The twenty-by-fourteen storage locker holds the last of my mother’s itinerant belongings. They accompanied her from her house in Connecticut to her apartment in Los Angeles and then up to Grass Valley when she remarried in her sixties. After her husband’s death these nomadic lamps and file boxes, books and cassette tapes, the blue silk Bergere armchair with its faithful ottoman sidekick, followed her to Sacramento, and then to Long Beach when she checked into the assisted living facility there. My son drove them to Nantucket when we moved her here, and she visited them often on nostalgic field trips from the Island Home.
They always seemed glad to see her, the dusty old books (Archie and Mehitabel, Acres and Pains ), the folders full of her working notes on pronunciation and grammar and public speaking, her files of my letters, and my brother’s Camp Killooleet progress reports written by John Seeger in the 1960s, praising Peter’s and skills at third base, his progress in canoeing and riflery, his helpful leadership on overnight hikes.
The tables stand quietly, the bookshelves sag a little. New members of the fraternity – a deluxe walker that didn’t fit through the door of her new bathroom, the wheelchair that proved redundant among all the others at the Island Home – lean against the side wall uneasily, next the rolled bamboo screen donated by my ex-wife, which we used to separate the living room from the dining room of our small apartment when we set up a bed for Mom during the few months when she lived with us.
We often spoke of taking the two beige metal file cabinets to her room at the Home, so she could restart her business, consulting on communications, helping foreigners lose their accents and speak standard English. It never happened, of course; at ninety, she didn’t have the strength to begin again and her small shared room would never have worked as an office. She couldn’t even use the computer any more. Parkinson’s had effectively scrambled her old manual dexterity. So the files remained in storage, and we dropped in on them occasionally.
Then she died, and now her ashes sit in my front hall closet, due to be scattered into the East River near where I grew up in Manhattan, but going nowhere, settling in among the old storm windows and garden tools and plastic tubs of my own papers for the long haul, like a squatter in an abandoned building. I’m the landlord who can’t send out the eviction notice.
At least I’m not paying rent for the ashes: the storage fees run two hundred and thirty six dollars a month. It’s been more than a year since she died, and so far I’ve paid more than $3,600 to maintain a home for this orphaned tribe. I toy with the idea of hiring a moving company to clear the space out and cart it all to the dump. It would probably cost less than a month’s rent. I think of those chilly, climate controlled subterranean corridors, the hospital-sized elevator, the awful florescent lights (they follow you, turning on and off as you move through the labyrinth), the canned classic rock (Mom would have preferred Mozart) piped quietly above the polished cement floors, , and I realize that I actually hate the place. Yet I keep going back, to pull a file or leaf through a book, and strategize the endgame. It would only take a day or two, really. I don’t need to pay anyone: my friend has already volunteered his giant Econoline van for the job.
But I can’t do it. Not yet.
Instead I keep coming back, to touch the last physical manifestation of my mother’s spirit clinging to the vacated world. I pay every month and I’ll keep on paying until I can finally sever these last ties. When I do it, I’ll probably fly to New York and scatter her ashes on the same day, in the same grand gesture of letting things come to an end. It will be a proud afternoon, a last harrowing initiation ritual of adulthood, standing free, above the brown, momentarily white-speckled water of the East River, listening to the cars rush by below me on the FDR Drive.
It sounds good, but I’m determined to put it off for a long as possible. Two hundred and thirty dollars a month seems a small price to pay for this proud cowardly procrastination. Even the word “scatter” chills me. I don’t want to scatter my mother. I want to clutch her to my chest and never let go.
So I write another check and mail it in wondering: how many of the sad-eyed shuffling men and women I pass in the barricaded halls are just like me, poised and paralyzed at the edge of same abyss? And I see that this is a brilliant racket, storing these fragments of a life against the finality of loss, better than leasing space to the gallery owner to stock his pictures, or to the man with the slot next door, to shelter his cases of French red wine.
The pictures will be sold, the wine opened and shared.
My mother is there to stay.