Mom’s Wishes

Brookline Tab, May 11, 2006

When I went home recently to visit my folks in Connecticut, my mother made a strange request. She wanted my sister, Laura, and me to go through her most valuable things and tell her what we would want after she died. “I don’t want you girls fighting over things when we’re dead,” she explained. We “girls” are in our 40s, but still capable of bitter arguments now and then, so in that she was not being unreasonable.

We had been had been sitting together on the couch, with our children clumped around us, comfortably strewn across the living room chairs as if they were all of the same body. It hardly seemed like the moment to start dealing with something as potentially explosive as who-gets-what.

I looked up at my mother reluctantly, the way I used to when she would interrupt our playing, by the request that we fold laundry or set the table. “Mom, you sure you want to do this now?” I asked, trying gently to divert her. After all, she has a good many years left, thank goodness. But what she was feeling at the moment was apparently very strong. “I really do,” she said softly but insistently.

“Hey, why not?” asked Laura. “I mean, we’re all here now, and it’ll be all right. Come on, we aren’t going to fight or anything like that.” She smiled at me. She seemed so sure of herself. I didn’t understand it, but then, how often in my life did I understand Laura? All I felt was doubt, and irritation with them both. What a set-up, I thought.

And what would happen if we both wanted the same thing? I looked at Laura, sighing, trying to make my feelings clear without saying more. But Laura was already rising from the couch. I followed them upstairs regretfully.

Laura opened Mom’s drawer and pulled out her old jewelry box. She opened the lid and it played its toy-piano melody. I was caught by the spicy familiar smell of old perfume and leather. I peered down into the tangle of glittering, beaded necklaces lying in a lump in the middle, the brooches that sprawled open like exotic insects. A memory floated up to me, of opening this drawer, and trying everything on with Mom somewhere nearby. The longing to wear her dangly earrings; to be like her, grown up, and beautiful! I watched Laura, pulling out old pins, asking Mom to tell us their stories, and I felt myself start to relax.

Then Mom took off her rings for us. Her hands looked smaller, fragile without them. I reached for one and slipped it on. It made my hand look elegant and feminine, but it was strange to see it there. I’d take this one, I thought, but felt uneasy. I turned to show Laura but she had grown oddly silent. She had my mother’s watch on. She turned her wrist this way and that, before it slid to the dresser with a gentle swish. I sighed. For once, we were probably thinking the same thing.

After a few more minutes, we started to put it all away. Mom seemed satisfied, happy, even though nothing had actually been decided. But I now realized that hadn’t been the point. I think she had just needed to prove to us — and maybe herself — that we could deal with this terrible eventuality and that we could do it peacefully.

We made our way back downstairs into the clamor. The kids’ noise level had risen: it was getting to be dinnertime.

“Girls, what will the kids eat for dinner?” my mother asked. “I know most of them won’t eat what I’ve made.” I was suddenly very tired: dinner for five picky kids. But as Laura and I reached for the water glasses and began placing them on the table, I was also conscious of an almost giddy relief, happy just to be able to set the table with her in my mother’s kitchen, and nothing but making dinner ahead of us.