Monday, November 5, 2012

working-class heirlooms

My sister Sally's return address stuck out on the corner of the padded parcel envelope that someone had crammed into my mail cubby in the faculty lounge. I removed my gloves and carefully extracted the package from its tight squeeze, fearing that Christmas cookies, or what have you, might have been crushed. It was that time of year again. From Thanksgiving to New Years, my large family sent small gifts and packages to my work address in the City (the postal service in Brooklyn was not to be trusted), and most times the people at the elementary school knew better than to cram a package of cookies into a five-by-five-inch cubby.

As I freed the last corner of the envelope from the metal rim of the mailbox, I could tell that the contents were not crumbly at all. Rather, whatever was inside felt soft and pliable, like a small quilt or pillow. I secreted the package under my arm and headed for my classroom knowing that the content was something that had belonged to my mother. Sally had just spent the week of Thanksgiving cleaning my father's house. She and my eldest sister Em had decided they would surprise Dad when he returned from visiting my brother in Chicago, by clearing away the piles of sweepstakes offers, Readers Digests and grocery store circulars that tend to gather in the home of an 82-year-old widower.

Most importantly, they had also sorted through Mom's things. Three years had passed since her death and Dad was finally willing to rearrange the townhouse, the bedrooms and the closet space, which had to that point remained unchanged exactly as mom had left them. He was finally willing to consider not keeping her tiny blouses, slacks, and ironing smock hanging exactly as she had hung them in the closet. He even expressed interest in turning her little makeshift infirmary bedroom back into his office once again. And these faint concessions were enough for Sally and Em to plow ahead and make it happen before he could change his mind.

I sat the package on my desk and eyed it pensively as I removed my coat. Sally had described the clean up by phone the week before. She and Em had sorted through Mom's things, dividing, storing and giving them away. Most of it was nothing more than working-class stuff, with a singular Hummel here or a turn-of-the-century photo of hardworking grandparents there, a Seth-Thomas mantle clock that sat atop the prefab entertainment unit, a faux-French deviled-egg platter from the '50s, mom's wheelchair where her favorite sweater still hung across the back.

I never imagined there was much there to be handed down to me. As the second-youngest of eight siblings, the only one without children of my own to pass things down to, the one living farthest from home each time Mom and Dad had already divided things and given them away, I had long since accepted my bequest. I had inherited Dad’s sense of humor and Mom’s hands, and they would both remind me of each of them until my last days of consciousness. And those would be it. Em would get the Hummel, Sally would get the mantle clock, and everyone else already had the bits and pieces of furniture and silver that Mom had meted out from her death bed.

That is not to say I had been forgotten, just overlooked in years past while the local family members had been there to help clean and move. And, having been gone for so many years, during which time Mom and Dad had moved several addresses beyond the house where I had grown up, I already wasn't much wedded to anything that they still had.

Furthermore, in her final years, my mother gave me a priceless gift of a different sort that I have cherished more than anything from their tiny townhouse. A feisty little creature with a curiosity that was never matched by her education, who kept her sense of humor and dignity while she took in laundry and ironed for people for a living, my mother instead learned a great deal about life and the world from the children she produced. On my first visit home after I had come out of the closet and told her about Bob, she and I sat in the kitchen and, as I folded and she ironed the laundry, she asked me a series of mundane questions about my relationship with Bob: how did we divide the chores, how did we resolve arguments, what did we do for entertainment? The conversation was punctuated sometimes by gentle laughter, sometimes by a nod or simply the sound of the steam iron as she sat it up on its end. Then at one point she paused to frame her next question very carefully.

"Now, don't take this the wrong way," she asked as only my mother could, "but I hear that, in these kinds of relationships, one takes the role of the man and the other takes the role of the woman."

I had never imagined having to answer such a question, especially not for my mother. "Well," I began equally as carefully, "for starters, I've never liked the idea that there is a male role or a female role even in straight couples."

"Well, that's true," she replied, producing the ever-ready Kleenex from the pocket of her little gold ironing smock to wipe her nose. "Just look at my girls." I didn't explore that comment further, but I know that my sisters have been as much the bread-winners and decision-makers as the housekeepers and child-bearers. So, I presumed that's what she meant.

"But also," I continued, "Bob and I both wanted to be with a man. If either of us had wanted to be with a woman, we would have chosen a woman."

She remained quiet long enough to run the iron along a shirt sleeve."Well, that's a very good answer," she concluded. "I hope you don't mind all these questions. I just want to understand my children."

Of course I didn't mind. She had just packed every kind of conversations she had had with each of my sisters into one afternoon of ironing. She had just given me one of the fondest memories of my life.

So several years later, sitting at my desk at the school, I took a deep breath before opening the padded envelop with my sister's return address on it. As I tore open a corner and saw a flash of gold fabric, I knew exactly what she had sent me. It was mom's ironing smock, folded neatly, no Kleenex in the pocket, but her careful press along the creases of the sleeves.

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