I inherited the statuette from my mother. Sort of. She didn’t will it to me; I plucked it from the detritus of her house after she died. Not quite five inches tall, all grey except for an orange fun- fur ruff of hair glued from ear to ear, a protruding Day-Glo pink tongue, and the yellow and pink flower she holds. Her loopy smile and bulbous head make her look like a toddler, but she wears an apron. The statuette’s probably dirty, but it’s hard to tell. Etched into the pedestal is this title: “World’s Greatest Mother.”
Where had she come from? Well, most recently, from me. I’d found her in a junk store in Saskatoon called “Indefinite Articles,” twenty-five years ago or so. I gave her to my mother, who’d laughed, as I’d hoped she would. “It was so ugly I just had to have it”: her rationale for so many purchases. Of a pair of second-hand, psychedelic shoes: “I had to get them; they’ll clash with everything!” I’d never have dreamt she’d keep the statuette.
When I tried to go through her house after her death in 2010, the statuette was a few ounces out of what was close to a ton of stuff I kept, including an oak sideboard. Most of it—including the sideboard—I discarded, incrementally. Most of it. For the last seven years, each yearly trip to my hometown in Saskatchewan has involved my spending hours in my in-laws’ basement, where they’ve kindly allowed me to say goodbye to my mother and her things, over and over and over. Each trip, fewer of those things made it into my outsize suitcases or into shipping boxes and more of them over to the Mennonite Community Closet, as I got better at recognizing and culling those things that had been special and even beloved to her, but not to me. All that’s left there now is a small pine cupboard from her grandparents’ farm in Finland that I’m going to ship to my own home in upstate New York next month, to use as my bedside table.
Last spring, when I came across the statuette again in a box in my garage, I gave her a home on a shelf near my desk and did a little research. I can’t tell if she’s a mass-produced ceramic figurine of the mid-60s to early 70s—contemporary with troll dolls and the nude yet nearly androgynous “Love is. . . ” comic-strip lovers—or if she’s a parody of one of those. The ceramic figurines go on eBay now for a few bucks, skyrocketing to as much as $15 in the case of exceptional rarity. Although I have not found one identical to my own, I believe that, if I were to take WGM to the Antiques Roadshow, I would not discover that I’m a millionaire. I’d say, “Oh, I only paid a couple of dollars for it. Five at the most.” And a tactful appraiser would say to me, “Well, I think you’ll find it’s kept its value nicely.” And then we’d both laugh. Our brief exchange would not be recorded.
The World’s Greatest Mother is dead, long live the World’s Greatest Mother! When my daughter was little, she told me once that I should have bought her a Mother’s Day present because she was the reason I was getting any presents at all that day anyway. The child is the mother of the woman. If repossessing the trophy meant that I’d ever pretended to the title of World’s Greatest Mother, I have since renounced that specious claim.
My mother died in a hoarder’s house, but she hadn’t always lived in one. While I was growing up, our house was sparsely furnished and even, arguably, kind of chic, though it would be years before minimalism, Ikea, and the tiny house movement would make that modest war-time home desirable to any but the most discerning eye. The only objects I remember existing in notable masses were books, houseplants, and canning jars, full or awaiting filling. She never liked housework, but even after my father’s death, she did okay; my brother and I helped a little. During the short northern summertime, she would be in her garden every hour she wasn’t working rotating shifts, as a psychiatric nurse, or sleeping. Late summer and fall meant canning. Winter was for reading—novels and poetry and seed catalogues—and catching up on house stuff. Come the spring she’d be back in the garden, long before the last frost: coaxing, tilling, assessing the soil, and—her favorite pre-planting task—shoveling manure. No more time for the interior of the house again until winter.
But then she retired from her career of more than thirty years (of “shoveling shit,” as she called it). A few weeks later, I moved halfway across the country for grad school. She began to fill her house with the spoils of frequent shopping at regular stores, but also with others’ discards, acquired at yard sales, rummage sales, and thrift stores, some of them the same ones we’d donate so much of her stuff back to. I remember pointing out one Christmas that she lived alone, yet had seating for seventeen. But there was nothing wrong with any of those chairs, so why should they go? I tried to help, when I was home, by furtively pitching excess, not knowing then that that’s the worst thing you can do to someone whose relationship with their stuff is complex: that is, a living person. By the time I gave her the statuette, it probably carried, as so many gifts do, the giver’s judgment of the receiver’s taste.
She missed me; I missed her. Once I called to ask if she still had a drawstring cotton laundry bag I remembered from when I was little. On one side, screenprinted on a white ground in turquoise, orange, navy, and brown, a smiling woman and a cat wash clothes in a laundry tub; on the other side, they hang the wet clothes to dry. She’d laughed. “Why would I keep that old thing?” A few days later, it came in the mail. I wish I could see both sides of it at once, but I can’t unpick the seams.
On our last trip home before she died, she wouldn’t let me and my husband and daughter into the house. She would meet us on the front steps every day that week, as though that was just the way families arranged their annual visits. We’d spend the day together, then we’d drop her off, see that she got into the house. She’d turn the light on and poke one hand out from between the closed curtains to wave.
Following her death, my brother and his wife and I did our best put her house in order and to unearth our family’s modest treasures. After weeks of digging, trashing, sorting, cleaning, donating, lugging all that stuff I couldn’t part with over to my in-laws’ house, and after a massive tag sale, we gave up and called in the house-clearers. Maybe they found her wedding ring and wallet. We couldn’t.
I don’t deny that I’m often opaque to myself—though my seven-year sorting effort has helped a bit with that—but I sometimes think that, in some ways, I’m her opposite. I don’t like to garden. What had been her joy is now my chore, even though, throughout our childhoods, she’d reserve small plots for my brother and me to plant in any way we wanted. I had little interest in gardening, but I liked being close to her. Sometimes we’d take breaks in the maple’s shade and have tea and raspberries or gooseberries, still warm from the sun.
Before we put the house up for sale, relatives, friends, and neighbors took many of her plants. Her magnificent garden is now a stranger’s junkyard. A garden isn’t its plants: I get that. Still, my husband’s sister sends me pictures of my mother’s wild roses in bloom outside her own front door, and I like to see them.
Her ashes are buried on my brother’s riverfront land in Nova Scotia, roughly 2700 miles southeast of her home in Saskatchewan and 3700 miles southwest of her birthplace in Finland. Call it halfway. Some time after her memorial service, my brother sent me a kind, uncharacteristically formal email outlining his proposal to take her urn there with him by motorcycle on his annual trip the following spring. The reasons were outlined in bullet-point form. She would be in nature; she would always be with family, as that was to be his retirement home; she’d never wanted to be buried on what she called “the bald-headed prairie”; she’d always wanted to see his new place, and perhaps one day would have consented to live there with him and his wife in the “grandma-house” he’d promised to build her. But the clincher was this: “She always said she wanted to jump on the back of my Harley but she didn’t have the guts. Now she won’t have a choice!”
The next summer, I drove up with my own family from New York to Nova Scotia to help my brother and his wife lay Mum’s ashes to rest beneath three flowering shrubs, gifts from friends. We dug holes, mixed her ashes into the soil, then tucked in the roots of the fragile, pretty green plants around her. The World’s Greatest Daughter, then six, closed the ceremony by briskly dusting her palms together and announcing: “My hands are all dirty now from burying people!”
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