It isn’t like me at all to rummage in someone’s dresser or closet. In fact it is totally out of character, and I am appalled at anyone who does. I have taught my children that, as curious as they may be, being nosy and looking into someone’s cabinet or drawers was a no, no.
They did manage to get themselves locked in a bathroom or two. I don’t think it was to see if they kept anything in their cabinet different than we had at home. I’ve decided that four, five, and six year olds have a bend toward exploring. They had to try everyone’s bathroom, like it was gonna’ be different than the one at home. I never knew if they rummaged where they did not have any business. No one ever complained anyway. For sure neither of them ever told if any one of the others did.
So why would I break my own stern rule? Again, it is totally out of character for me.
In February of 1999, Mother died, and it was after that, I found myself going through the dresser and chest of drawers in her home. My sisters and I had made a pact to leave things as she had left them. Daddy needed consistency at this point in his life and we were thinking of him. Walking into her house even a month or two after she was gone, we found things as they were when she was there. I almost expected to find her taking an afternoon nap or in the kitchen cooking. However, the lack of aroma from cooking food originating from the kitchen let me know that things weren’t the same. I knew she would not show up at the door or answer me if I called out to her.
My husband and I had settled in. We had unloaded the car, ate supper, watched a program on TV, and visited with Daddy. I got up momentarily to turn the covers down on the spare bed where we would sleep. Naturally the smell and spirit of Mama filled the room. Reminders of her were everywhere. Her house slippers were on the floor next to the closet door. Her robe hung in the closet along with the cotton dresses she wore after the home health nurses gave her a bath. The suit dresses she wore when she was able to go to Church were also visible.
I turned to the chest of drawers and without thinking opened the top drawer. I wasn’t thinking about it being out of character for me. It was mama’s house and I wasn’t going to take anything. I seemed to be driven with a desire to find something - anything that would bring her back to me. Her socks marked with S. Tanner in black ink, several pairs in fact were the first items I saw. It was evident this was the drawer in which my sisters had placed her belongings from the nursing home. I needed a pair to wear with my tennis shoes the next day, so I laid a pair on the bed.
From there I moved to another drawer. Her toiletries-bath powder, lotions, deodorant, cologne and fragrant soap all lay neatly in their place. I stood momentarily breathing in the smells that were so familiar. I picked up the bottle of cologne and held it to my nose. Why was I so driven with the need to see her or touch her or even yet, something that belonged to her? A tear rolled down my cheek and I closed the drawer.
It was getting late, so we each said our good night salutations and went to bed. The raised window allowed the sound of the country into the room. Crickets, whippoorwills, and bullfrogs. The fan hanging from the ceiling whirled a quiet roar that lulled us to sleep as we closed our eyes and sunk into the soft mattress.
The brightness of the morning came too soon. The room was on the east side of the house and naturally the sun came looking for us as it appeared above the budding trees. I rose early thinking of Daddy. He always looked forward to my home made biscuits. It was a treat for me to prepare breakfast in Mama’s kitchen. My breakfast didn’t taste like Mama’s cooking I’m sure, but I had learned from the best and enjoyed trying.
After the dishes were put away, I got dressed for the day, donning my borrowed socks with the black letters "S. Tanner" I felt complete. We had planned the day with Daddy - maybe a ride around the country side, take him out to eat, or go to the grave site and “visit” with Mama. But that would have to wait. I lingered in the bedroom.
That urge was there again. I did not have second thoughts about opening another drawer in the dresser. This one was filled with sheets, pillow cases-some never used, others showed their age. All were neatly folded.
Another drawer had her underwear and slips which no respected woman would be without, both half and full. Again they were neatly folded, waiting for someone, anyone to select one to wear.
Even the China Cabinet in the dining room was not off limits to me. More sheets to fit both twin and full size beds. I wondered if she had forgotten about how many she had.
I gave up - finding nothing in particular and went on my way. A weekend is a short time to go back home to visit with Daddy and expect to do much. We always relished the time we had with Daddy, but Sunday comes and the trip home was always before us. We promised to return as soon as we could, and immediately start planning another trip a few months later. On returning to my home I had no further thoughts about my poking around in what would otherwise be places of privacy.
It took me several visits back home to find what I must have been looking for. I do not think I have ever had such a driving urge to finish a task as I did then. I did not think about it being something Mama wanted me to do. I just figured (with my dime store psychology) that I must have been looking for Mama in some weird way.
On each visit, it was as if something (someone) was drawing me into the bed room. I gently and thoroughly kept looking and probing in each drawer. Each drawer led me to another, and to another until each one over the course of several months, was carefully examined.
What I found however, was not in a dresser, chest or china cabinet drawer. Earlier on one of my scavenger hunts, I had noticed (but paid no special attention to) a basket that sat beside the chest. It was on the floor behind the door into the bedroom. To me it just appeared to be “stuff”, as Mama was known for keeping things that were of no value to anyone but her. Some papers, folders, writing pads, note cards and such were in no special order.
On another of my expeditions, when I was about to give up looking for whatever it was I was looking for, I sat down on the made up bed and let my eyes wander around the room. The basket caught my eye. Thoughtfully still, I picked up the basket, sifted through a few of the things, stopping to read a card from her Sunday School class, or a note from one of her sisters. A large brown manila envelope was what I took into my hands. The basket didn‘t seem important anymore. The brown envelop was not sealed. In fact it was plain with no writing on the outside. But inside the envelope were six sealed envelopes. On each envelope in Mama’s hand writing, was the name of each of her girls. I naturally found the one addressed to me and held it close.
As Mama's health began to decline she slowly accepted her ultimate death several years before she died. Age, a bad heart, and diabetes were slowly taking her away from us. She recognized the end was eminent, but I nor any one of my sisters, wanted to accept that she would soon be leaving us. She tried talking to us about her last wishes but it was difficult to hear. I’m sure in our inability to respond to her, we led her to believe we weren’t hearing her at all. She was working on unresolved issues that had plagued her. Some things we knew, but they weren’t as important to us as they were to her. She was doing a cleansing of sorts that everyone must face in time.
On one visit, she might be a little girl again in the playhouse with her corn shuck dolls. The next visit she may be the young bride, just married and leaving her Mother and Daddy with her new husband. Even yet, on another visit she would talk about each new baby and how difficult her pregnancies had been, or how small the baby was. For sure she wanted to talk about the three little boys she had miscarried. Life had been hard but she had happy memories that over rode the hard times for the most part. She was proud of her daughters accomplishments. She loved the day the phone would ring and one of them would be on the other end. “Hey Mama, Just checking on you today,” one would say, then give her opportunity to tell us whom she had seen, whom she had talked with on the phone, or what the Doctor had said.
Then somewhere in between the phone calls, or maybe during the wee hours of the morning when she was unable to sleep, she started the letter writing. It appeared she had spent time writing down on paper what she had wanted us to know, but wasn‘t sure we had heard. I wonder how long it took for her to write each one.
The envelopes were sealed. Each message was private. If we wanted to share with each other, we could. Otherwise it became one more word from Mama, but this time from the grave. A message that reassured us that she loved us, was proud of us, and would be waiting for us when we got to Heaven. A message I might have missed had I not broken my own rule.