Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Empty and Full (06/04/09)
By Beth Muehlhausen
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Mother passed away around 2:00 a.m. one morning in October, only a few days after frost turned the landscape to deathly brown.
The mortician apologized. “I’m sorry – we can’t smooth her features.” She died in a fetal position, curled as if in preparation for her final birth into eternity, and the birthing cry lingered in her twisted facial expressions. We decided on a closed casket. She was buried on a drizzly, gray day when nature seemed shrink-wrapped in spine-chilling gloom that mirrored her decades of chronic depression.
I dreaded the final handling of her earthly possessions: little rouge discs in the dressing table drawer, an extensive assortment of knitting needles (sizes triple zero through fifteen) organized neatly in hand-sewn pouches, a wig with synthetic bangs singed from leaning too close to the open oven. There would be those scrapbooks filled with newspaper and magazine clippings, songs, poems, and recipes; drawers full of sewing patterns, scraps of fabric, and rainbow-colored spools of thread. So many small things acted like tranquilizers before the Alzheimer’s emptiness descended for good.
Eventually it was time. One day in January I stood in the doorway of her very full-to-overflowing, walk-in kitchen closet – a good place to start where I wouldn’t confront old love letters from my dad, or those underarm guards she pinned with tiny safety pins into the armpits of her dresses. It would be a matter of excavating the peripheral kitchen clutter and throwing out the box of used-and-reused birthday candles, one-speed 1930’s mixer, grease-encrusted deep fryer, and a cupboard full of outdated canned goods stashed in case of a nuclear holocaust.
On one wall of the closet a row of hooks held brooms, dustpans, mops, and my mother’s aprons. She wore these aprons when I was growing up, sort of like a daily work uniform. Each was uniquely hand-sewn from fabric remnants; each had pockets and a loop that went over her head to hold the top close to her chest, sort of like bib overalls. Sometimes a little piece of plaid or gingham decorated the pockets, or a bit of rickrack trimmed the edge of the bib. Mother tied her apron strings before breakfast, and untied them just before my dad came home from work in the evening.
Her apron pockets held things usually tossed into a junk drawer: string, coupons, old grocery receipts, rubber bands, paper clips, and stubby pencils. Sometimes the pockets were frayed across the top with evidence of overuse, and other times the stitching unraveled a little bit until one corner flopped over in a droopy, basset hound sort of way.
The aprons, well decorated with stains, needed to go – those untouchable, too-close-to-home reminders of my mother. Instead, I ignored them and explored piles of very old Saturday Evening Posts and miscellaneous dusty items that had been stashed on the highest shelf: a hot air popcorn popper, a rubber hot water bottle, an unused waffle iron, and a pair of work gloves with an orange clearance sale sticker, size extra-extra-large.
The aprons hung with their pockets full, silently waiting.
Finally the closet stood empty, its trash stashed in bags and its usable contents neatly boxed on the porch where they awaited the Salvation Army truck – everything, that is, except the aprons.
I sighed. “Okay aprons. Let’s say our last farewells.”
I took one from its hook, bowed my head through the hole, and tied the belt ceremoniously behind my back. It smelled musty - saturated with food odors - just the way I remembered.
One pocket bulged out like a bumpy tumor, its lumps defined by a handful of clothespins, a cardboard matchbook wearing the name of a local restaurant, three peppermint candies, a 50-cents-off coupon for cereal, and a lipstick. The other held a sample-sized bottle of hand lotion, a few sticks of Juicy Fruit gum, and an army of crumpled Kleenexes. How odd to think Mother might have blown her nose or wiped a tear with these wads of tissue. Could I touch them? Should I? Must I?
I emptied the pockets of the other aprons one-by-one with a sense of finality, and piled the booty on the kitchen table. Mother’s apron legacy loomed before me: her sugar addiction, dry skin, thriftiness, identity as a housewife who hung clean laundry outside to dry and burned the trash in a big rusty barrel out by the garage … and her desperate tears, wept when no one was watching.
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