by Joe Shea
September 10, 2010
HOW THE DEVIL GOT MR. JONES
PLANTATION, Fla. -- After 35 years, my mother is leaving her beloved home and moving to a one-bedroom apartment in a luxury independent living facility up the road.
The move is possible only because the Florida real estate market died and homes are going for bargain prices. A Canadian couple snapped up my mother's house, and she will use the money for her retirement years. And yes, she's 93 now, but she only retired from the theater a year ago.
I'm in Florida to help facilitate the move.
Even if my mother was not a hoarder, in 35 years you collect a certain amount of stuff.
And Mom is a hoarder. Not the weird kind who stuffs her home until boxes fall on her and she's found dead three months later. My mother hoards photographs of family and friends and what she calls "important papers."
By family and friends, I mean starting with the turn of 19th Century and running through today - from great-great-great-grandparents to great-grandchildren - which means thousands of photographs.
And by important papers, I mean credit card statements and canceled checks from banks that no longer exist signed by husbands who no longer exist.
I was shredding so many pounds of income tax returns (remember 1984?) that I finally fried the shredder. So I'm hiring a company called Record Shred to back a truck up to the house next week; they'll shred up to 64 gallons for just under a hundred bucks.
Some of the things we're finding are so precious that we can't throw them away. A receipt book from my father's Army & Navy store in Brooklyn, which burned down in 1978. A business card from my mother's dance studio, which was in the furnished basement of the house I grew up in. Mom still has pictures of her students: serious-faced, leotard-clad little girls lined up at the ballet bar.
"They're probably all grandmothers by now," Mom said. Since she began frailing, she has developed a mordant sense of humor.
I went through the closet where she keeps the wigs and wig stands. I unzipped a clothing bag and found a blonde mink jacket with huge fuzzy mink buttons. It looks like Doris Day just stepped out of it a minute ago.
"What do we do with this?" I asked.
"I'm taking it with me."
"What will you do with it? It's a mink jacket. We're in Florida."
"You can bury me in it," Mom said.
This move, of course, is emotionally difficult. But it is also necessary. Last spring, in the space of a few months, Mom got out of the hospital, stopped driving and lost her best friend. Since then, she has been spending more and more time alone. She went through eight aides this year, and when the last one didn't show up, Mom was trapped in the house for six days without company or food. She was down to peanut butter by the time I arrived from Vermont.
For all her sparkle and glitter, my mother is very shy. She doesn't reach out easily. And she's buried so many generations of friends, I can't imagine how she keeps on going.
One morning at the pool, I ran into Molly, who is a cross between a pit bull and a spark plug. She was my mother's stage manager for many, many years. Her husband died last year, and she said that she's become isolated, too.
"You don't cook for yourself anymore, because there's no one to eat it," she said. "You don't realize there's another person around until there's no one to chop the onions or take out the garbage. My brother-in-law is in a nursing home right now, and my sister-in-law is there every day, all day. When he was well, they fought all the time. She never had a good word to say about him, or him about her. Now they're together all the time. That's the way it is."
The real estate agent - who is Molly's daughter, by the way - came to explain what will happen at the closing. The people who are buying the house won't take possession until December.
"But the house will be empty," Mom said. "Do I have to come over and make sure everything is all right?"
"Once you close, it's no longer your responsibility," the agent said.
"But the house will be empty." Mom had tears in her eyes. "Who's going to take care of it?"
For 35 years, Mom has been the one who has been caring for this house. Two husbands have died in this house.
"Are you sure you can leave here?" I asked.
She made a face. "By then, it'll be so torn apart I won't even recognize it."
Sometimes, watching her move about the house, my heart melts. No matter what happens, she keeps moving forward. She is very brave. Sometimes I think she is my hero.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist and columnist. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.