Claiming Territory

After almost three and a half years in my mother’s castle, I’ve been openly re-claiming rooms from the storage space they’ve become. It’s hard on my mother (who turned 99.5 this week). But she’s not saying as much as she did when I tried before. I took my friend Elizabeth’s advice and just told her she was going to love it! Of course, Elizabeth has never dealt with my mother and her stuff and her hammerlock on control. Still, the permission thing hadn’t worked—besides which I am too old to have to ask permission of anyone, let alone my mother—so I figured I would give it a go.

As I’ve mentioned, the grandson visit while I was away last month didn’t go well. He’s an active little guy, and Mama was in a slump—the one that culminated in a complete mental breakdown that has been attributed to the short-lived antidepressant. (I wrote about that tumble into Wonderland here.) It was serendipity: I wanted the downstairs family room to be a place I enjoy spending time in, rather than avoiding like the plague; Elliot needs a place to play when he comes for Christmas. So I told Mama I was going to re-purpose it and she was going to love it! What could she say, really?

Well, she could have said a lot. She could have firmly said she had projects that needed to be where she could find them (although she hasn’t mentioned them for over a year). She could have said she would do it with me. And that was not going to happen; she would have wanted to sort every one of the eleventy-hundred photos and put them in albums. Each daughter and most of her grandchildren have jumped into that black hole with her and gotten exactly nowhere.

But this time she didn’t say anything. She gave me no instructions at all. Nor has she asked me to show her the result. Not to say she hasn’t asked what I did with this and that. “All organized into labeled boxes, identifying the contents and which surface in the room they were removed from, and put on shelves in the store room,” I assure her. It took me just two days to make it a space I like being in, and that Elliot will be safe in. I’m having a Solstice Gathering there, my first gathering of friends since I moved here.

Perhaps she was quiet because of my enthusiasm, or maybe it was part of her giving up (that I wrote about here). Maybe it was because a few weeks ago—without warning her—I did something for her. I organized her greeting card collection drawer into categories (including those not in the drawer). She buys a card every time she needs one, plus a few more for the collection. She was thrilled; I’ve actually heard her bragging to people that I did it. Maybe she thought she owed me one. Okay, probably not.

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Lots of vintage stuff in cabinets and drawers.

From the family room, I moved on to the study. She’s taken less kindly to that.

“Where is the box of summer hats that was in there?” (On the hostess cart that was a housewarming gift from my grandmother in 1960.)
“I put them in the hat drawer.” (I’m a genius.)
“There isn’t room in the drawer.”
“Then how did I get them in there?” (Snarky.)
“I wanted to sort all my hats. (right) And I felt for the box and it was gone.” Finally, the real issue. She can’t see, except with her hands, and she missed the comfort of something being where she expected it to be—however ridiculous a location, and however unlikely she really was  going to do that task. And so I offered her something in return for my insensitive insubordination (also part of Elizabeth’s experience-based instructions).

“How about this weekend I help you gather all your hats, sort them, and put them in two places: a summer hat place and a winter hat place?” She brightened at that. I will not tell you how many hats there were, let’s just say she could start a small milliner. Someday I will open a hat and card shop. They were in plastic bags and tissue paper and boxes in a half dozen locations; and in her 1942 hat box on her closet shelf. I’m really not sure I found them all. I think she is pleased with their organization now.

I have done bits of movement in the kitchen over the past couple of years; quietly putting unused items on storage room shelves or pushing them to the recesses of the cupboards to make room for some of my own things—while daring not to get rid of anything. This week I pulled a boxed bottle of peppermint extract out of a drawer. The box had “29¢” stamped on it. I took a whiff. Yep. Not good. I replaced it for $4.19. (I’m going to make my aunt’s candy cane cookies for Elliot.) Yesterday I put 27 small glass jars in the recycling bin; about half of the overflowing box in the cupboard.

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And then I cleaned out the Kid Cave under the stairs my sister and I played in when I was 8 and she was 3 (I was much too tall). I took out the chairs stored there and put them around the table and in the shed, and vacuumed up the crispy centipedes. I found a single ping pong paddle in a back corner that had somehow missed the kids-are-gone clean out—my parents’ own reclamation of space. And a couple of games: including non-electronic Password, and a box of 78 rpm children’s records. I wished for Lie Detector and Mouse Trap, long gone. I’ve seen the latter at Goodwill; not the same. (I’ve found them on E-bay at exorbitant prices. I would love to recreate our collection.) I hope Elliot loves it as much as Rebecca and I did.

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I am often asked if my mother lives with me. And I have replied—forcefully—that no, I live with her. Lately, though, I’m wondering why I say that. I feel diminished by the fact that, at 63, I live with my mother, regardless of the reason. So why do I perpetuate that detail? The facts are, I am a one-third owner of the property with my two sisters, our mother would not be there if I were not, and—with help—I keep the place going. We live together, what does it matter that it was her house? I’m claiming my Self, as I claim space.

(Visit my friend Elizabeth’s lovely blog: In Which Everything Changes.)

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17 thoughts on “Claiming Territory

  1. Just wanted to say hello. I love reading your posts. I can feel your quiet strength. Wish I could come to the solstice party! Good for you!

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  2. Alright.. you have inspired me..your honest voice of who you are has given me to courage to start a blog myself. How tragic that anyone goes through life with no one knowing who they are. The Kid cave and the room for your grandson looks wonderful!

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  3. I am stuck on the freeway in a car that overheats…however, your lemonade from life’s lemons is wonderful…refreshing, nourishing, satisfying…made from your own recipe! Bless you!

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    • Oh dear. I’m sorry. I read in my car in the Trader Joe’s parking lot for 40 minutes late this afternoon. Three car accident blocking one of the exits and jamming the other two. I just waited it out. Glad you had some reading material!

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  4. Gretchen, I haven’t tuned in for a while. ( my apologies) Reading this entry I’m experiencing some wonderful “yes!” moments with you. I’m enjoying your sense of humor and your ingenious way of doing what you want to do while helping her to feel ownership over what you are doing. Yay!! By the way, I had a password game like that! Wish I still did. I love the way you prepared your space for your soltice gathering. I’ll be there in spirit. Love you ! Grace

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  5. I am glad to hear that you are continuing your “take over” of some of the space in the house. When you posted that your mother had recovered from the period of giving up, I wondered if you would have to undo what you had done in the family room . Good for you.

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  6. Gretchen – I look forward to every post; I see you, your sisters, your mom, your dad in my mind when I read ..I love you all..and I bet that your mom wore some of those hats when she and your dad were finally able to be together again after the war…there are many stories there. You might ask her if she remembers her first hat, or a very special hat – she may be able to describe it so you could attach its story..just a thought. Bless you for doing what you can to make space and make space that you can enjoy and Elliot too..so important. Enjoy your first party with your friends…its well overdue. Hugs..V.

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  7. huh. I thought the fea cart was a housewarming giift from the office folks, and they probably asked Daddy for suggestions because he knew what she wanted and a space had been built into the kitchen for it.

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  8. My late mother was just the opposite–the more “stuff” we got rid of, the happier she was. She only cared about clocks–she used to take the bathroom clock off the wall and sleep with it. I’m not elaborating on *that* symbolism.

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    • My mother sleeps with her talking clock. 🙂 But not, I don’t think, symbolically. Interesting. She has said she needs to be in touch with reality (in the middle of the night?), and so I guess it is partly symbolic. She makes weekly trips to Goodwill with her caregiver, 2-3 things at a time, mostly clothes, which she should take by the truckload. It’s funny, really, she talks about the need to get rid of stuff, but she truly does not understand the volume of stuff that needs to go and rarely makes good decisions on her own about what goes and what her daughters might want. And she won’t let me make executive decisions. Your operative word is “we” get rid of. I have not the patience for “we.” (I also know I am ruthless, and my sisters should be part of decision-making, so I just fill up the storage room, nee craft room, nee workshop. It’s a slippery slope.)

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