My Mother’s Basket

IMG_0522Upstairs, in my daughter’s room, on the second shelf of her bookcase, there is a small, hexagon-shaped woven basket, with a red ribbon decoratively tied to the lid’s handle. I’m not sure how old it is, but it has been sitting on its perch for many years, quietly ignored and gathering dust. A relic of another time.

It is my mother’s basket. After her death, I remember lifting the lid to take a peek at what was inside. Nothing but clutter.  Of course, organization was never one of my mother’s better skills, and even less so after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I placed the lid back in its place and positioned the basket on a shelf. Before you knew it, 21 years had gone by.

Fast-forward to this week when I decide some “spring cleaning” is in order. Tackling each room, eventually I end up in my daughter’s. And there, next to a framed photo of my daughter and me at Disney World, I see my mother’s basket.

Curiously, I pick it up, turning it over in my hands. I’ve always admired how perfectly formed the hexagon shape is, and how well the lid fits. I open it. The clutter within is still intact. No one has touched it in two decades. Did my mother start putting these items in the container before or during her Alzheimer’s? I wish I knew.

I spill the contents unto my daughter’s bed, the better to see everything. I adjust the blinds for maximum light exposure and for the first time, I really take in the contents of the basket. Like some sort of time capsule that had been buried for future generations, I discover with new eyes what I had missed before.

My mother.

Here she is, amidst the hodgepodge of the basket’s contents. As I carefully examine each item, position them right-side up, in my attempt to create order where there was none, it occurs to me that I am touching the same items she had once touched. I see all the postage stamps and suddenly visualize her soaking envelopes in water in order to easily peel the stamps off. I wonder what was going through her mind when she added to the container, some tacks, a spool of pink thread, a patch that looks like it was filched off a royal costume, a Canadian pin and a picture of the Virgin Mary. Such a peculiar combination of objects. What was my mother revealing about herself through this cornucopia of items?

IMG_0554And why so many postage stamps? I notice that many of the stamps are from Cuba. Before or after the Bay of Pigs, I wonder? Who did she know there? Certainly by the number of Cuban stamps in this basket, whoever it was, they must’ve corresponded for some time.

She wasn’t a stamp collector yet she kept these stamps in particular. Why? Then it hits me. It wasn’t so much for the stamps that she held on to them, as it was for the pictures on the stamps and what they possibly represented to her.

Touchstones of her life. People she admired. President Kennedy and his brother, Robert. FDR and Einstein, too. There’s a stamp for the International Year of the Child, and another of Santa. Why not? She loved her kids more than anything, and Christmas was always so meaningful to her. The postage stamps of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind,” are a reminder of her love of classic cinema and how she passed that love onto me.

The Canadian pin must have been acquired during one of our family trips to Niagara Falls. But what of the nearly minuscule guitar pin? I don’t recall ever seeing it before. The pages in the address booklet are mostly loose and paper-thin. Running my fingers along its frail pages, filled with addresses of New York, Miami, Valencia and Caracas, I cannot find a Cuban address in the lot, but I quickly notice that turning the pages leaves a scent of baby powder on my fingertips.

I examine some random pieces of jewelry, including a semi-rusted bracelet with cowbells. I see three plastic goats, which I have a feeling came attached to a particular goat cheese she’d buy. Oh yes, my mother had a penchant for cheeses of all kinds, right up until her doctor advised her that her cholesterol was too high.

There’s a plastic framed picture of the Virgin Mary, and an envelope with a picture of Jesus ascending, homages to her Catholic upbringing. Also, a sewing instrument for pulling out seams, and the spool of thread that seem to symbolize the many years she spent content at her sewing machine, creating countless outfits for her family.

It’s the Cuban stamps that mystify me. That and the tacks. I mean, why save those? Yet I feel each of these objects are the sum total of my mother, and where I had once seen clutter, I now see something else. Each item is a keepsake of what she treasured most, what was important to her, and what she couldn’t bear to part.

There’s one more item I haven’t mentioned: A black and white photo, the only photo in the basket. It is of me, sitting on the stairs of our little house in Queens. Taken more than a half century ago.

In this moment, I can feel her presence. She is with me again, here amidst the bits and pieces of her life. I will spend the rest of the afternoon perusing these items as she once did, relishing this glimpse into her life that it provides me. And I remember. Life as it was with Mamá.

22 thoughts on “My Mother’s Basket

  1. What a beautiful piece of writing, Monica. You should be submitting it. I, too, have keepsakes that my mother left. A journal from her high school years and a scarf given her by a favorite beau among them. These things mean so much when our mothers aren’t around anymore. Mine has been gone for over 40 years and I still miss her every single day. Thank you for sharing yours.

    • Sometimes I’m amazed to meet someone as old as me who still has their mom. I’m incredulous and a bit envious that mine didn’t live longer. I feel I was so young, though I was in my 30’s. I figure you were even younger when you lost yours and I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like for you all these years. Wish I could have her back for just a little while longer. Gone too young. Sending you hugs, my friend.

  2. What a tantalizing mystery, the stamps. What a lovely memory box to finally open and wander through. Beautifully written Monica, I think all of us felt with you and thus the presence of your Mama.

  3. Oh I love this one Monica.The basket alone gave me a visual of the time your mom would have put away things that meant something to her. The more I read about your mom, the more I want to hear. Just beautiful.
    I love the stamps; I used to collect them, they always told a story. I have a travel box myself; bookmarks from museums and postcards. Ticket stubs, maps and photos. I think I might start attaching little notes, so my girls know what they meant to me and when they take a look, perhaps 10-20 years from now, they will go back in time to get to know me all over again.

    • MM, that’s a great idea, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of that, but I’m very glad you did! I think I might start such a basket of my own for my kids to discover one day. It’s like a living memoir and one day they’ll find it and learn something of me that they didn’t know. A capital idea! I hope you start one, too, my friend.

  4. ***In this moment, I can feel her presence.**

    Such a gorgeous piece, Monica.

    Everything in that box meant something special to her. What a priceless gift to have. xxx

  5. Monica, this is beautifully written, you know! You’ve brought your mother ALIVE through the trinkets she saved, as well as by describing the scent of baby powder on the address book. What a treasure trove of memories for you! But seriously, this is a great reminder to me to trash the things right now that I don’t particularly want my kin finding some day — things like Google searches on “how to kill somebody” (for my novel!), letters from boyfriends long ago, doo-dads even I can’t recall a reason for saving!!

  6. Super post Monica.

    I have been sorting through my late mothers things, especially pictures. They all tell a story.

    I did go through some of them with her before she died, and one picture springs to mind. It was of a WW1 cavalry officer in full uniform. I had no idea who it was so I asked mom. Here reply was that it was a man who was in the trenches with my grandfather, he stood in front of my grandfather and got his head blown off, and thereby saved my grandfather. I do wonder if his family, whoever they are and wherever they are have a picture of him. I would love to give them the picture but I know I will never be able to.

    Some bits I am coming across seem meaningless, but she kept them for a reason, I just wish I could ask her why.

    • Wow, Robert. What a story. The photo sounds intriguing. I hope you’re able to find his family. Would be lovely closure to be able to give them the photo after all this time. You might consider telling your local newspaper this story. Perhaps if they run a photo of it…well you never know what can happen next.

      • I have no idea of a name or even where he came from or his regiment. If the family have no picture then they may not recognise it anyway.

        It’s a shame but I think the chances of pairing up the picture with the family are just south of Zero.

      • Why do you assume the family doesn’t have a picture? You won’t know until you try. There is nothing to lose by trying and all to gain. Start with the local paper. Post it on Facebook, tweet it. Even if the family doesn’t have a photo, he may bear a resemblance to someone and that could turn into a lead.

  7. I absolutely love this post. What a memory box to sift and sort through and remember. Thanks for sharing a bit of your mom with us. 🙂

    • Thank you, Beth Ann. I’m so glad you liked my story. It’s a small basket with so many trinkets and a lifetime of memories. I’m so happy I finally took the time to look inside.

      • I am in the process of cleaning and am finding all kinds of fun things that are fodder for blog posts, of course. I loved your story because it was full of those wonderful memories. Glad you took the time as well.

      • It’s funny, but when I started cleaning and organizing my house, the last thing I was thinking was that it might turn into a blog post, but as soon as I spilled the contents of the basket onto the bed I just knew I had to write about it. It fascinated me seeing all the diverse objects, and frankly, I’d never before seen so many Cuban stamps. That has me flummoxed. How could I not know about her Cuban connection? I almost feel like this has the makings of something longer, perhaps a book.

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