My mother was 92 when she decided to sell her house and move into a retirement community. The place was near where she lived, only 2 miles from where she was born, in White Oak Bottom, New Jersey. She knew some retired teacher friends there, and she had determined that she was ready to join them. Two years later, she handed me her car keys. “I’m not going to drive anymore,” she announced.
Two major life-changing decisions made completely on her own.
I’ve tried to follow her example. During Christmas week in 2011, I woke up one morning with the sure knowledge that it was time for my husband and me to move. We had a big house — a dozen rooms spread over four stories. My husband’s health was deteriorating, and he needed increasing help. I could barely keep up.
I signed us up for a life-care community in Massachusetts, the same kind of facility my mother had moved to. Starting in the attic, I set about disposing of the possessions of a lifetime. I rooted old clothes out of the closets, sold my father’s stamp collection and some of the antiques I’d inherited from my mother, and got rid of furniture we wouldn’t need. The pain came when I had to part with so many books. I gave away my father’s, my grandfather’s, most of my children’s, and a lot of my own.
Our house sold the day it went on the market, to the first people who looked at it. While the wife toured the house with a businesslike clipboard in hand, the husband went back outside. “I’m buying this house,” he announced to a neighbor.
Eight months later we moved to our new apartment. Much as I loved our house, with its garden of flowers and blossoming trees and its views of the lighthouse, harbor, and ocean, I felt no regrets. Just a mixture of sadness, nostalgia, and immeasurable relief. I took one last look as we drove down the lane, fixed it in my memory, then let it go. Just as my mother had done when we sold her house and the antiques dealer took away some of her cherished possessions, including her favorite Victorian oil lamp with the tall glass chimney. She rubbed her hand over its shiny brass surface, then let it go.
Like my mother, I lined the windowsills in our new home with geraniums and African violets. Like her, I created a wall of family pictures. When Christmas came, I made the same cookies she had always baked, using her handwritten recipes. Reminders of her were everywhere: in the rolling pin and chopping bowl she inherited from her mother and handed down to me, in the mantel clock that tolled the hours just as it had in my childhood, in the cedar chest of blankets that occupied one wall of my bedroom (as it had in hers), and in her crystal bowl that held the cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.
Growing up on a farm, my mother learned young to be frugal. When I was a child, every scrap of food was saved and reused for soup or stew. Bits of meat were ground up to make sandwich spreads. To this day, I dutifully stow away leftovers, knowing the guilt I will feel if I don’t.
My mother lived to be 97, and sometimes I still hear her voice in my head. “Stand up tall, don’t slump,” says she who always stood ramrod straight. “Square those sheet corners, nice and tight,” she reminds me when I’m making the bed. She was a nurse and knew how a bed should be made.
What I haven’t done yet, unlike her, is give up my car. I recently turned 94, and I wonder if it will be my voice or hers that I hear in my head one of these days, saying, “Hand over the keys. It’s time.”Dorothy Stephens is a writer on the North Shore. Send comments to email@example.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.