I just read Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a sort of sequel to her wonderful memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which I read the year it came out, 2007, three years before Mama died. I’ve had to sit with this book for a couple of days to let the experience of reading it sink in.
It’s not an easy read. It requires allowing yourself to accept the disorienting perspective of the deeply bereaved—streaming consciousness returning over and over to a handful of specific images, the attempt to pull into the present moment memories fixed in time past. As an artifact of this period in her life, the book itself represents way that the loss of an important loved one disrupts the flow of time, and changes the meaning we place on objects now imbued with the confused significance of memories past as well as the imagined loss of future memories.
Didion writes about this:
In fact, I no longer value this kind of memento.
I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.
There was a period, a long period, dating from my childhood until quite recently, when I thought I did.
A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their “things,” their totems.
The detritus of this misplaced belief now fills the drawers and closets of my apartment in New York. There is no drawer I can open without seeing something I do not want, on reflection, to see.
I felt that way at first. I didn’t WANT to deal with Mom’s THINGS. I didn’t want to remember everything. I didn’t want to appear to be hanging on to THINGS, as if they could stand in for her. I didn’t want to hang onto things because I knew they COULDN’T stand in for her. It seemed morbid and materialistic. But now… I miss some of the things.
It took me more than a year to clean out Mom’s house. I actually left everything almost exactly as it was the day she died for more several months. I would visit the house on my many work trips to Houston. I would come in, sit on the couch and memorize the placement of every single thing, soak up the new silence. I’d walk through the house, open all the closet doors and cabinets, but not move anything.
On Día de los Muertos, I created a little alter for her there and spent the night. I went to sleep with a sense of excitement, expecting to find in the morning that someone had eaten the snacks I left out for her, like Santa on Christmas morning. After that I never stayed in the house again.
And, slowly, I started to take some things back home with me.
I hated cleaning out her house more than anything. It required making a decision about every single item in it: keep, give to family or friends, give to charity, or trash. I never considered selling anything. I did it in stages. First I brought home things of personal sentimental value to me: her purse and keys, her little notebooks filled with shopping lists, her glasses and a box of cigarettes.
I boxed up books and videos and probably thousands of cds to make decisions about later. I ended up keeping entire Willie Nelson collection (probably everything record he ever made through the time of her death), all the classical music and opera, Russian folk music, Rod Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and Ute Lempur. Books kept included a complete set of 1929 World Book encyclopedias, several books by and about Richard Nixon, and book about Russian foreign policy written by my greta uncle, and biographies of Rudolf Nuryev and Margot Fonteyn.
I still have several boxes of things that I don’t know what to do with. They seem like things a daughter should keep: silver, china, her wedding dress, her personal photograph albums from time before me. I have a box of ballet videos. I have a drawer full of wind-up toys that I had put in her stocking at Christmases past. I have one pink sweater.
The decisions I made made sense at the time. I was worried about my house turning into hers, about me turning into her. I kept the “real” art, grandmother’s furniture, Mom’s wrought iron bed and jewelry box/night stand. (Yes, her night table WAS her jewelry box!) I kept a few things that represented memories for her: her toe shoes and tiara. But the most iconic things, the things that represent my strongest memories of my actual mom are no longer here. And I miss them. But really, what would I do with two hideous, teal-colored leather couches, the sticky remote control, the nasty ash tray, the complete set of Dean Martin Show VHS tapes, the hilarious and ugly coffee mug with three-dimensional black olives that my cousin bought at Ross because the olives looked like Benny’s balls!!?
Well, I would just HAVE them. It’s hard to explain. I might never look at them, but I would KNOW they are here. I would much rather have that box of videos — remember how she loved watching Dean Martin and Goldie Hawn? — than a meaningless box of silver serving things from a marriage to a man I never met.
Enrique went with me on me my last trip to clean out the house — the one where I ordered a dumpster and really set about EMPTYING that place. I have joked so many times about that weekend. As I barreled through the rooms, sacking up “trash” and tossing things into the dumpster before giving myself a chance to think about it, Enrique looked meticulously at every knickknack. He’d ask, “Are you sure you want to get rid of THIS?” It would be some little bird figurine I’d never seen before. I finally just told him to keep whatever he found that he though we wanted to keep.
I’m SO GLAD I did that. They’re at his house, and I see them when I’m there. Things he kept:
- Joan’s ‘lil tool box: a miniature tool kit Mom’s best friend personalized for her with pink painted bougainvillea vines
- a duck-shaped casserole dish where Mom kept all her drugs for those years of illness
- a nasty little paper weight from Big Mama’s (my great grandmother’s) trip to Hawaii
- that stupid little bird figurine I had never seen before.
I shall remain on the lookout for a black-olive coffee mug.