forget.

Four months after my father died, my mother wrote to me at camp – July 18, 1974: “Your letters are fabulous… I enjoy reading them until I get to the crying parts. You seemed to have gotten over that and then I came to visit and spoiled it all!”

Camp – July 22, 1975: “Yesterday I went to Saks with Aunt Susan for their sales and you would be proud of me: I bought a strappy, blousy, batiky (brown, black, gold) mid-calf- length BRALESS DRESS!”

Camp – July 27, 1977: “The Volvo is getting about 18 miles to the gallon!!”

Broken Shoji screen (1)

When I was upset about not being awarded best gymnast prize at camp because the coaches thought another girl needed more reassurance than me, even though I was a better gymnast, my mother wrote – August 20, 1977: “They had no right to play amateur psychologist that way. At least Ron (the coach) could have spoken to you beforehand and you’d have had a chance to be the all-time good sport. Instead they made a hash of the whole thing! But you and I know how much you worked and self-satisfaction is more important than any old trophy. I hope you are over your anger because I’ve taken it over for you.”

When I was at Oberlin College – October 15, 1981: “I gained 6-8 pounds on the trip to England! I ate everything in sight and enjoyed myself doing it. I haven’t been hungry since Oct 3rd. It culminated in scones and clotted cream and jam on the plane coming home! Since being home I’ve been successfully Scarsdaling (reference to the Scarsdale diet).”

A letter describing her high school reunion – May 26, 1982: “The major change in everyone was that instead of being nasty, sarcastic, jealous and competitive, everyone was nice to everyone else. We all seemed to have become mature women at ease with ourselves at last. Life may very well begin at 45.”

How well my mother disguised her sorrow about my father’s death. She never dwelled on her struggles, only communicating concern about mine. She went back to school immediately and built a new life for herself. She was always upbeat, engaged and insightful about the world around her. As I look at my own son, and think about how to stay steady for him in the world, I pick up the things she refused to throw away. These are the gifts she left me.

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About the Author

Jennifer Baum has a MFA in Filmmaking from the University of British Columbia, a certificate in Master Novel Writing from University of California Los Angeles, and a MTESOL from Arizona State University. Currently, she teaches composition to international students at Arizona State University. She has been published in the Village VoiceCanadian Jewish OutlookThe Jewish Observer, Mutha Magazine, Guernica Daily and NewFound, which nominated her creative nonfiction essay, A Different Set of Rules, for a Pushcart award. She is working on a full-length memoir about growing up in subsidized housing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan based upon her essay A Different Set of Rules. In addition, she is writing a novel about a cynical, damaged city girl who escapes to a summer job in a zealous Yellowstone church community, where she befriends a pious girl struggling with her own demons, and together they find what’s been missing in their lives. Her short films have screened in Havana, Seattle, Tokyo, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Toronto, and Ottawa.

18 Responses to SHE LIKED TO SAVE THINGS: Jennifer Baum Shares What Her Mother Left Behind

  1. Stacy Pearson says:

    Love this piece so much. I can almost hear her voice in the letters.

  2. Julia Fournier says:

    Love this piece. So much comes though about your mom. What I take
    away from this is that she did not have time to think about the stuff as
    she was so overwhelmed with caring for others, both emotionally and physically.
    What a dear person she must have been.

  3. Isaako Si'uleo says:

    I recently did a major cleanup and proudly dumped years of unneeded stuff. The things I kept had to pass a simple test – will this be useful to someone in any way? I allowed boxes of photographs and a closet of vintage clothes for my own nostalgia, but was brutal about everything else. I hope I did as well as Jennifer did in my sorting and tossing. The photos of her Mom’s empty apartment are heartbreaking (I always admired her taste in furniture, music and art), but I can see that she handled everything admirably. Thanks to Jennifer for sharing this memory!

  4. Sarah Sullivan says:

    I love this piece. You and your mom know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. The important stuff stays with us, in our hearts and minds. Bless you both with your humanity and sense of humor. I am glad that your mom valued your thoughts and words. I know I do. Bless you.

  5. catha Abrahams says:

    How well this brings Judy back to me! It used to be fashionable to try to assign a color to an individual’s personality. For me your mother was brown…the color of earth, solid and warm and supportive . As for the piles of stuff, we were depression babies raised in a time and in a place where plenty had not yet arrived. Once we really had more than enough, our habits were formed.
    Great piece, Jenny!

  6. Susan Bloomenstein says:

    Thank you, Jenny for sharing the completed memoir with me..
    It really brought Judy to life for a little while and the apartment- her home as well.
    You did a great job!

  7. Phoebe Farber says:

    I loved this moving piece about mothers, fathers, loss and small New York City apartments. The author captures so beautifully the mixture of humor and loss at finding gems among the trash her mother left behind. It makes me wish I had such letters from my own father after he died.

  8. Joe says:

    This is a beautiful piece. Reminded me of going through my parents’ apartment after my father died and finding tools and gizmos he had held on to for fifty years or more–and remembering how much joy those things brought him.

  9. Allen Braude says:

    What a beautiful,and sensitive piece. I’m so glad that you have some of things your mother saved to help you cope with losing her. Thank you for sharing this!

  10. Molly Dugan says:

    This piece touched me deeply. Your portrait of your mother feels so honest and so loving and captures a time and a place so beautifully. It makes me want to know more – I hope you write more about it!

  11. Betsy Schneider says:

    I love the idea of personal archeology also the idea of relationships and objects and memory and your vivid description of what you were like as a young person–and maybe too the rite of passage that clearing out our parents homes that for some of us are still filled with stuff we’ve left behind.

  12. Marilyn Kynaston says:

    What a lovely piece about love and loss Jennifer. Thank you for sharing this. You so eloquently capture your Mother. I want more. Bravo.

  13. Maureen Melle says:

    I so enjoyed reading this. It brings back memories of going through the stuff my mother never threw out after her death. My sisters and I found all manner of her things, many that we were aware of and some surprises. We found a section of her closet where she hung tops and bottoms together by color and size. She also wrote notes to herself pinned to the clothes reminding her what they went with, where to wear them etc. We found the receipt from her honeymoon trip to Niagra Falls, from the hospital when I was born, endless photos, old costume jewelry and other treasures. She also left my father’s things untouched after his death. It looked like he might walk in the door at anytime more than 20 years after he died. Thanks for sharing your experience as well as your mother, who I never have met.

  14. Eve says:

    Such a poignant piece. Wonderfully evocative. I look forward to reading more from this author.

  15. Tracey Morris says:

    I loved this! Beautifully written and artistically photographed!

  16. Amy Flynn says:

    I loved this piece. Your mother and your relationship came through, filled with warmth.

  17. Jamie Schaffner says:

    So poignant. A beautifully rendered complex mother-daughter relationship: love, laughter, letters, loss. And the emptiness, what’s not said, is stark and achingly moving.

  18. Junghwa Kim says:

    I really enjoy reading this, Jennifer! What a great piece!I am so touched by your sensitive and detailed observation. Bravo!

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