Memories Packed into a Room

Would she like it? Would she like her new place?

“And here is the fish tank in the center, kind of as a focal point for each hallway,” our guide said as we shuffled to Mother’s new studio in the assisted living development.

I gazed at the giant glass octagon with the large orange fish flapping through clear water. Four halls radiated out from this central point, rather like the arms of a cross, I thought. My mother, leaning into her walker, paused in her shuffle and nodded.

We turned left and continued down the hall, past colorful art (”Oh, I like those,” Mother said, seeing an oil painting of Tuscany, a red farm house cresting golden hills), past the dining area, tables set for lunch, and to the elevator. On the second floor we emerged and soon opened the door to Mother’s new studio.

Would she like it? She and I had chosen the furniture to be moved here from her former home, before the fall. During the weeks of skilled nursing we looked at photos I had taken of of dressers and beds and desks and lamps and paintings.

“Oh…,” she said, giggling slightly and taking it all in.

I was encouraged by the giggle. It came from somewhere deep, like a surprise burst of quiet pleasure. I almost didn’t hear it.

The bed from her old home was covered in a familiar spread with familiar pillows, and her old French Provincial night tables banked either side, holding painted ceramic lamps from her living room, carefully chosen long ago. Two aqua wing chairs, in which, in her former life, she had curled into to read and watch movies or perhaps the evening news, grouped near a large picture window which looked out on leafy shade trees. My father’s old roll top desk hugged an opposite wall, near two treasured dressers. Photos of their wedding (1945), photos of my sister and me as toddlers, as graduates, photos of earlier generations, photos of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren (who called her “GG” for Great Grandma) hung on the walls. Her TV/DVD player on another familiar night stand, angled toward the two easy chairs.

I watched her as she took it all in, stepping to one of the chairs. “All my old things…”

Relieved by her tone of relief, I absorbed the room.

It was remarkable, I thought, how memory works. In this small space we had condensed her life. We had pulled pieces, carefully chosen, into a few square feet. These objects were like threads woven from memories of other generations, woven to make a new – but familiar – fabric. Each object represented whole worlds of memory and experience. The richness of the room was nearly tangible.

Since her moving in, we have chatted about things to take away that were unneeded, things to add to the room, snacks for the mini fridge, more paintings and more photos. In the next few months she will sort boxes of photos. She will travel in her mind with her sisters once again on the three sisters cruise some years ago. She will revisit Ireland. Alaska, all carefully documented. And farther back, she will see again in her memory the Holy Land with my father, my sister, and me, and perhaps recall the barbed wire bundles running through Jerusalem, the rose tea in a hut in Beirut with the flies buzzing in the heat. There were times at Tahoe swimming and playing tennis. Masquerade parties in the seventies. My father preaching in the early days of his ministry. Breaking the ground with a shovel on the new church property. All a jumble.

With each visit I pass the fish tank with its orange gilled swimmers, the glassy eyes glancing as they race around.

We have condensed Mother’s life, but somehow enriched it with memory. Somehow the enclosed space, the necessary borders, helped us do that.

Man is an intricate creature with infinite depths, for after all he is made in the image of his Creator. Such a marvelous mystery. Such a miracle, this miracle of memory.

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