We agreed that Mom should keep the cabinet, a piece so small you can hardly call it furniture
I see my mother in the thoracic wing—machines whirring and sighing, her wardmates in the halls having push-pull arguments with tubing, walkers, their own legs. Cylinders of oxygen rolled past like dolls, propped up in wire baskets. After the first few minutes it all seemed normal.
Mom was still hoping to go back to the Cherry Hill nursing home, to her little apartment with four emergency pull-cords and ten percent of her things. To the oil painting of a cabin buried in drifting blue snow (saved) displayed over the mini pullout couch (new), and the photographs (mostly culled). There aren’t many flat surfaces to choose from, to display things, so framed five-by-sevens lean into each other on top of the sewing cabinet, the first drawer of which has built-in pegs for her spools of thread (all saved).
She hasn’t been able to thread a needle for years. Half the time, I can’t do it now either, unless I’m standing right by the window with one eye closed. None of us can sew, really. In fact one day my sister tried to push her own sewing machine down the stairs. She sold it shortly afterwards and spent the money on an acupuncture program to quit smoking, for good. But we all agreed Mom should keep the cabinet, a piece so small you can hardly call it furniture. You don’t need deep drawers to hold pins and buttons, even a hundred buttons.
She’d get mad if her good scissors were not in the second drawer when she reached for them, or if we had used them as kitchen scissors.
When the house had to be emptied, it happened so quickly that most everything got “pitched,” as people her age like to say. A few things got put into a Julie box and that’s how I came to be here, in Cherry Hill, holding a surprisingly large fistful of my baby hair while sitting cross-legged on the floor. I stay like that for a while with the ache rising in my knees, unsure what to do with what I have in my hands.
I put the hair back in the envelope, replace it in the zip-lock bag and put it aside. Reaching into the Julie box, I find Mom’s knitting bag. I’ve never seen it empty like this. I give it a shake and set it on the floor, and it immediately takes on its former shape and lean. If you wanted to get into the third drawer of the sewing cabinet, you always had to bend down and move this bag a few inches round the side.
In the drawer on the right-hand side is the Japanese paper and lacquer fan. The fan had belonged to her mother. One of those gleaming pretty objects that are never used, on farms, just kept. I liked to slip it out of my grandmother’s china cabinet, from between the good napkins, enough for sixteen place settings. At our squished end of the table, we were passed Scottie serviettes from the bag and told to keep it down to a dull roar. A lippy older kid might point out that the adults weren’t setting much of an example and it was true, there was a lot of racket. Everyone transmitting. Back then, I wasn’t interested in the sensation of moving air so delicately produced by the fan. What I liked was changing the pattern on the back. Folded, half folded, unfolding.
I try to open the fan now but it sticks a bit and I don’t want to tear it. Suddenly I want to throw it hard across the room. But how satisfying would that be, with the walls this close? And I might hit one of those pull-cords, set off an alarm. I close the drawer.
I consider moving to the couch and looking through the rest of the stuff there. But I don’t like this couch—its stiffness reminds me of a visitor who realizes she has come at a bad time. I prop my back against the sliding glass door and stick my legs straight out, fitting the box alongside my hip. Surely there is nothing in it that can’t be lifted out with one hand. I feel around, and the leather jacket emerges and falls into my lap. I remember when she came back with this. The coveting. I borrowed it carefully when she wasn’t looking, even just to go to the corner store. To get chips, and her cigarettes.
The globe-trotting phase, right after mandatory retirement. Nursing stations in Ecuador and Guatemala, sleeping on church benches, swaying upright in the back of pickup trucks. And when her bones said no more missions, she took fun trips, a cruise for bridge players, a history tour that included Jerusalem and Cyprus. That’s where this is from, this 18-ounce jacket, now soft as an old camp shirt. I sit and hold it.
And think about how some boxes are anything but, and how time in mid-life is no longer linear but like a button accordion, with ends that stretch farther apart than you thought possible, then everything suddenly folding, bunching up. I’m told that those instruments make one note squeezing in and a different one opening back out. The sound, in other words, depends on whether you are coming or going.
Most of us had music lessons, no one learned to play very well. Or knit. But we’re the same way now, about scissors. Things have a place. I reach into the box and find something I wrote when I was eleven. It got featured in the newspaper, along with, I notice, a seventy-nine-cent special on Kung Fu aftershave. She had kept that, the whole page, so she’d know which paper, and when. I move it to my own keep pile.
I look up, see that visiting hours are over. The nurses say they don’t enforce that on this ward; I can come any time. I gaze around—this will never feel like a place. You can’t call the sewing cabinet furniture, not really. There isn’t much you can do with it. But we all want it, we’ve already started saying. That one small piece.