What to Keep by Cindy Carlson

2018 Theme Issue: Keepsakes

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

various keepsakes om table: garden gnome, old photo, mug, etc.

The shredder’s appetite is insatiable. The more I feed it, the more it whines. Paper litters the floor—tax forms, phone bills, random pages with an address or account number. Remnants of how or where my mother existed in the world make whitecaps on a beige carpet-sea.

There is one more file box. This one, a heavy-duty clear plastic with a sticker announcing its contents: 1999-2005. For years it has hunkered in my closet. I trace my fingers hesitantly over its smooth red lid. Maybe it holds some long-forgotten treasure, or a special note in her own hand, or something that when I find it and tell my sister, she’ll say, “Oh, that is so Mom!”

The thing about this last box, though: once it’s open, it’s open. When I’m finished with it, there will be no more discoveries. Every box will have been inspected, everything accounted for—either saved or gone.

I long for one more surprise, one more glimpse of her—to catch my breath for just a moment, to peek back into her world. I close my eyes, gathering the essence of her around me.


The day Daddy died, after the last long look from the parking lot to the second-story hospital window where we left him, after the silent drive home through the bleak March afternoon, after she pressed her fragile hand into the crook of my arm and we shuffled down the slush-caked sidewalk and up the ramp, Mom and I stepped back into the house that Daddy built. In the two days we had been gone, the simple shingled box had grown, and now it moaned and rattled in the corners. Mom, still in her frayed brown trench coat, sank into his recliner, sighed, and said, “Well, I guess it’s time to move.”

Looking around the living room, the hub of their home for forty years—at the stack of dog-eared sheet music on the edge of the piano bench, at the dining table with the two pop-up leaves where the indentations traced every sewing project I could remember, at the built-in bookshelves where Dag Hammarskjöld and Charles Kuralt perched next to the Holy Bible and the field guides to North American birds, trees, and butterflies—I wondered how we would compress the lifetime of a family of five into a space for one.

My husband and I returned the first of April—early spring in western New York, the season that never failed to break my heart. I knew there would be one or two days of delicious thaw, the snow-melt trickling in the ditches, the heady scent of a westerly breeze and red-winged blackbirds calling from pussy-willows that pushed up through the muck; but the heavy gray skies would return as always, and we would shovel, bundled in parkas called back into duty from the depths of a closet.

We taped schedules and charts to the kitchen walls; I needed to set the universe in order for the next few months, and Mom and her three out-of-town children all needed a place to channel the languor that was creeping in. The chart paper—out of place on the faded white wallpaper with the pencil-thin pale blue and avocado stripes—rustled as we squeezed past the dinette set, reminding us of the looming tasks:

  1. Measure the apartment, move some big pieces, see what fits
  2. Fill the new place with favorite things, make it homey
  3. Stay there a few nights, see how it goes
  4. Put the things no one can part with into storage
  5. Pull together salable items for a “tag sale”
  6. Tackle the stuff

All that stuff.

Mom was the original recycler. Born in 1914, the middle child of Swedish immigrant parents in a Swedish immigrant community, she grew up in the Depression and started a family during war rationing. Years later, she planned and tastefully appointed the small house her husband built on three acres along a country road, and sent three kids to college—all on his school-teacher’s salary. Life taught her to be frugal, practical, and grounded. There was no margin for obsolescence in her world.

But it wasn’t only that Mom abhorred waste; she believed everything held the potential for another purpose. With the soul of an artist and a deep appreciation for nature, craft, and beauty, she could make something out of anything. So she saved everything. We grew up in a home full of objects waiting to become something else.

By the time I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to become something else. The tiny house, the homemade clothes, the rural setting all suffocated like bubble-life. Tired of sense and sensibility, most of all I wanted to not become my mother.

Rich and I finished Task #1 on that first trip. Couch, table and chairs, bed, dresser and television all jockeyed for space, then settled into the basic, one-bedroom apartment. With great flourish we checked that step off the list.

“Should I go and stay there?” Mom asked with a worried tone.

“No,” I said, by now almost used to the mother-daughter role reversal. “Let’s wait to do that together. No reason you can’t keep staying here.”

On my next trip, two weeks later, she settled on the edge of the bed in my old room among the piles of stuff-waiting-to-become. It was time for Task #6, to wade in, tackling all that latent utility with fresh green garbage bags—room by room, closet by closet, drawer by drawer. Without benefit of the modern version that asks if an object is useful or brings joy to the holder, I was hoping for a compassionate, but efficient, version of purging.

“Mom, do you want this?” I asked, holding up a miniature hand-carved gnome with green pants and pointed red hat.

“Oh, I remember him,” she said, and then stared past the carving in my hand. “You know, cousin Karl made that for me.”

“It’s sweet. Do you want it?” I handed it to her, trying to disguise my impatience at the story I’d heard so many times. At this rate she would never even see the apartment.

“I don’t know,” she said, “It’s a shame to throw it away.” She grasped the ornament between her thumb and two gnarled, arthritic fingers and let it drop to her lap.

“What about this fabric?” I asked. With a ploy not unlike one for a three year-old, I figured I could distract her, then grab the gnome for its new home in the trash bag.

“Oh, there’s that material!” she said. “I was going to make doll clothes. I think for Tina.” She paused, a bit confused as to whether it was a daughter or granddaughter who would have benefited.

“Mom, Tina is in high school.”

Her head drooped; she studied the corduroy. I stopped short, suddenly ashamed of my impatience. Life was about to change. Had already changed. These piles of fabric were never to become dresses or draperies, stacks of magazines would never be enjoyed, clipped recipes would remain forever untested. She wasn’t just parting with things, she was relinquishing plans and ideas. Dreams.

During her nap I decided to tackle the sewing drawer, third one down in the linen closet. I tugged on the handle and its contents burst into the air like a pop-up toy from its canister. A dizzying array of thread, needles, zippers and buttons lined the bottom; the rest of the space was stuffed with rickrack. Rickrack of every imaginable color and size. Regular and scalloped, narrow and wide, extra thick, lacy, plain, all in original packaging or wrapped by the yard around two-inch by four-inch scraps of cardboard—more than enough rickrack to trim a lifetime of projects, planned and not-yet-even-imagined.

Tears welled up as I slumped to the floor. “I’m so sorry, Mom.” I whispered, staring at the gaping drawer. “We can’t keep the rickrack.”

Mom managed for two years in her new apartment in the senior living complex. With each visit I watched her shrink, her dowager’s hump becoming more pronounced, her gaze increasingly fixed downward. After awhile she just left everything she needed on the countertops or scattered around on the furniture so she didn’t have to bend or reach. But eventually she fell. And though she worked valiantly in her rehab program, after years of osteoporosis and now a fractured pelvis, it was clear she wasn’t going back to her independent life.

Once Mom was settled in the nursing home, we brought in a few precious things from the apartment—her small writing desk, a couple of her weavings, photos, a lamp to counter the fluorescent lights, a mini CD player with a little Chopin for the mornings and Beethoven for the long nights. We dragged the room’s standard-issue orange vinyl chair into the hallway and replaced it with her old brocade Queen Anne. If this was to be home for the rest of her life, it ought to feel like it, if not a smaller, sparser version.

We kept the apartment and its accompanying storage for a few more months. Although my sister and I claimed we needed a place to stay when we flew into town to visit, in truth, we dreaded losing it as a touchstone. But the end of its lease loomed; it was time to fly back “home” to clear it out. With Christmas lights strung over the walls where the pictures used to hang, we faced the next level of sorting—what to let go of, what to give away, what to keep. To the accompaniment of an old Beatles CD playing on my laptop, we piled and boxed and tossed, while we sang and laughed and wept.

Seven long years Mom lived in that one small spartan room, the wails and the smells of nursing home life closing around her like fog. By the last two years—confined to her wheelchair, then to her bed—thoughts of her house, her apartment, her treasures, and gradually even her family faded away.

One afternoon we watched a fat fluffy snowfall drift from a dull gray sky and she caught a glimpse of the photo on her windowsill.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s Daddy,” I answered, not yet used to telling her things that I wished she still knew, and wondering what is left when memory is gone.

I moved into the room with Mom the last few days of her life, sleeping on a cot and watching the rise and fall of her chest as she lingered. Our world of things dwindled to a candle, a notepad, a cup of tea, a bible, and all the accoutrements of hospice. My sister arrived, then my brother and sister-in-law, all of us taking turns keeping watch, all of us in our private dance of loving and letting go.

After, in our final triage, each of us claimed what we would take—a coffee mug, a few Christmas ornaments, the writing desk, a photo of a windmill from their dream vacation. Not quite ready to relinquish the room to its institutional state, I sat on the cold linoleum floor, stroking a nightgown I had found on a hook behind the door. The pale yellow flannel was soft and worn, trimmed in thin white rick rack.


The last box is empty. It held no big surprises—mostly files, rations for the shredder. I save a few random pieces of paper. Her last signed check, a note to herself describing a sunset, a newspaper clipping of their fiftieth wedding anniversary, some daily detritus of a well-lived life—stuff only meaningful to her, and, now, to me. This is my inheritance, its value solely as a portal to memory.

She would have set it all aside, thinking she might create a collage someday. For me, a special box will suffice. Maybe if it’s big enough, I’ll toss in that funny carved gnome. He’s around here somewhere.

cynthia carlsonCindy Carlson grew up in the snowbelt of western New York, and, when not traveling and birding with her husband, has spent most of her adult life along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. After a long career in youth development, she is enjoying retirement as a writer. A winner of the Hampton Roads Writers contest for creative nonfiction and a reader for WHRO radio’s Writers Block, her work has appeared several travel journals, The Quotable, The Wayfarer, Bird’s Thumb, Chautauqua, and is forthcoming in Tiferet and Barely South Review.

Share a Comment