Sorting through my mother’s closets
Winnowing down the possessions of a lifetime shows what really matters.
I had already helped my mother leave her home of 40 years and move into a retirement apartment, where there was no room for the Singer sewing machine, the mahogany dining set, the wicker picnic basket, the Schwinn bikes. Now, several years later, I was cleaning out that apartment while she was in a rehab facility, packing for what I predicted would be her final move, to an assisted-living studio near me.
She’d given me carte blanche to sort and choose, because she was overwhelmed by how much had accumulated. Most of the furniture couldn’t come; she was crossing the country to live in a much smaller space. Neither could her whole wardrobe, with its fancy-occasion dresses, pantsuits from a working life, hiking boots, and beach coverups.
She was a maximalist with a walk-in closet the size of a small room. When she liked something and it was a good deal, she bought multiples, one of each color. There was no doubt that she overbought — no one could wear that many turtlenecks in winter, that many shell tops in summer. Perhaps as her world became smaller and more circumscribed, new clothes felt like fresh starts, a longer and more certain future. As the oversupply grew, so did the reluctance to pare down. How could she give away all those items in perfectly good condition?
That became my job. Some things were easy to discard — my 91-year-old mother would never be wearing heels again. And some were easy to keep — the pull-on stretch jeans and black pants were workhorses. But of the vast remainder, what to bring along for the rest of a life?
What I had learned from her rehab stay:
Everything should go together, because aides often choose the outfit of the day, and they choose it in a hurry, ahead of six other sleepy, slow-moving residents they have to get ready for breakfast. If the closet contained a wild mix of prints, there could be no foreseeing the clownish consequences.
I noticed that the more nicely put together my mother was, the more positive social attention she got from the staff. This was superficial but real. If she was dressed like a grown-up — black stretch pants, a colorful cardigan or a lightweight fleece vest — she was more likely to be treated as the adult she was, instead of a kindergartner in a lumpy sweat suit. Nevertheless, I needed to know that whatever came out of her closet would be comfortable. Her room might be warm and the dining room might be chilly, so she had to wear layers. She needed pockets for tissues. Everything should stretch.
I almost started to envy the minimalism I was creating for her, the curated photo albums, books, mementos, and art, none of it so valuable it would have to be worried over. Her final years would be airy with freedom. After her lifetime of working hard, creating order, fulfilling the needs of herself and others, I didn’t want her to have to fret about possessions ever again — taking care of them, or feeling burdened by their weight and claim on her. My job was to imagine my way into her comfort and create it. Her job was to love what remained: her people and each new waking.
Then she moved, and the studio came together as a sleek miniature of her two-bedroom apartment, which had been a reduced version of her three-bedroom home. She never missed what was missing; all the important things stayed. Most of all, she was free to expand in other ways. When I dropped by to visit after her evening meal, served in the communal dining room, she’d say, “Do you know I get invited to a restaurant every single night?” I told her I knew. I told her how glad I was she was getting out and about.