Monday Author: Susanne Skinner
My husband and I have been in Maine all week, moving dad into an assisted living community. It has been a long time coming and one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
We’ve suggested the move for years, only to be told “Maybe next year” and “I’m thinking about it.” I visited him in February and knew the time had finally come. You could say I forced him, since I would not accept anything but a signed contract and move date for an answer. It was painful for both of us.
We made lists, took inventory, booked a moving company, and worked with Dad to identify what he wanted take with him. I expected this to be difficult, but it was the easiest part of the move.
He wants to surround himself with memories, not things. He chooses artwork from around the world, my mother’s cut-glass cookie jar, and his remarkable collection of old VHS movies and records. He bought a new sleeper sofa for visitors and asked my husband to hang a set of Japanese geisha prints above it. He calls them “his girls” and remembers when and where he purchased them.
Packing a Life
His house is in the beautiful part of Maine known as Casco Bay. We never had a family home since Dad was in the military. This is the house he retired to so in a way it became the family home, long after the family had grown up. There are no childhood memories here; or so I thought.
We focus on downsizing a life that spans 95 years. We agree to keep it simple. He leaves decisions to me and accepts my minimalist rule of no more clutter. When the movers arrive he sits in the sun room, overwhelmed and tired. He pretends to read a book.
I arrange for 1-800-Got Junk to come after Dad is in the new apartment. There is a lot of stuff going into that truck, but also things that are not and I have no idea what to do with them. I cannot take them—we are doing our own downsizing.
I stare at the china cabinet. Mom offered her china to all of us many years ago. She had no takers. It is elegant and ornate; not really anyone’s taste, including mine. I hold one of the fragile tea cups in my hand and I am 10 years old again. It is Thanksgiving and the grown-ups sip after dinner coffee. I have been invited back to the table for honey-and-lemon tea in the most exquisite china cup I have ever seen.
Fondue plates and forks remind me of a high school homecoming when we lived in Belgium. Mom put on a pre-dance fondue party for us that has faded to obscurity but returns as soon as I see them. I can feel her there with me.
The Ghosts that Haunt Us
The moving truck came. The junk truck came. We focus on getting Dad settled in his new home. We unpack, hang pictures, put clothes away and set up the kitchen. Alan takes him to Target, helps him pick out a flat screen TV and small dining set and spends the afternoon putting it together for him. We make beds, plug in lamps, fill bookcases, setup his Keurig, and leave him watching John Wayne in The Quiet Man.
We return to an empty house. I have boxes to go through and Alan is organizing the garage. I stand in the now-spotless kitchen and see my mother at the stove. She is probably making chicken soup; something she did every Saturday. It was good enough to cure the world.
I walk into the living room and see dad in his Barcalounger reading the paper; one in the morning and one in the evening. On Friday nights he settles in to watch wrestling. He is a devoted fan of WWF and tells me “you know it’s not real, don’t you?”
I suddenly realize we forgot the coat closet—it’s by the front door that nobody uses. I open it and see his military uniforms, pressed and pristine in their dry-cleaning bags. I leave them hanging there and close the door.
I gave Dad the pre-move task of consolidating the important things into boxes for me. The deed to the house, title to the car, his military discharge papers—things I am going to need as his executor. I want to make sure it is all there so I grab a box and begin to sort.
All That Remains
I find a packet of letters. The first one is written by my mom to her mom, dated May 24th, 1952. She is on R&R in Atami Hot Springs, Japan, paying 50 cents a day for her hotel room. Meals are 40 cents more and she is going to the Japanese baths in the afternoon.
She writes that just before she left a taxi drove up to the hospital with a Japanese woman in labor. “Another nurse and I delivered the baby right there in the back seat and when we were done we had quite a crowd around us applauding.”
There are other treasures. A business-card case I gave Dad many years ago; cards still inside. A miniature pair of Japanese dolls in silk pajamas with hand-painted china faces, wrapped in a silk handkerchief. I find a black-and-white photo of me at three weeks old in my Dad’s arms. Mom has written on the back “Sam is not in his underwear, those are running shorts.” I laugh out loud and realize these are the important things; everything else is just filing.
I put the boxes in my car. I will sort through them at home, drinking tea in the most exquisite china cup I’ve ever seen.