Why Honoring My Mother Meant Throwing Out Her Stuff

updated May 10, 2019
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(Image credit: STUDIOGRANDOUEST/Getty Images)

While my mother’s home is lovely, inviting and airy, the complex it is housed in is anything but. The “towers” in Queens, New York are an early 70’s example of embarrassing tastelessness: three cinderblock towers with brown metal facades. Each monolith houses a lobby decorated in cheap gold and glitz. In the reception areas, there are oversized blue velvet chairs arranged in circles that look set up for a 12-step program no one’s attending. The hallway carpeting on the upper floors looks like something you’d find in a chain hotel near a regional airport. Around every corner, there’s yet another mirror waiting to show you your own shocked expression staring back at you.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing shoddy about the place. It’s well-maintained and considered “upscale.” But I’ve always found the place mildly depressing, and today, in the back of a cab on a rainy February day, I find the towers especially daunting.

(Image credit: Daniel Wiener)

My mother, Selma, had taken literature classes religiously. She compulsively finished crossword puzzles. She carried her 91-year-old frail body with enviable posture, even bobbing up and down in a weekly aqua-aerobics class with women twenty years her junior.

And yet she had still died suddenly. She passed quickly and painlessly while dozing on a couch in the spare room of the spacious, sun-filled apartment that awaited me upstairs, only two weeks before this dreary day.

While I reminded myself that it was no tragedy her death still left me shell-shocked, in a state of disbelief.

Was she really gone? It’s a weird thing, this death and dying; this there-and-then-not-there phenomena.

(Image credit: Courtesy Kaltman family)

I could’ve sat in the back of the cab and pondered the cosmic conundrum forever, but there was work to do.

Naomi and Hannah, my sisters who lived in the area, were waiting upstairs in the towers for me to join them. The three of us were tasked with stumbling through the chores associated with shutting down a life. The biggest chore to be done, by far, was clearing out her apartment: A 1,800-square-foot repository of the gems and detritus of a long life well-lived.

My mother, born in 1926, grew up in a cramped tenement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She shared a closet-sized bedroom with her brother. Her yiddishe bubbe (grandmother) slept on the living room couch. And while my mother may have come from little, over 91 years she’d accumulate a lot. Her apartment had the spectacular storage space to accommodate her collection: Four walk-in closets, two regular ones, and built in cabinetry. Carrie Bradshaw would’ve drooled.

But not so much when she opened the dresser drawers. My father Jack, who had passed away twenty years earlier, was also from Williamsburg. He’d become a successful businessman and developed an appetite for finer things, but Selma never lost her taste for a bargain. So instead of designer duds, all that space was stuffed to the brim with all sorts of chazerai (junk). Selma preferred polyester and fleece, in three colors: black, tan, and grey—because why have one nice cashmere sweater when she could have three synthetic ones for the same price?

The hours pass with a smattering of tears, and much laughter. Wearable schmatas (rags) are donated to Goodwill, which was probably where Selma had bought them in the first place. The stained and threadbare are tossed down the garbage chute with tchotchkes that hold no sentimental value. The non-recyclable and non-toxics go. The shoe boxes filled with duplicate photos already documented in cherished photo albums, goodbye. Double-pronged, no longer OSHA approved extension cords—gone. Every coat hook imaginable, buttons, bottle stoppers, bandages and god-knows what else.

“Okay, this one is truly hideous,” I say, holding the pilled, stained black sweatshirt between two pinched fingers. “It’s like something Uncle Fester from ‘The Munsters’ would wear.”

Naomi groans, “What I’d like to know is why she had to have five other repulsive sweatshirts exactly like that one.”

Hannah stays on task. “Dump it,” she says. “Down the chute it goes.”

(Image credit: Naomi Kaltman)

There were the things we saved, the things we let go of. And boy oh boy, were there ever things to let go of.

While the weather outside is unforgiving, inside the apartment, our mood is warm. I like to think we would have entertained her. I imagine her laying back on her bed watching us, laughing as we agreed her Dollar Store maroon towels belonged in a cut-rate, sketchy spa. I imagine her smiling as we each took one of her flimsy, gaudily-patterned nightgowns as a keepsake.

(Image credit: Dick Galef, courtesy the Kaltman family)

She would have been glad at how well her daughters were getting along, how fluid a team they were, how they were having a surprisingly good time. A time made sweeter by her spirit, still there, in the air, all around us.

A few weeks later all the closets, cupboards and walls were bare. We’d emptied the place, equitably divvied the cherished keepsakes and taken them back to our own homes. It was only when I was taking the final cab ride back to Brooklyn that it hit me like a sucker punch: My mother was truly gone. But on the seat next to me was one of Selma’s many rattan baskets, one among god knows how many. The others had been dumped. I’d decided to salvage this one at the last minute. Laid inside, as if my mother had known I’d need it, was a cloth napkin in a gaudy floral pattern. Not one I’d ever use. Or so I thought. I lifted it to my eyes and dried my tears.

Alice Kaltman is the author of the story collection Staggerwing and the novel Wavehouse.