As I was reading Olivia Judson‘s piece in today’s New York Times, I remembered the day that Julie and Arthur Eisdorfer came over to our house in Griggstown to help me clean out the closets with Laura’s clothes. Six months after she died. Rather quickly by the standards of Judson’s family.
I started to cry when I read the following sentence.
I never agreed with the idea that personality is defined by objects; I would rather say that objects are defined by personality. Yet when someone is dead and their belongings are all that is left, dispersing those belongings feels like an erasing of their physical presence on the earth.
Moving out of that house in Griggstown into an apartment in downtown Princeton involved many more hard decisions about what to keep and what not. Yet every day in that apartment I am reminded that the things we kept are not in their proper place.
Laura kept her Pfaltzgraff dinnerware for daily use in the kitchen cabinet in Griggstown. Now it’s in the apartment. Laura had framed Pewabic tiles for the downstairs bathroom in Griggstown. They have been moved to the upstairs bathroom in the apartment. Laura taught me that her ceramic frogs (ranas) were for olive pits. They are not on the top shelf in the kitchen cabinet where she stored them. We have them out on display on shelves in the living room. The jade plant, which followed us from Mt. Airy and Freehold, is not in the corner behind the piano. It spends summers on the apartment balcony, and winters in a crowded living room. Laura’s piano has moved to Marlene’s house. Laura hung her mother’s paintings and the prints throughout our house. All but two have moved to her sister Julie’s house. The two that were painted at Laura’s request hang behind the sofa in the living room of the apartment. Laura’s bureau has also moved to the apartment and is filled with my clothes. During her housekeeping frenzy when she was on heavy steroids after the three kiss-offs, Laura rolled up some of my socks—her way with just the tops folded over, not my way with the socks pulled inside each other. These socks are in the top drawer of the bureau behind the socks I wear.
The last of my mother’s African violets is upstairs by the window in my bedroom, along with the geraniums that Laura would put out in the hot sun on our deck. The African violet is on the table Laura had near the front door of her house in Mt. Airy. She called it the “ticketron” because we would put our season tickets for the Philadelphia Opera and other events in the drawer of that table. I keep all the programs of Anne Mei’s performances in that drawer now.
The Sudoku books my sister Mary gave me on her last Christmas are in the closet at the bottom of the box of games. After she died the following November, I spent evenings doing Sudoku. I worked with the easy ones, looking for the rows, columns or boxes that have only one or two empty cells. I wasn’t looking for much of a mental challenge. If I focused on filling in those boxes, I was not thinking about Mary.
In Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary, the mother of Jesus talks about her husband Joseph.
There is one chair in this room in which no one has ever sat. Perhaps in the past the chair was in daily use somewhere, but it came through this door during a time when I needed desperately to remember some years when I knew love. It was to be left unused. It belongs to memory, it belongs to a man who will not return, whose body is dust but who once held sway in the world. He will not come back. I do not need to keep food for him, or water, or a place in my bed, or whatever news I could gather that might interest him. I keep the chair empty. It is not much to do, and sometimes I look at it as I pass and that is as much as I can do, maybe it is enough, and maybe there will come a time when I will not need to have such a reminder of him so close by. Maybe the memory of him as I enter my last days will retreat into my heart more profoundly and I will not need help from any object in the room. (14)
What is in place is the crystal ink well that Laura bought for me on a whim. It is lovely to look at, but totally impractical because the ink dries up if left in the well for more than a day or two. I have it on my desk between Manjusrhi the bodhisattva of wisdom and Lord Ganesh writing the Mahabhavata. I keep our wedding rings in it now. They won’t dry up.
I’m not yet with Joan Didion where “I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.” I never believed, as she apparently did, “that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their ‘things,’ their totems.” What, then, do these things that are out of place mean to me? She has the answer.
In theory, these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. … Memories are not [solace]. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. … Memories are what you no longer want to remember. Didion (2011) 44, 46, 64
By comparing these thoughts of Joan Didion about her late daughter with C.S. Lewis’s obsession with remembering his wife accurately, it is possible to appreciate George Bonnano’s insight that we “don’t grieve the facts.” Rather we grieve the memories, however accurate, because “how we grieve … is determined by what we do with our memories, how we experience them, and what we take from them during bereavement.” Bonnano 71
We don’t have any blueberries in this apartment. There is no one to eat them for breakfast on her cereal.