Saturday, December 01, 2012


Mom was a pack rat--she didn't throw away much of anything.  That this characteristic no doubt relates to her history as a WWII survivor, immigrant, frugal daughter of a frugal single-Mom, etc. is a story for another day.  What I'm focused on now is the power (and lack thereof) of objects.

After being widowed in 2006 and, thus, moving into my house, Mom's possessions furnished two other houses of relatives.  And she still moved into her own bedroom at Galatea surrounded by boxes.  At one point, I chided her, "Mom, you're living like a homeless person in your room.  Can you unpack some of those boxes and give things away?"

Over time, I managed to loosen bags and bags of clothes, shoes and bags for charity.  But she still left a lot behind.  She just couldn't let go.  The hubby's theory is that she built a nest around her as a widow, a nest formed from objects from her prior life--"prior" meaning before she left her own home behind to enter mine. 

I'm not unsympathetic.  But I can't tell you how many times I, or the hubby, has dismantled one of her boxes, thinking, "The contents must be special given how conscientiously this is wrapped or packed...." only to discover things like used hangers, old plastic planters, a bunch of old-fashioned shoulder pads (in case they returned to fashion...?), plastic bags, broken bits of ceramic tchotchkes, paper bags, old small bottles of lotions and shampoos from past hotel stays, and some unmentionables which I don't want to reveal but would astound you as they astounded me at their presence.

Since I've began clearing Mom's things, I've given away about 20 bags of books to the library, a dozen large suitcases worth of clothes, shoes and bags to those who might need them in the local community as well as the Philippines, as well as cleared out at least five huge trash bags of trash and at least the same amount for recycling!  Yet, when one enters her bedroom, it doesn't look like I've cleared out much--there's still a lot to sift through!  I'm fearful it'll take at least a year to finish going through her things.  I'm not sure how my psyche will weather this ... journey.

It's painful going through her things.  Not because the clearing reminds me of her death (which is what I thought the process would be like).  It's painful because I see reminders of neediness and of searches-for-compensation (e.g., "retail therapy")--all of which evoke a life of desire and short-lived succor to such desires.  The volume of the objects today, among other things, even evoke (even if not the case during their years of accumulation but as a total today evoke) a life of unfilled aspirations.  It's like there was such a big hole in her life that she had to cram as many acquisitions as she can manage into it, and yet never got filled.

It's one reason why I am so happy she managed to see her book, DAWAC, before (just about a month! before) she died.  I can point to so many of her accomplishments and yet I know that she always felt a bit insecure because she felt unfulfilled.  She was bedridden in the Philippines for about five months prior to passing away.  At one point, she was asked by one of my cousins what, if anything, she wishes she could have accomplished.  Mom replied, "I wish I had been a lawyer."

Imagine that.  Nearly 83 years old with accomplishments as a young literary critic and an English teacher (I once was stopped by one of her English students on the steps of Low Memorial Library at Columbia University when I was a sophomore or junior; her former elementary school student remembered my Mom because she was such an effective teacher! I was so proud of her!).  Plus she helped so many people--during her funeral services, so many people she'd sent to various theological seminaries, colleges and other schools, as well as two of the people she had housed for free while they were college students in Baguio, spoke on her behalf.  The latter two are now a principal of a school and a current candidate for Mayor in her hometown.  Not to mention her service at various churches.  And of course she was the mother of four children. 

But she ignored what she'd accomplished during the majority of her life to focus on a childhood dream that her own mother prevented.  My grandmother, you see, did not think the legal profession to be a "ladylike" profession, and thus did not support her studying law.  I also vaguely recall how, shortly after we immigrated to the U.S. (she must have been in her mid to late 30s), she attempted to study law while struggling to help support four children as a low-paid immigrant worker (much of her professional pedigree in the Philippines was not useful in the U.S.) and mothering us.  Needless to say, she couldn't continue her law studies, though I suspect it's just as well as I do wonder whether that "law school" that accepted her was a bona fide accredited organization.

Later on during her bedridden state, someone else asked her about how she felt about her life.  And Mom replied, "I've done everything I want to do."  I was so happy to hear that....but I'll never know whether she really believed what she was saying.  I do know that she was just ecstatic over her book and hearing how some people (thank you Joi for thinking it a text and thank you Barbara for suggesting a reading and thank you John for your critical praise which she so relished) have responded so far to it.  I'll never forget how she kept slowly thumbing through the pages of the book, and how she kept re-reading her bio as if that would prove that her life has been meaningful.

That's been one of the blessings of poetry for me--I know that when I reach my death bed I'll never have the thought, "What if I had done ..." because I managed to be what I feel I should be: a poet.  And I know the difference of a life lived doing and not doing what one wants--what one is meant--to do.  I began attempting poetry at age 35: I know my life "before" and "after" age 35.  "After" is definitely better, because I know it's what I should have been doing with my life.

Mom was nearly 83 when she died.  Did she spend most of that life wanting something which she eventually started to hide from herself by distracting herself with other things (that would manifest partly in so many object-acquisitions)?  It's impossible to know, but impossible not to wonder as one looks at all of her ... "stuff"!

Yes, I'm sure many of these objects really offered their own (emotional) values to her.  But now?  Many of these objects are trashed, recycled or given away--they have no value to me, which is to say, the objects are inherently value-less and are just receptacles for desires we (Mom) choose to throw upon them.  Some of these clothes still carry price tags.  Many of the items were not used.  I don't think she was a typical hoarder as we envision those we see on TV shows surrounded by stacks of objects.  But she did have a lot of stuff that I feel were meant to compensate for never having achieved her dream of practicing law.  (Parents--guide your kids but never decide for them how they should live!).

Every day, I do a little bit of clearing.  Every day, I feel like I'm just starting.  Every day, I am confronted by the uselessness or inconsequentiality of something she treasured.  It can be debilitating.  I only know the process won't defeat me because I have put on my "distancing" eye--to see this experience as raw material for ... Poetry.


Fortunately, there are the exceptions.  In some dim corner of a drawer, in some box deep within the closet, there occasionally resides a real treasure.  Here's one, a music-box ornament for a Christmas tree with the Nutcracker theme:

You open the ornament and you see:

Turn the knob, and music plays and the people start to dance...

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