Upstairs, 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.
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?
And 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.