Sex, death, and middle age.

Sunday, March 3, 1963

postmark, the Pioneer Hotel, Lubbock, Texas

My sweet Kenny,

I haven’t even unpacked – just hung up the phone and began to write. You don’t know how glad I am that you called. The past few days have been particularly trying.

All I really want to do is be with people I love, and get married, and stay there always. But of course I know how very fortunate I am to have both the job and you. We can always reminisce to the children about the time Mother was manager for the Maid of Cotton’s tour. And how Daddy went to Houston to see her (and a battleship) and called her every Sunday night because he loved her so much he couldn’t bear not to call. And about how Grandpapa wrote her letters saying to “get that foolishness over with and come home where you belong.” And how Grandmother wrote that she was missed so much, but time was passing quickly and to have fun but hurry home. Just think! And little Kenny will want to hear about all the airplanes, and little Kathleen will want to know if maybe she can do something like that someday. See how I spend my time – daydreaming!

Well – ’bout time I was really dreaming: of a wedding where I wear a dress as pretty as the one I saw yesterday, and you look handsome, and they live happily ever after.

Do hope the bid at Millington goes better than you expect. Maybe some of the smaller ones will come thru, too. Let me know, please.

Maybe your dreams tonight will be as sweet as mine will.

Love much,

Bet

When his fifth divorce was final, my friend John said: I’ve finally realized I don’t want to share and cooperate.

We were sitting in Ann’s kitchen, Ann being the mother hen of a mother hen group that had adopted me not long after my first return to Memphis in the early 1990s. They were in her kitchen because they were all hippie stoners and she had the stash, and they invited me to join them, even though I was much younger and only part hippie and not a stoner (too Type A), because the romantic match they’d made for me had ended badly, on Valentine’s Day, and they wanted to plot my next pairing.

John, champagne in hand, crashed the party to celebrate both his freedom and his enlightenment. His timing, in retrospect, was perfect. To this day I don’t ever think of marriage – or relationships – without hearing John’s echo.

Was “share and cooperate” a universal key? Possibly. But, equally likely, his was a broader discovery about self-awareness and understanding one’s own true needs and desires, whatever they might be.

For the better part of two years now, I’ve been fiddling around with these words, trying to craft something that won’t seem cynical or depressing. Some marriages work; others don’t. Sparks fade; share-and-cooperate is a two-way street. Something like that. Only, not.

I originally thought I might write for Valentine’s Day as an antidote to goopy sentimentalities. But it wouldn’t come together. So I put the draft in a file and set it aside, in 2015, with the now-substantial collection of ramblings and ideas, things I haven’t had time or mental space to sort out. Quite a lot has fallen into this category lately.

“OK, here’s the deal,” our daughter declared, this past Labor Day weekend. “On fall break we’re going to do something to finish the upstairs room – not everything, just something. And if we don’t, then we each have to put $5 in a jar so we can start saving money to pay someone else to do it for us.”

“I can’t move my tools out of the upstairs room until the sunroom is cleared out, and Mama’s got to decide what to do with all that stuff in the sunroom,” Bernard told her.

For 10 years this has been our stalemate.

“Take all that crap to the dumpster, or Goodwill, or wherever,” has long been my line in this circular conversation. “If I haven’t missed it by now, I won’t even know it’s gone.”

And, each time, Bernard’s response: “You need to go through every box, because you don’t even know what’s in them. How can you say you don’t want it if you don’t know what it is?”

Countless times, this same routine, because I am full-speed-ahead, and he is deliberative, and these are not always compatible traits.

Labor Day turned into late September; September into October. Fall break arrived with no plan in place, an empty money jar sitting in the kitchen where my daughter had set it on display.

Then last Saturday, a week ago, the last Saturday of the break, we finally arrived at a compromise: we would hire a friend from Bernard’s work crew to help with the heavy lifting. And because we were paying someone to help, we had to be efficient, and swift. I conceded to working one box at a time, looking carefully inside, making appropriate decisions, and taking things from there.

Among the discoveries was my high school portfolio, which I dispatched directly to paper recycling. “You’re sure you don’t want to go through all this?” Bernard asked. “I’m sure; just get rid of it,” I said. So he did.

We made good progress, with only a few mishaps (a runaway dog, while the front door stood open; a broken mug that was heading to Goodwill anyway). We found a few errant Polly Pockets. My father’s Brownie 8. A dress I’d been wearing one day while packing up our old house, when my mother had picked up the children (still babies) so we could get some work done.

Only we hadn’t actually packed any boxes that day, a day we both remembered. When my mother returned earlier than expected, the dress I’d been wearing was out of reach. So I’d put on whatever I could grab – a shirt and old shorts from the rag pile, I think – and pretended we’d been deep cleaning up in the attic. I suspect my mother knew better. Anyway, in the commotion that followed, the dress was swept aside, later used as soft packing for some breakable object, hastily stuffed in a box by one of our kind friends who helped us move when my mother died.

The dress, along with Bernard’s 34-inch-waist tuxedo pants, got one last smile and then went straight to the giveaway pile. No need to dwell on things that no longer fit, we both agreed.

After a few hours of cleaning and reminiscing, fatigue and frustration set in. We agreed to call it a day, with a pledge to schedule another clean-up a few weeks later. Before Thanksgiving, for sure.

Later that night I was in the kitchen packing lunch for the next day while Bernard sorted through the box of papers, one piece at a time – sketches of trees, a few self-portraits, color studies and watercolor mixing exercises.

“I know you said you don’t want any of this, but I think you’ll actually want one thing,” he said, dropping some folded papers on the kitchen table.

It was a letter, five pages in long-hand, from my mother to my father, a few months before they married. When we had gathered the belongings from my mother’s garage years ago, the letter must have slipped from a box into an adjacent pile.

I could hear her voice so clearly when I read it, her irritation and imagination, her meticulous spelling and grammar. I envisioned my petite, pretty mother, in her mid-20s at the time, dreaming of her happily-ever-after. I saw my tall, handsome father, 10 years her senior, finally love-struck and ready to settle down.

I imagined how happy they had been in the beginning, remembering how bitter they were as things fell apart, when she was in her early 40s, my father his early 50s. Their dreams diverged, if they’d ever been in sync to begin with.

I wondered, absently, if four subsequent marriages would have brought either of them the kind of clarity and self-awareness that John had discovered.

I re-folded the letter and stuck it with some other papers in a temporary keeping spot, deciding to hang on to it a little longer – even with this recent article on Swedish death cleaning still fresh in my mind. The idea of leaving our children unburdened by our baggage has long been top on our list.

We’re slowly getting there, though still far from the ruthless stage of that particular reconciliation. At present we’re muddling through the art of parenting teenagers, watching them become themselves as we come to terms with our own lives in comparison to the fantasies of our youth. We’re old enough now to see our own limitations, and we’re learning to forgive them. That, in itself, is enough.

“It was good that she kicked us into gear, made us do something, wasn’t it,” I said to Bernard, a few nights later, while we were getting into bed, adjusting our pillows in our nightly routine. “She is bossy, that’s for sure,” he said, propping up his arm to aid the bone spurs in his wrist. “But she knows how to get stuff done, and that will take her far. She’s a good kid; they both are.”

Then he rolled over onto his side and fell sleep, while I read my book, and the house settled in around us.


Food | Week of October 23, 2017

Baked Chicken Tenders | Salad

Broccoli Bolognese with Orecchiette

Baked Potatoes (the “battle-tested best”)

Pork Chops with Celery Salad

Lasagna

17 Comments

  1. Rhea

    Jennifer, that is beautiful. You’ve described this part of life so well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your very bones. Your writing is always magic.

    Like

  3. Lyric

    I had one piece of jewelry from my father’s mother (who had many), a heart necklace that she left with a note. At some point, someone stole it from me — no idea who, it was probably the only valuable piece of jewelry I ever owned. They left behind the brief note she wrote to me, and looking at it later, I realizes that I’ve been left with the thing of greatest value. That is how I see every one of your pieces, the thing of greatest value. This, like the ones before it, is lovely. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For the first time ever, I think I’m going to disagree with you. By definition I don’t think we can leave our children unburdened by our baggage. We’ve been putting our baggage on them since the first time we cooed at their newborn faces and realized we heard our mother’s voices in our mouths washing over them, egads. Thus I believe there are tiny pieces of evidence we can tuck away (letters, photos, old art, journals, even blogs I hope) that can help them solve the mystery of us and therefore the mystery of the voice they hear when they grow older and open their own mouths to coo at a newborn. But maybe that’s just me defending terrible housekeeping and a tendency towards mild hoarding (inherited from my mother, may I add.)
    (And thank you for your beautiful writing. I saved this to read as a bedtime treat.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. After knowing what more than one of my friends have endured when their parents have passed, I have decided to make the effort to not burden my one and only child anymore than I have to with all of our “stuff”. We have been married for more than 30 years and even though I have purged several times, I still have more crap than I know what to do with. It is something I need my husband’s help with and he is less inclined to throw stuff away… lol. But I do have the goal My parents are both still alive and I dread that day when I have to worry about it but at least it isn’t just me. I have brothers to share with the burden 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have such mixed feelings about this. On one hand I think it’s wonderful that you’re shedding excess baggage because it feels freeing to have less stuff clogging up the place, and on the other….

    I cried when I discovered my grandfather had given away my grandmother’s sewing machine. The clu-clunk of that foot pedal was the rhythm of my childhood visits. After he passed away, I kept items he would surely have thought were rubbish. Other things – things that he might have been surprised about – I did without, but the mother of pearl bottle opener, the giant spoon, the glass apothecary jars I used to steal sweets from as a child… Those I kept. Would he have known the things I would treasure? I don’t think so. I’m glad I got to pick through the evidence of his life as a pilot and as a father and as a man. I’m glad I got to keep two books from the library. I’m glad I got to keep the pencil holder he used to have on his desk, where I would watch him write his poetry. I’m glad I got to keep a tie pin, and the spice rack from the kitchen that he’d pull the cinnamon from when he was making me my favourite dessert.

    I guess my point is that if he had decided to clear things out before he had gone, almost every single one of those things would probably be gone; cleared away like so much rubbish. On the other hand, my mother – his daughter – would have been happy for all of it to have disappeared into a void, so I suppose it depends on the person’s character and memories….

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  7. Angela

    Death cleaning is taking away the one thing we leave those we truly love. I am struggling as I am being shoved out of the door. All I want is all I cannot have. Do not take that from them. It’s all you have that actually means a goddamn thing. Stop. Just stop.

    Like

  8. Angela

    And my friend, Susan, found in the corner of nothing, one last gift. A Scottish cloak pin. Amethyst and citrine. Something he meant to give me some sometime. It is all I want. And best given almost two years since his passing. Do not decide for them. They need to unearth you, even as you are laid beneath it.

    Like

  9. […] loved the comments and conversations that sprang from last week’s post about, among other things, continuing to sort through my mother’s belongings. It prompted a […]

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  10. I’ve been looking for your blog all morning. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a new blog that fits exactly the mood you are in, the thoughts you have been thinking (hello Swedish Death Cleaning), and the positivity you crave? It’s really hard. Thank you.

    Like

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