The Heart of Things

amywink March 3rd, 2017


“The Heart of Things”

“I need my stacks,” my mother said, after I told her I was going to clean her room for when she came home from the hospital. “I need my stacks.” I agreed but knew I’d need to do something more than leave them if she came home. In the fifteen years I lived with my parents, we had steadily cleaned and cleared and removed the bulk of her hoarded things, making room for life out from under the weight of my grandmother’s belongings, the leftovers of a teaching career, the reminders of sadness and loss, to make a way for a better living. We had renovated each room, made changes, some small, some dramatic, to our home, opening walls and windows, pulling light into the house. We’d renovated with an eye for my father’s increasing handicaps, and made the house accessible. And yet there still were stacks, ever rising stacks of papers, on the kitchen table, on her shelves, on her desk, two large file cabinets of “important papers” that might as well have been made of stone. I had steadfastly refused to clean her room, because it was her own space and what she needed was not what I needed. The threshold of her room was a boundary I did not usually cross, unless necessity required it. And then, necessity required it.

In the time between her heart attack and her death, I cleaned, making way for her to walk when she came home, organizing the stacks and filing things away as best I could, using my anxiety on the most immediate problem, making a difference how I could. But when she died, my reasons for cleaning evaporated. In the days and months after her death, I began instead to clear.

It would have been tempting to pile everything in a dumpster and have it hauled away but in the clearing, the sublime erupts suddenly from what seems a pile of trash, a numinous object, alive with meaning, reaching through time to touch the tender heart of human truth. The journey through the ephemera of a life is not an exercise in efficiency, but a process of understanding and insight, a method of grieving. One does not get there and back again in the blink of an eye.

And so, I started slowly, reminding myself there was no hurry. I still lived here. I would still live here and I was allowed to take my journey slowly. Her bedroom, her desk, the surfaces — those places last to be covered were easiest to be cleared. Then the closets and her dressers, mostly insignificant, until suddenly artifacts appeared, a note in my great-grandmother’s handwriting, an embarrassing photograph from her childhood, baby booties from her infancy and then my own tiny knitted creamy gold gloves connected with a string to run through my coat sleeves, pom-pom balls on the wrist ties and the wash of memory of wearing them in the chilly days when I was three. These familiar things I keep for myself.

But in the boxes crammed in closets, I came across a small envelope, with a name I recognized as one of her students, a boy who had fled Vietnam in a boat, who had heard the gunfire over his head, a boy who, in my mother’s art class, had painted a beautiful mural of his families’ escape with an Chinese dragon flying over his family at sea. His letter folded like origami to fit in the tiny envelope, the elaborate Chữ Nôm characters of his name drawn carefully in one corner, he wrote so politely to his art teacher of pleasantries in his new home in Dallas ending his note, “There is no art here. Please write back soon.” And I feel my mother’s heart breaking, my heart breaking, for that little boy in the letter. I know she would have written back. I fold that origami letter carefully again, place it back into the envelope, returned to safekeeping. This thing I keep to carry the truth of her kind and tender heart with me.

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