“The parents are absent and the house is poised to roll under into memory.”
Frances Mayes, Bella Tuscany
I’ve been reflecting a lot of late on the ephemera of our lives, how the possessions we accumulate — and sometimes define ourselves by — disperse and disappear when our time on this blue planet draws to a close. Some things become cherished mementos handed down to successive generations, but most dissipate like a puff of smoke.
My mother died in June. My brother and I are now emptying her house and readying it for sale. Most of the time that I’m there I work in solitude, and I’ve found the task of sorting through her things contemplative and memory-stirring.
My father died 11 years ago. Although we disposed of his clothes and many personal items, the things that he and Mom collected together over the years were still present in their home. Soon now, the house will be empty, then sold. The possessions that seemed so much a part of my parents and our family will no longer be together. That sense of a childhood home to return to will be gone.
Yes, we have cherished items to remember them by, some valuable only in a sentimental sense, like the china plate that Mom used to serve cake to company as long as I can remember. More important are the memories and stories we have to share, and the photographs in varying states of preservation. My eldest granddaughter already talks about Petje, the great-grandfather she never met, and I know both little girls and other grandchildren to come will grow up with a sense of this generation so far removed from them.
This dismantling and dispersal of the collected items that marked two lifetimes is in the natural order of things. It’s what children do for their parents when they’re gone. Yet it’s a surreal experience to take charge of your parent’s things. Although I feel unmoored and adrift in uncharted waters, I expect that discomfort will pass and I’ll come ashore into this new phase of life where now there is no one between me and mortality.
In the meantime, I’m doing what I was raised to do: tamping down my emotions in the stoic family tradition, rolling up my sleeves and getting the job done in an organized and efficient way. It’s afterwards, when the work is finished and I’m weary and sore, that emotion wells up. It might be triggered by a kind greeting, seeing a rose I gave Mom blooming as if nothing has changed, or a memory that creeps up and catches me unaware. Maybe a few months from now I’ll reach for Mom’s old potato masher and be overcome for a moment as I get dinner ready. When more grandchildren are born I’ll weep for what both Mom and Dad are missing.
I cry. I dry my eyes. I carry on.
Fried Eggs with Apples
Two and a half years ago I wrote a post called “Breakfast Down Memory Lane,” about a dish from my mother’s childhood in Belgium that she used to make for us: fried eggs with apples. Food memories are powerfully evocative, and this dish especially so for its simplicity and its association with a simpler time. This seems an appropriate time to revisit that recipe and savour its taste of home.