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In the weeks after my mother’s death, I often went to her house by myself, needing to take it all in alone. Take in the fact that my father passed away a year ago and now my mother. The fact they will never return to their home of 60 years. I’d enter the living room and look up toward the ceiling, cast my eyes downward taking in the farm-scene painting above the fireplace, then to the mantle and its rusty brown ceramic cocker spaniel, circa 1955, two Royal Jubilee plates flanking three photos of my children. I’d glance at the TV unit, across to the loveseat, then the dining room. Up, down, left and right in each of the rooms. The house and all its details as ingrained as the marrow in my bones.
The house smelled of old dust, old books and old drapes, all familiar, all somewhat comforting. I surveyed everything needing to be certain I could capture the details of the last time my mother was in those rooms before she left.
On the kitchen counter was a box of Tetley tea, a chipped yellow sugar bowl, a path of crunchy granules of sugar, a ring of tea stain. Any other time, this would have been my mother’s clumsy mess. Now it was a sacred find, a gift of sorts. I wept every time I saw that sugar bowl. Tears would flow down my face; I didn’t care about finding a Kleenex – my mother was worth every last tear and my own mess.
Decades of their stuff sat there now on a pause button, neither past, present nor future. The house was purchased 60 years ago as a starter house and turned out to be their forever home. Both parents were children of the Depression and each had kept every item long past its expiry date. The basement was filled with three-legged tables, chairs with broken springs, old TVs and boxes of old knick-knacks that had been replaced by new knick-knacks. Stuff that was put away in the basement was perhaps fixable, to be repurposed again, one day. The day that never came.
The scarcity of the 1930s and their constant uprooting to new homes as children made my parents’ little bungalow a temple. To say my parents loved their house was an understatement. They were their house and the house was them.
After a quick tour of each room, the only energy I could muster was to flop on the loveseat and stare at the blank TV, trying to understand the massive void. The house well lived in was now abandoned. Inside it, I felt cold and alone.
My eventual visit to a lawyer shifted my inertia and I began the sifting and sorting through all the decades of belongings. Clothing was the weakest link to my parents, and an easy starting point. Other than a few sweaters and jackets that were signature Mom and Dad items, I emptied drawer after drawer, closet after closet into large bags for donation. This helped me gain some traction, which I carried to the next round of boxing and bagging. I promised myself that everything I would take from their house to mine would total only three boxes. As it turned out, the photos alone filled 10 crates. Every single picture had the who and when written on back. Books, and most ceramics, were marked with a handwritten date and name of the giver. My mother was curator of all things sentimental. How could I possibly get rid of her important treasures? My millennial children wanted a mere few token items; neither was interested in tchotchkes. Besides, each of their dwellings barely fits a spare box of dental floss let alone a bunch of ornaments and furniture. I was racked with guilt.
In my daily visits to the house and, eventually having to pack it all up, it occurred to me that the house was a series of vignettes; a living room corner had a wing chair with a floor lamp and stuffed animals to its side. The dining room had a curio cabinet with a statue beside it and a plant beside the statue. All the pieces had their place and spoke to my mother’s character.
One afternoon, my husband dropped in to take a photo of an oil tank for insurance renewal purposes. Camera in hand, we suddenly had an answer to the perplexing problem of how to cherish the grand and the minutia, how to keep the essence of the house. We would photograph it all.
I created a photo essay. We took a shot from each room’s doorway for a general overview, and then close-ups of trio groupings, followed by individual close-ups of my mother’s most cherished collectibles. I assembled them in a photo album titled “32,” the house number, and my collection began at the front door, moved to the back, then the upstairs and downstairs. It was a virtual tour in stills.
While it wasn’t easy packing up and sending away the many treasures, I reminded myself that 60 years of memories wasn’t likely to vanish any time soon. And if my aging brain eventually fails me, my photo essay surely will be the ultimate fill-in for years to come.
Paula Turner lives in Toronto.