The other night I remembered the jewelry box played music – the tinny notes it played had been part of its’ “magic” to me when I would admire it as a young girl. The box has been sitting in my bathroom since I brought it home from Minnesota a few months ago – Jesse likes to open it and look at Grandma’s bits of jewelry. He calls them her “shineys.” I turned the key to see if it still worked and there was only silence. I wish I could remember what song it used to play.
My mom did not have a lot of fancy things. She and dad lived very simply – partly out of necessity – money was tight since Dad couldn’t work for most of his adult life due to his disabilities, but also because of a fierce thriftiness they both held. If they could make something keep working, keep serving its’ purpose, no matter how bad it looked or how many times it had to be taped together to keep functioning, they kept using it.
Every penny mattered. They didn’t say things like “it’s just twenty bucks, why not get it?” – they said things like, “waste not, want not.”
There were times I felt my dad took this to the extreme – like when the window in my upstairs bedroom (which had a beautiful view of the hills and woods in the distance) broke and rather than get a new window, he just told my brother to nail a board over it – first stuffing the window frame with insulation so that it could now keep the cold air out more efficiently. The fact that my room was now a dark tomb with no natural light was not a consideration.
Or there was the car we had when my brother and I were small – it needed a screwdriver stuck somewhere in the engine in order to get it started. Rather than fix whatever was causing this, mom and dad just dealt with it and drove it that way for years.
And particularly unforgettable were the years when there was something wrong with our well and we used the outhouse out back and washed clothes at the Laundromat in town and filled jugs of water at grandma’s house to use for drinking and bathing.
Some people had more than us and some people had less. Us kids might have thought our inconveniences were terribly lame, but we knew we weren’t deprived. We had no frills, but we had enough. Mom and Dad would always figure out a way to make do.
There’s so much of this I admire. I imagine I would have all my student loans paid off by now if I managed my money and “made do” half as well as my parents did. As it is, I lean toward the frivolous more often than I should. Particularly with my children – I like to buy them things. I think it shocked my mom when she came to stay with us how much stuff we bought for the kids. I remember admitting to her, “They are spoiled.” She did not deny it, she said simply, “Yes. But they are cute.”
For however little material possessions mom wanted or needed during her life, it became even more extremely this way the last year of her life. When she came to live with us, I ached to be able to ease sadness that she was carrying. Since I didn’t know what else to do – I would try to bring her little “treats” – things that she would normally have enjoyed – some nice soap or a pretty cup, some fresh stationery or even a tall, cold bottle of diet coke. She would politely thank me and bring them into her room where she would place them carefully in her bedside drawer or closet. She did not need them or want them or even barely consider them for longer than it took to store them away.
Sometimes I think, whether she realized it or not, her vision was already set on the Next place. Her whole life she had needed so little but for where her journey was leading her now, there was absolutely nothing she needed or wanted.
After mom died, my brother and I went through her house in Minnesota and took care of what was left behind. There was nothing of great value – but much that was precious, of course, including that jewelry box. It is pink with pink satin and velveteen on the inside. I remember as a child creeping into my parents’ room to open that pretty box and look at her treasures. When I came across it after her death it still contained many of the same things I had remembered she kept in there – some earrings she used to wear when she was right out of college and worked in Minneapolis, her high school Letter, a locket with a picture of dad, and dad’s wedding ring.
I took dad’s ring and slipped it onto my thumb. It was just a few days earlier that I had put on mom’s wedding ring. When she was in ICU they had to take it off her since her fingers were swelling so badly. I put it into a plastic bag along with the only other piece of jewelry she wore, a black hills silver ring I had given her some years before. I told her I would hold onto them until she got out of the hospital. The night she died, while I was still in the hospital room trying to gather the strength to stand and leave and go home, I kept looking at her hands and seeing the indentation on her ring finger. I remembered the rings still in my purse. I took them out and slipped both those rings on my finger. I had planned to just bring them back to Minnesota and give them to the funeral director to have them buried with her – but when I got there, I couldn’t do it. I felt guilty about that because her thin gold wedding band had been on her hand her whole life. She had held us as babies while wearing that ring. She had cared for my father wearing that ring. It rightfully belonged buried on her finger, but I couldn’t part with it. Mom would have to forgive me for that – because I knew I somehow needed it to help me get through the rest of my life without her.
It makes no sense that a thin gold band should help me feel near to my mom who cared so little for material things. Yet perhaps it does. This ring was one thing that did matter to her. It stood for a promise she made that mattered to her more than any other in her life. I look at it and I can see her hands still. Truthfully, I would give away every single possession I have before I would get rid of this ring. It rests on my finger just below my own wedding band. Like a firm and gentle reminder from my mom about the things that matter most: persistence, promises kept, and love. Always love.