Mamma’s drive to do something different was in conflict with her respect for the family history she married into. She couldn’t change the 17th and 18th century chests, the highboys, the brass bed warmers and side chairs, family heirlooms. However, she chose the art for most of downstairs, some by locals. A Robert Dash hung in the parlor while a Fairfield Porter hung in the living room. Paint samples taped to the walls and fabric swatches draped on furniture provided inspiration for a fresh look. Often, she complained, “It is so dark. I would love to paint everything white”. But she never did.
The gardens became her domain. She, with my father, created a perennial masterpiece toured by gardening groups from around the region. She loved the attention, feeling how special it was, reminiscent of her experience at the Follies many years earlier. Standing in the middle of the property, wearing her straw hat, she beamed and graciously fielded questions from the eager visitors.
In June of 2,000, my father passed peacefully in the same bedroom in which he was born. His will stipulated that on the death of my mother, my sister and I would jointly receive the contents of the house.
During subsequent years, my mother revealed her free spirit spunk. Observing the old apple tree on the driveway looking wild and unkempt absent my father’s careful pruning, she surprised me with “I prefer it that way”. On a whim she bought a wildly colorful porcelain flower arrangement and planted it on the dining room table.
As her memory faded, Mamma asked daily what was to become of the house. I answered “We’ll make sure it is taken care of.” She passed away in January, 2011. Eighteen months later, my sister and I took a united deep breath and approached our assignment.
Going through everything, Mamma appeared everywhere. Her sketches from Pratt were in found on shelves and in trunks from basement to top floor. We located the white embroidered dress from Odyssey and a stylish 1970s green flowered jumpsuit in the sewing room closet. A pile of straw hats in her closet reminded us, that despite all the hats given to her, it was the beat up, old frayed garden one she loved most.
Our ancestors came to life, too. Amid the old spinning wheels in the attic we uncovered my great grandmother’s dark blue traveling suit and a thread bare book written in the 16th century. The highboy in the dining room was built by a great, great uncle. Everyone agreed it belongs to the house.
Despite her nature to embrace change, Mamma had kept most things as they were, untouched. I came to recognize that we were meant to do what she never could. We were finally breathing new energy into a place that had seized its history, quiescent since the 18th century.
Yet, were we dong the right thing? My sister inherited the house, thus the contents were to be divided. But, what would our ancestors think of us auctioning the little book written in the mid 1800’s describing a Pacific exploration? What about the early Jacobean side chair from the front hall?
Mamma has not appeared in my dreams. Others have. My grand parents, father, other sister and friend paid visits soon after their passings. My good friend Sally explained. “You haven’t let her go yet”. Constance’s final years had seemed an endless long, sad goodbye. I believed I already had.
The weekend prior to the estate sale, my sister, our husbands and I were all busy in different areas of the house going through the last of things. Suddenly, my sister shouted from the front hall “Come quick! Quick!” We hurried down stairs and through hallways to the front door where she pointed to the other side of the street. Across the street was an elderly woman wearing a straw hat, blue sweater, white pants and red shoes strolling north. We stood silently, smiles widening across our faces.
The following Saturday we walked through the house as an eager crowd lined up outside for the sale. On a table in the parlor was the porcelain shoe next to Mamma’s old hand mirror. I choked back tears and remarked that I had always loved that shoe. ‘Take it” my sister offered. But, I left it there for someone else to love. It was the mirror that stayed with me as I drove away. I kept imaging my young, beautiful mother’s reflection. I couldn’t let it go.
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