The Best Gift Ever


Nineteen years ago this spring I rolled into Atlanta, Georgia in my silver Chevy Cavalier from small town Iowa. Every time I filled up the tank along the 1,000 mile trip I lifted up prayers galore that it wouldn't up and die on the side of the road in Illinois...or Tennessee....or Kentucky....

Everything I owned was in that car.  Boxes held necessities. My one and only suitcase held the important stuff: books, a few pieces of jewelry, photos, my journals, and a box of letters and cards I'd saved over the years - handwritten gems still came in the mail back then!  Everything in that suitcase was a comfort to me and there were many times in the years following, as I moved around the city from place to place, that same stuff moved with me in that same suitcase. 

My Cavalier came through for me and I moved into a little apartment with not nearly enough to fill it. I distinctly remember opening the kitchen cabinet next to the sink and setting my two plates, two bowls, and two coffee cups inside on the middle shelf.  Then I promptly moved the coffee cups to the bottom shelf, side by side, because spreading my sparseness out just felt better.

Fast forward about fifteen years to the kitchen in my current home. The kitchen itself was bigger than that whole entire apartment and the cabinets were full-to-overflowing with every plate, bowl, platter, mug, pot, pan, wine glass, martini glass, and champagne flute known to (wo)man. 

It was the middle of a steamy Georgia summer and I'd just been on a morning run. I came into the house through my basement, as I always did, and glanced around the corner towards the back where I shoved everything-that-I-didn't-want-to-deal-with, including all my Christmas decorations I'd taken down six months prior, but hadn't yet bothered to put away.  

I was also going through some personal trials and life changes at this time.  I was recently divorced with a four year old son and, honestly, I was having a hard time adjusting to living life as a solo parent. Living life as a solo person wasn't as hard; I was doing pretty well at that actually.  But the lone parenting gig was tough. Additionally, I'd recently returned from visiting my mom in Iowa and found out some hard things about our relationship in one of those, "I'm really not surprised, but now that I know it I'm just crushed" moments that come along as life meanders along its path.  I was hurting and struggling.  I was surrounded by a plethora of stuff (crap? things? belongings? collections?) and yet I longed, in so many ways, for something I did not have.

I sat down and had a good old fashioned cry for about 1.7 minutes and then I committed myself to doing what had been on my heart and in my mind for awhile - truthfully for years.  I needed to get rid of the physical stuff that was taking over my home and reconcile the emotional stuff that was taking over my mind.

"To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much, impossible." - Marie van Ebner-Eschenbach

The path of least resistance was the physical stuff, of course.  And so that very day I started moving, purging, sorting, sifting..... I decided to start at the top of my house and work down, room by room. I also wrote about it here.

I went through all the closets and rooms of my house, I went through all the whys and hows of the things that had overtaken my life. Selfish? Self-centered? Sad? Lonely? Hopeless? Empty? Greedy? Why did an overflowing stash of designer throw pillows make me feel fulfilled?  Why did a new set of summer dishes make me happy while a hike with my son made me feel inconvenienced?   Why did I keep buying things to wear yet I still never had anything to wear?    
That summer was memorable for me.  The best and the worst. I accomplished so much even in the midst of dealing with some really hard things.  I realized all the physical stuff in my house was a replacement for what I was missing inside.


And now, two years later, I've manged to maintain the changes I worked so hard on that summer.  I no longer feel smothered and overwhelmed when I open a cabinet door or bedroom closet or my garage door.  The journey wasn't always easy but this destination has been sweet.  Thank you, God, for the gifts of grace and new mercies!

But the journey is not over for me.  Is it really every over?  For any of us?  But it's good.  It's more clear, it's more intentional, it's more about looking outward and upward.  It's about taking that hike, riding bikes, listening when people talk to me, and having people who listen to me when I talk to them.  My closet is half as full as it was for years, and I always have something to wear!  And I have places to wear it with people I love who love me in return.

I also worked hard on my relationship with my 87-year old mom, despite what had happened. I did not want her to feel the same heartache and pain I was feeling. I invited her to come stay with me for a couple weeks last May and was so happy when she said yes!  I lived in a sweet spot those two weeks, the longest my mom and I had been together my entire adult life.

As I sat with her at her gate as she waited to board her flight I hugged her and hugged her again, a tiny little bird.  I remember feeling her whispy white hair against my cheek and smelling the familiar mama smell.  I just loved it. When it was time to board I stood and watched while the attendant wheeled her down the jetway. Then he stopped and swiveled her around. I love you, she said as she waved at me. I love, love, LOVE you.  And of course I caught all that sweetness and tossed it all right back, waving even as she was out of sight.
I never saw my mom again. 

Six months later, mere hours after my 47th birthday, she suddenly passed away.   

With my sweet son by my side, I went back to my beloved homeland the week of Thanksgiving to memorialize my mom and be with my family.  We gave eulogies, shared memories, laughed, cried, hugged friends, gave thanks for floral arrangements, thoughtful cards and messages, casseroles and homemade cookies.

Walking into her house for the first time that week was so hard.  She meant to keep on living:  sticky note reminders on her cabinet, a half glass of water beside her chair, my birthday card lying open on her desk with a pen on top.  

The house in which she lived was not the house in which I grew up and it never held any special meaning to me, except that it was her home, where she moved when she retired.  It was filled with furniture from my childhood, along with all the things Mom collected / grouped / displayed on shelves, tables, walls and anything else with a flat surface.

And, because my brothers and I were spread out across the country, that week back home also included going through Mom's things, deciding what we wanted and what we would leave behind.

It felt too soon to me.  Intrusive.  Rash.  Impersonal.  But it also needed to be done.  So we did.  I did. And within minutes I was there again, surrounded by stuff - boxes and boxes of it - yet none of it was mine this time.  Ribbon, craft supplies, zip loc bags, office supplies, dishes, bobble head solar powered reindeer, scarves, gloves, pillow cases and bath towels.  What did it all mean here, in my mom's house?  Did it mean she was loney? Sad? Scared? Did she need security?  Did she wish for something?  Did I do enough for her?

Things are always more clear from the outside looking in, aren't they?  And when one's own heart and head are not involved it's so much easier to be a critic.  I began piling all of my own thoughts and feelings about my overflowing boxes and drawers onto my mom.  Certainly what I felt must have been what she felt.  Certainly my shortcomings, manifested in a plethora of door wreaths and stemware and "running shoes", must also be her shortcomings.

I sat down on the floor in her dressing room among literally hundreds of pieces of costume jewelry. What should I do?  What should I take? What things would matter to me in the months and years ahead?  I laid back onto the floor and closed my eyes and my mind flooded with memories of my sweet mama and my eyes flooded with tears.

There she was in the kitchen wearing an apron with a towel flung over her shoulder, making dinner.  There she was sitting in our large basement on a rainy Sunday afternoon painting ceramics while I played 45rpm records in my "kitchen" with my stuffed animals.  There she was sipping a margarita on my sofa listening to my son recite his lines for his play.   

None of the memories involved things.  None of the memories were boxed up in the basement or in the closets or in the drawers.  They were all floating free, ripe for the picking, warm and sweet and perfect.

I came home with a few things: her charm bracelet, milk glass vases, hand mirror, hankies...But more importantly I came home satisfied that I was on the right path in my own home and in my own life.  I had been tested:  Memories came first and memories mattered most.  If I had to leave everything else behind, I would have.  

Evenso, the things that stayed behind haunted me for awhile.  Things can be very hard to shake.

We preoccupy ourselves with what we had - or what we want to have - at the expense of what currently have.  

On Christmas Day my son gave me an envelope: to Mom from your Mom and your son.  I flipped it over to open it but it was already open and it was empty.  I brought this home from Gramma Eva's house. It smells just like her and I thought that was the best gift ever.

Oh yes, my son.  It truly, truly is.  

Jillian Inc. All rights reserved © Blog Milk Powered by Blogger