When you arrive she’s sitting in the grey armchair, chin on chest, sound asleep. The door is half-open; roaring and screeching fill the room—the TV is on and they’re showing motor racing. You knock again and call again: Mum. It takes a few minutes for her to shake herself awake, to snuffle and blink back to consciousness. You wonder if it’d be all right to turn off the TV, you’d never do such a thing in someone else’s home, and this room is her home now. So you wait, in warm air thick with smells of cleaning products and medication.
Awake now, she lifts the remote with a wobbly aim and turns off the TV, seems pleased to see you. The room is lit mildly with watery afternoon light. Every second day you come; your brother Pete fills in on the other days. It’s been a demanding schedule ever since she broke her arm. Now she’s helpless, a cliché, a bird with a broken wing. After the hospital, responding to gentle suggestions and no other options, she reluctantly agrees to six weeks’ respite care in this nursing home. It’s clear to you from the beginning, she’ll never be able to return to independent life in her little retirement unit. It’s obvious this room and the grey chair will now be the compass of her world. You don’t say so. That decision has to be hers, that’s what you decide. If it were you sitting there, you’d insist on making your own decisions, wouldn’t you? Losing her already feeble mobility, needing constant nursing, she accepts her fate. When you visit she seems resigned, happy enough. In the circumstances.
The nursing home is well-appointed, the staff friendly, the fittings shiny and fresh. Some days it seems a little bumbling, a little like Fawlty Towers, but in a nice way. There’s a grand piano on her floor though you never hear it played, and a cocktail cabinet though you never see it open for business. There’s a jukebox. Mum tells you her favourite nurse, Michael, set it playing once and in your mind’s ear you hear Elvis, always her favourite: Love Me Tender.
The staff put a nameplate on her room: Dorothy. They all call her Dorothy though to her family and her husband she always had a nickname, Doff. The era of Doff has become that of Dorothy. She seems to prefer this extra level of formality—it’s not like these people are her family, after all. The team of young carers put you to shame every time you see them holding her hand, or heaving her in or out of bed, cajoling and soothing and making sure she takes her meds. Remember that day you came in and found her dressed in her best jacket, wearing a string of jaunty beads, her face made up to the nines? Looking pleased with herself?
She broke her arm the day before Australia Day. Now Easter approaches. For a while she made all kinds of plans to return home to her unit when her broken arm had healed. Plans involving resources she doesn’t have, physical abilities she’s lost. When you stand alone in the living room of her unit, her ex-home, looking around, the day goes a little dark. It’s never been a sunny room but this is more like a psychic state. You need to get a grip. There’s a list on your phone. Check it: trousers, dressing gown, breakfast cereal, Oil of Ulan. Take photos of each shelf of the china cabinets so she can review her treasures. Make sure to find the stash of cash she says is hidden in the underwear draw. If you didn’t have this list, you’d stand there indecisively all day.
A discussion with Pete about hiring one of those clearance companies. Yes, let’s get in a clearance company. The unit is crowded, neat, old-fashioned. But all this stuff was once new-fashioned. Also, it remains beloved, by that old lady with the broken arm. You need to detach her from it all, convince her to let it go. Attachment is not the source of happiness—you must convince her of that sensible philosophical maxim. Buddhism might invite scorn, but she’s into Christianity: Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. Instead, lay up treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. You wonder if you should run this bit of Matthew’s Gospel past her. Imagine the look she’d give you.
You return to her room with the Oil of Ulan and the dressing gown she asked for, and she tells you it’s the wrong one. Her tone of voice sounds as it always has. It’s the same voice that reprimanded little-child you when you squabbled with your sister over the washing up; the same voice that expressed disapproval of your divorce. Firm, parental. You’re conditioned. You respond with an anxious effort to please. You tell her you looked everywhere for the pink dressing gown and could only find the white and assure her you’ll go back and find the right one.
Outside her room, Nurse Michael draws you aside and shares his concerns. He’s having trouble washing her hair. She doesn’t like the water on her head, he tells you. You explain that she always went to the hairdresser. Leaning back—you tip your head back to illustrate. Michael wrinkles his brow, serious. She was crying, he says, and I had to stop. He looks at you, the daughter, like you’ll know what to do about this. Crying. Your gut churns but you assure him you’ll talk to her.
You raise the hair-washing problem with her, discuss the options, leaning your head back again to illustrate. She just stares at you, annoyed. She’s stubborn, then irascible, then quiet, turning to stare out of the window beside her chair. Her room is on the second floor but the view is only of a brick wall with a bit of greenery being encouraged up a wire trellis. The day outside is windy, the window closed. She tells you she likes this chair. It’s comfortable. She tells you firmly: she only wants to eat sandwiches, and she does not want to have her hair washed. You remember it’s only a year since your father died, since she was widowed after a marriage lasting sixty-five years. Your dad was ninety-two. As you sit on the side of her bed and watch her eat yet another plate of cheese and tomato sandwiches, because she refuses all the other dishes they try to entice her with, you admire the steel in her.
A retirement village is a liminal place, a transition between independence and dependence. Your mother managed her life in the last fifteen years with intelligence and determination. She managed the down-sizing, from a large house on a hillside in north Queensland, looking out across the sea to Great Keppel Island, taking herself and your father to a three-bedroom villa in one of those retirement communities—single story, no steps, just a small patch of garden. Not too much. Then she managed to shed further possessions so they could fit into a smaller retirement unit in Sydney. Reducing everything down to the essence, to the most intense flavours, like making a rich sauce. Now those very last things, the reduction, the essence of the things that mattered to her, now those too have to go.
That’s what you tell her—the things have to go. She, on the other hand, is making lists. Deciding who should take what. Not just heirlooms (they are few, and modest) but everything. The umbrellas. The sheets from the bed. The toothpaste. And her collections—she was always a collector. Stamps. Shells. Rocks and minerals. Family history. Everything is still there, in the unit.
Another day, driving over to the unit, you make mental lists: take this, pack up that, sell this, donate that. Dodging the fat lizards that sun themselves on the path to the front door, you visit her ex-home again. Unlock the door, step inside. You imagine the clearance company men in overalls, stepping inside like you and looking around with hands on hips, their truck ready at the top of the drive. You see them lift the armchairs, the bookcase, the fridge, the microwave, carry everything out. You raise your eyes to the two tall cabinets full of china—her treasures, her grandmother’s things, her wedding presents. Your heart sinks. Remember the steel in her, you tell yourself.
Your own house is stuffed with things too. That must be admitted. A frisson trembles through you, crackles up your spine, as you see a vivid picture in your mind’s eye of your own children hiring a skip, dumping all your things into it. Taking a chainsaw to your bookshelves. Burning your old photographs. Donating your books to Lifeline, where they’ll sit in a damp storage shed until they sell for maybe a buck each. Would that seem so awful if you were actually dead? You wouldn’t know about it, it couldn’t hurt you. But of course the problem is the anticipation, not the act. And what if, like your mother, you were sitting in a nursing home room not two hundred meters away, trying to direct the dispersal operation despite the limitations of a frail and failing body? With nothing but your steely will and a well-honed parental tone of voice as your tools. Another Bible exhortation pops into your mind: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule.
She asks you to take the family history albums and boxes, to look after them. So you do. Piling them into plastic crates and wondering how you’re going to carry them to your car, all those ancestors. You think of the line of women of which your mother—and you—are descendants. Bush women, children of convicts, mothers who bore a dozen children on dirt-poor farms in the back blocks of Tasmania. They’d consider you weak, wavering over this insignificant task of clearing out a unit. You see them, in their working dresses in the chook yard, watching you with arms akimbo, lips pursed. Just get on with it, girl, they say. They delivered babies alone, dealt with broken limbs, buried children. They just got on with things. Endured. Stoic, that’s what those women were. Didn’t Christianity adopt that idea of the futility of amassing things from the Stoic philosophers? You tell yourself your mother will forget all about this stuff once the clearing-out is done. It will come to mean nothing to her.
When your father died you realised you didn’t have anything of his, no object he had owned. So in the unit you pick over things that might have been his: a watch, an old pair of spectacles. Once, you saw the spectacles of Catherine the Great in a museum in Moscow, displayed in a back corner of one of the high-ceilinged museum rooms—humble, round, steel-rimmed. Her everyday glasses, not her diamond-encrusted lorgnette. Uncannily, the great woman seemed to stand beside you as you peered into the cabinet. The object she had handled, worn, used, brought her to life. You’re sure you literally shivered—they call it archive shiver, don’t they? You remember last year, in the Mitchell Library, when the librarian wheeled those bundles in on a trolley, retrieved from the mysterious depths of the archive. You found letters written by your great-great-grandfather. He wasn’t saying anything earth-shattering, just complaining that his telescope wasn’t good enough or something—but it was his handwriting. Thin paper, crackling with age, upon which he had leaned his fist, across which he had pushed the ink. Remember how you stared at it and how surprised you were when the tears suddenly pricked. It was fanciful to imagine that experience as literally touching the hand of the person from the past, but you imagined it anyway.
Here you are again, standing in the living room of your mother’s unit and looking around uselessly. Of all the things here, of all this detritus, what will survive? What will speak to some person yet to be born? Maybe your thinking is old-fashioned, in this age of Marie Kondo and minimalism and Le Corbusier advising everyone to whitewash their walls. Is it even possible to manipulate this, to decide what will matter in the future, to pick out things to give your children (whether they want them now or not)? How can you know which objects might cause archive shiver in a future grandchild? It’s like selecting objects for a time capsule—perhaps when time capsules are opened the future people find the things in them trite and uninteresting. Why, for example, were you so impressed with Catherine the Great’s everyday spectacles when you would barely have given a second glance to her diamond lorgnette? No, there’s no point trying to manipulate the future—better to let these things survive, or not. That’s life, a tidal wash of change. Concentrate on the present; you can’t control the past or the future. And what about the moths and rust and thieves, anyway, and the futility of amassing things? Virtue is sufficient for happiness, said the stoics. You think about walking out the door and letting the clearance company take care of this philosophical conundrum. Store up your treasure in heaven. You think about saying that to your mother. You think about her crying when Michael tries to wash her hair.
On top of a tall bookcase in your mother’s unit you notice a small rectangular wooden box. It looks like it might be useful, perhaps for transporting something… you take it down and lift its hinged lid. Inside is a collection of ancient letters, most still in their envelopes. You pull out a few, unfold the yellow paper and try to decipher writing from fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. With a small jolt, you recognise your mother’s handwriting. My darling Ron… The letter is dated two years before their marriage. You pull out a few more envelopes. Letters written to her beau, your father. You have found your parents’ love letters.
You stop reading, put the letters back into their envelopes, close the lid of the box. You have no idea what to do. The woman who wrote and received these letters is sitting up there in her room with a broken arm, trying to reduce her possessions to whatever can fit in one small wardrobe. Reading the letters feels intrusive. It is intrusive. Would she want to read them? You think of her grief over the past year; you certainly don’t want to stir that up again, not right now. Though you can’t see how anyone except your mother should read them, you also know in your gut these letters should definitely not be left for the clearance men in overalls. So you carry the box outside and put it in the boot of your car. Back at your place, you shove the box into a cupboard. You wonder what you’ve got in your own boxes, what letters you should shred before your children are cleaning out your cupboards. Do unto others.
On your next visit, you push open the door of the nursing home room and see she’s asleep again. The TV is on, but it’s something quiet this time. When she wakes, eyelids fluttering, she turns it off, taking ages to position her forefinger on the button of the remote and to lift it, wavering, towards the television set. She shows you her latest list, written in her wobbly hand-writing on the back of the home’s daily schedule of fun activities. The shell collection to your sister. The vacuum cleaner to your nephew. Bring me my salt shaker, she commands, because they don’t salt the food here. She gives detailed instructions about which salt shaker she wants.
You decide it’s time for a firm talk. The retirement village needs a date when the unit will be vacant. Cautiously, you suggest that the clearing out will be finished in perhaps three or four weeks’ time. She stares back at you, saying nothing at first. You realise she enjoys making her lists, issuing her directives. When it’s all over, what will fill her days? So far, the fun activities haven’t attracted her. Michael can hardly get her to leave her room, though he’s working on it. You wonder if you have a responsibility to offer to bring her love letters, but you can’t quite formulate the question. You think about the box in the cupboard at your place. You haven’t mentioned it to anyone.
The afternoon tea trolley rattles past her open door. The cheerful orderly asks if Dorothy would like anything. Ever since she came to the nursing home, she has never accepted anything from the tea trolley. Some obscure point of independence, of maintaining control, seems to be at work. Too obscure for you to fathom. You offer to make her a coffee instead, from the packaged cappuccino she has secreted in her wardrobe, and she accepts. When you get back from the kitchen with the coffee mug, she pulls her list out again. You tell her she doesn’t have to worry about things like the bedsheets and the bathroom scales. Carefully, you explain that the most important thing is to make sure she has everything she wants here in her room. That Pete and you and your sisters will pack up all the things she’s told you to pack up. You promise. You ask again—is there anything else you want up here? She looks at you. I don’t really care anymore, she says, and reaches a trembling hand for the coffee mug.
The next day, she’s wearing a pretty string of beads again. A young carer has brought in an eyebrow pencil and given her eyebrows. Smiling, she tells you about going down to the garden this morning. Michael took her in the wheelchair. The weather was lovely, sunshine. The garden has a raised fishpond and the residents can feed the fish. All the garden beds are raised so that wheelchair-bound people can see the plants more easily, poke about with a garden fork, maybe pull a weed or two. There are ornamental animals in the garden beds, chickens mostly. She discusses these and laughs. The nursing home has a resident dog now, small and fluffy. She has held it. You’re relieved to avoid the subject of the clearing out; you wonder if the lists are a thing of the past. Then she says—you know those concrete ducks on my balcony? I want you to bring them up here, put them in the garden. She leans back in her grey armchair with its adjustable settings. The latest list is under her hand; you see the wobbly letters DUCKS. Everything matters to her.
When you get home that night you take the wooden box out of the cupboard and look through the letters. The yellow envelopes, the folded papers, the fading ink, have outlasted your father and it seems likely they’ll outlast your mother, especially if you keep them safe in your cupboard as she has kept them safe for more than half a century. You think about how things often outlast people. Things can endure. Waiting around in the material world, holding their energy, ready to zap an unsuspecting future person with a dose of archive shiver. You still cannot bring yourself to read past the tender salutations: My darling… Unfolding the letters nervously, you look at the final signatures: Your loving boy, Ron. Yours forever, Doff. Destroying the letters is an option. Destroying the letters is not an option. You leave them in the cupboard for someone else to find.
Published by The Plentitudes. September 2021.