My new neighbor was a hoarder. She hoarded everything. Crystals, pink bakery boxes—she even took in children. Each one was flawed: too restless, not bright enough, a daisy-shaped head. The sound ... [+]
Mamma always had a love for other people's possessions.
One of my earliest memories is walking to the park, my hand firmly tucked into hers. I was an impulsive child, and likely would have darted into traffic after a passing butterfly if she hadn't kept a vice-like grip on me. I like to think she was trying desperately to protect me, but knowing what I know now, it's just as likely that she was holding my hand to keep herself grounded.
Regardless of her intent, I can feel the connection still – two magnets drawn together, fingers intertwined.
We were playing one of our imaginary games. Mamma had the best imagination of any adult I've ever met. "If I had a million dollars..." was our favorite game, and I had just made the momentous decision to buy a candy factory and eat chocolate for every meal, when she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. I was in the midst of describing how I would never tire of having chocolate pancakes with caramel syrup and sprinkles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner when her sharp intake of breath caused me to pause and look up. I knew that sound.
"Stay right here, Sugar," Mamma said as she stopped and wrapped my hand around a nearby gate post, holding me to the spot. I watched, sweaty hand grasping cool metal, as she hopped over a finely trimmed hedge and darted across the manicured lawn. I remember admiring that lawn, which looked so much like a green blanket laid over the warm soil. I took my hand from the post, tempted to take off my socks and shoes and wiggle my toes in that green carpet, but stopped myself just in time.
Mamma didn't have the build of an athlete, but seeing her at work was like watching a world-class gymnast move with highly trained poise and agility. She snatched up the item that had caught her eye – a jolly garden gnome – tucked it under her arm and jogged back across that green carpet with a bounce in her step. In one swift motion, she bundled the gnome into her sweater and swooped me off my feet. We raced across the street, Mamma madly chatting on about how our garden gnome Albert was lonely, while I bounced along in her arms.
"You see, Sugar, I heard this little gnome a-whispering to me as we walked past. Did you hear him?"
Indeed, I had not. But I wanted to gain her favor, and so I nodded sagely.
"Well then, you know that he was sniffling and carrying on, that he wanted a friend. And, knowing that our own little gnome was lonely too, why, I just had to scoop him up. Won't Albert be surprised?
"This will be our little secret, won't it, Sugar?"
It sounded logical enough to my four-year-old mind, and I was certain that Albert would love his new friend. The fact that Mamma had taken this particular gnome from a stranger's yard didn't even occur to me at the time. And I loved secrets. The only thing worrying me was the fact that we were now headed away from the park at a jog. But I knew better than to point out that small detail and instead gave in to the fact that there would be no rides on the merry-go-round that day.
At an early age, I learned that when Mamma found something worth "borrowing," it was best not to ask questions. I imagine she was already picturing how the gnome would look tucked under the shade of our old oak tree, visiting with his new friend Albert.
Many times over the years, I tried asking why she did it. What enjoyment did she derive from taking things that didn't belong to her? She would always evade the question, suddenly becoming very interested in the weather or picking ferociously at a piece of lint that had stuck to her sleeve.
In her later years, questions about her "borrowing" habits would generally start a fit of fidgeting and squirming. A little extra prodding, and she would resort to stroking her jade pendant for comfort. The pendant, which had been "borrowed" from Mrs. Balderson at some point during Mamma's brief employ as her cleaning lady some thirty years previous, was Mamma's prize possession. On a few occasions, when I was frustrated with her and perhaps spoke a bit too harshly, the nurses intervened, glaring at me as they patted her hand and whisked her off to bed.
Even in the nursing home, bent nearly in half by osteoporosis and blind as a bat, she managed to duck into rooms and "borrow" things on a regular basis. I would find a little pile of treasures when I opened up a drawer to get her a fresh pair of stockings. Tucked there might be a pair of men's glasses, an embroidered pillow and a package of mints. I would be both appalled and impressed in equal measure.
Whatever it was that compelled her to borrow, she took that little secret to the grave.
My Mamma – a character to the end.
She's been gone some three months now.
Having just mustered up the courage to set foot in her little bungalow, I spent most of yesterday wandering from room to room, blowing dust off knick-knacks, arranging and rearranging towering stacks of paper. The house carries the musty, hushed qualities of a museum, and, as a visitor, I consider each artifact in turn, knowing it was carefully curated. I tread reverently, touching objects and hearing her soft drawl describing them in detail. I felt like I was taking one of those self-guided tours – tape recorder in hand, wearing a pair of headphones while the narrator, my mother, whispered in my ear.
At the same time, I can almost hear the muffled voices of the items' previous owners, murmuring their side of the story. It's those borrowed voices that have me sitting here today, wrapping yet another parcel.
It's like Christmas morning without the tree, and I am something of a reverse Santa Claus, returning stolen toys to all the good girls and boys.
These treasures and trinkets had brought Mamma happiness and, as I pick up a bud vase that she "borrowed" from a small diner on our way to visit my Aunt Jane one sweaty July, my thoughts turn back to the day we returned home. Mamma was humming merrily to herself as she trimmed a fragrant rose bud, "borrowed" from our neighbor's back garden, and arranged it neatly in the vase on our sideboard. I watched from the doorway as she stepped back to admire the way the cut glass held the light, turning her head this way and that, sighing with contentment.
My hand rests on the exact spot where that bud vase sat so many years ago as I flip open the telephone book and prepare to place a call to Mr. Deacon, the rightful owner of the pocket watch which currently weighs heavy in my hand. How Mamma managed to borrow this timepiece is beyond me, but the engraving on the back gives me all the information I need about its rightful owner.
As Mr. Deacon answers the phone, I launch into my usual speech about how Mamma had accidentally come into possession of this particular object, and that I would be happy to return it to him. Most people have been kind, as Mr. Deacon is, and are happy to hear that I am making things right.
I hang up the phone and survey the stack of packages before me, absently stroking the jade pendant as it sits on the table, exposed beside the tightly wrapped "borrowed" treasures. I think about Mamma's ever-cheerful smile, and how the jade brought out the color in her eyes, making them dance and sparkle.
And before I realize what I've done, the pendant is reverently cradled in my palm, my index finger tracing its outline as a mother may caress her newborn's cheek. I swing the chain up and over my head. The pendant feels warm and heavy as it settles against my bare skin.
It will be our little secret.