Published on August 8th, 2016 | by Jennifer Baum18
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.
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.
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.
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!!”
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.