I believe in taking time to open and close tubes of lipstick with my mother-in-law, Annie, while going through things to close up her apartment. I knew that this singular moment would stay with me until I’m closing up my own life.
My husband’s mother was 89 at the time and she’d fallen after her granddaughter’s wedding reception. It took months of recovery with surgery and rehab to strengthen her ankle, restore balance. She knew she needed to exchange her one-bedroom apartment for assisted living.
As with many if not all of her decisions, this residential choice revealed her bedrock pragmatism. She selected a nearby nursing home because she’d know people from her hometown of Central Falls, reasoning that “even if I don’t like them, I still know them.” Straightforward and unflinching, this made sense even if it did sound a bit brutal. (You understand that this statement was spoken to us, her loyal relations.)
After months in residence at the nearby nursing home, Annie knew everyone – including the cook who brought her chicken soup when nothing else hit the spot. Nurses greeted her playfully when she returned from an outing, “So you decided to come back, did you?” A resident asked if she’d play Bingo that afternoon and when she said no, they asked permission to sit in her ‘lucky’ chair. She advised one reclusive man to comb his hair even if he didn’t leave his room because “You never know when someone might come by.”
I admired the way she took on life with this certain slant of humor.
After being successfully lodged in this ‘manor’ for a while, the family was called to empty out her old apartment. It would be given up to the next worthy senior.
One weekend her five “kids” and spouses spent the afternoon sorting and sneezing through drawers of ancient news clips, bargain-shopped clothes and supplies saved for whatever. Some were useable, much was not. We’d ferry bag after bag to an 8th floor trash chute, hearing the accumulated years tumble down metal sides.
During a span of about a half hour, Annie and I inspected her lipsticks collection. About 20 tubes were stored in a reused plastic bag kept in her top dresser drawer. I sat on her bed while she stood at a waist-height dressing bureau to judge each tube’s desirability. For my mother-in-law, under five feet tall, the top of this bureau was her standing desk. For me, at 5’10”, it was sitting in Mrs. Sears 5th grade class. Psychologically, too, I was back in school, masking my responses.
“Oh, this is a good color?” was her reaction to almost every metallic tube opened. If I didn’t agree quickly, she’d follow up, “Don’t you think so?” It’s tough to distinguish among the cosmetic industry’s rainbow of reddish hues so I found myself hesitating. I’m an indifferent makeup artist. But I knew that, whatever the tint, Annie’s smile would be the best enhancement. That gal could smile with her innermost being.
And this meticulous selection of the saved vs damned lipsticks took place in the midst of a Titanic-like flood of unsorted life cargo. I suspected that while Annie and I conducted this cosmetic court session, the rest of the family rapidly stuffed items into thick, black trash bags for the hall’s hopper destination.
Still, Annie and I opened and closed the tubes, cast our vote, savored the selected few who would report for later use.
Throughout this apartment cleanse, we’d roll our collective eyes at the sheer volume of stuff. And we knew that our lives, too, were buffered by things kept for sentiment, for memory’s sake. Memories are rather neutral combatants. Their value – or power – rests in us, the reluctant rank of volunteers. We carry the standard for our ancestors, for our descendants, for the perplexed frame of mind that cannot accept time’s rulership.
And, objectively speaking, the walk down the hall to the chute is not long and the bags are not heavy, but the journey is exhausting.
We know we’re carting ourselves, our time-fed expectations, along with these parcels of the unwanted and unneeded. We’re saying goodbye to the comfort of spending time together – special days and unimportant ones. Of time not really guaranteed to us except by wishful thinking. Time is a long afternoon nap after the family meal; being awakened by a thunder storm.
At the end of this cleaning, a gnome-like fellow stood in the apartment’s open doorway. He wanted to know if he could take the remaining things left in untidy piles. Seems he gathered whatever no one wanted – for those who might. For us, the exhausted, it was a godsend.
The next day after cleaning out the apartment, Antoinette’s youngest daughter flew home, promising to be back for the holidays. The holidays would be taking a new turn. Normality resumed for most of us but for a moment we were standing on one side of life looking over to where we’d be one day.
Annie passed away on July 4th at the age of 90. We can’t say goodbye easily, no matter how hard we try. In a small sense, this posting is my way of spending more time with this most-beloved woman.
I believe in taking time to cherish every moment.