My mom started giving her things away before she died.
I’m unsure how she saw it coming. The paramedics who did CPR that day called her death “unexpected.” There were no acute signs of trauma, only the slow poisoning of her organs from decades-long tussles with cheap Chardonnay. Of course, we didn’t need to see the wine pickling her organs to understand what had happened. Mom’s death was both a surprise and a formality to us. She had left us months before her body did.
When my dad found her that morning, he had just returned from another trip to the grocery store. A three-week bender requires more booze than anyone can reasonably stockpile, and they had consumed their reserves. I wonder if he felt surprised when he shook her and she didn’t move, or if his own alcohol stupor muffled the shock. I imagine the reality of her death snuck in on him from the periphery, the pain sharpening with his senses as his body wrung itself dry. He would tell me later that over the next several days he shook not from withdrawal but from guilt. Guilt that he’d been drinking with her. Guilt, but not surprise.
In hindsight, the slow purge of Mom’s things should have warned us. She was always healthiest when she was collecting stuff. She stockpiled enough teaching supplies throughout her career to fill entire walk-in closets. Books scaled her shelves far out of reach of her petite frame. Even song lyrics were hoarded in her memory—Mom couldn’t tell anyone to stop without immediately halting them with her palm and singing “in the name of love” while my eyes rolled hard enough to fall out.
Years ago, when my husband and I were expecting our first child, we added to Mom’s book collection one about grandmothers and placed a note on the front that said, “ready?” I tried not to rest my hand on my belly while we talked over dinner, unsure if the butterflies I felt were from excitement or the baby turning somersaults inside. After dinner, she pulled the book from its gift bag and looked at us in shocked recognition before dropping it with a thud on the table and bursting into happy sobs.
From that moment forward, Mom took on another identity: Nana. And things had a way of squirreling themselves into Nana’s cabinets and closets. When we added our second child, primary colored plastic spoons arrived in her kitchen drawers and board books snuck onto her shelves. Once, I found an entire wooden dollhouse with accessories in her spare room closet. “For my students,” she shrugged. But I never saw it leave her house.
Back then, I imagined I’d be able to keep my parents’ drinking separate from their roles as grandparents when it came to raising my children. Each Saturday for the next several years, two little blond heads would burst through their door and crash into Nana’s thighs. She would spend a few hours smitten and having fun, reading the same book eighteen times in a row while Grandpa watched from his recliner, quietly amused. I would kick my swollen feet up on her couch, pregnant with our third and thankful for the break. Later, Nana would send us home with bags of goldfish and juice boxes, waving from the driveway, and as I drove away I would accept that our time together was over for the day. I would not text her later to ask if Grace had left her socks, as I would be certain that Mom could no longer remember where she put them. She would be too busy finding the bottom of her nightly box of Franzia.
This arrangement worked just long enough for both of my children to fall in love with Nana. Our visits were weekly and scheduled, giving Mom just the fix she required to corral her drinking into evenings only so that Nana could show up dutifully every Saturday, baskets full of books and toys of every kind.
It was a slow bleed at first, little mishaps that alerted me to the fact that Mom’s drinking problem was getting too big for Nana to contain. One Saturday, we arrived to find her still in bed at 10am, even though she had known we were coming. Another time, there was an unexplained bruise on her face (Nana, did you get a boo boo?). I noticed her shaky hands when she tried to color inside the lines. Even the hairdresser Mom and I both saw pulled me aside one appointment to express her concern (She smells like she’s been drinking). I pretended I hadn’t noticed.
Managing Nana’s brief lapses into Mom became a weekly job for me. When she didn’t show up to my son’s tee ball game as promised, I told him she was sick. I took her to an expensive makeup boutique the morning of a family friend’s wedding to have the bruise on her chin professionally covered. I helped her with anything I thought might motivate her to have friends or hobbies, including convincing both parents to take up biking down the greenways in town, even if I had to join them. When Mom decided biking wasn’t for her after the second outing, I continued with Dad, pleading with him to help her. On the trail, he would promise me he wasn’t going to drink with her anymore, that they were going to check out therapy, that he would convince her to quit, but his own pull toward alcoholism left him too weak to help her. Any resolve he felt in the mornings on our rides dissipated by evening, when he gave up and joined her. My lone sibling had long abandoned the cause and moved halfway across the country, chasing employment and a convenient escape. It was up to me. I felt desperate and obligated to help her, reducing my kids to therapy tools for her to use each Saturday. They brought her joy and life in a way that I knew she needed, even when, especially when, we could smell last night’s drink on her breath. “At some point, they’re going to start noticing,” my husband said about her hangovers one evening. But I tried not to think about it, and doubled down on my resolve. I would be a fence.
Despite my efforts, Mom’s drinking problem seeped through until I could no longer hide the stain. I started finding reasons to avoid coming to see her each week. Our visits stalled to monthly and then not at all. Tee-ball began conveniently on Saturdays. We traveled some in the fall. I pretended to be too busy to consider what might happen to Nana without my kids and focused instead on the fact that she didn’t reach out to me once, even as my due date came and went. And when I finally delivered our third baby in December, she didn’t even answer the phone.
Over the course of the next couple of months, our relationship teetered somewhere between “polite” and “pretending.” My parents would call on the kids’ birthdays or ask to stop by with gifts on Christmas. Each time we saw them, Mom seemed to further downsize the relics she had squirrelled away in her time as Nana. She gave me back the Duplos, the nesting cubes, the just-in-case diapers. She left no will, but prearranged her affairs—Grace would get the stuffy she loved, Eli the animal LEGO set. They were moving, she reasoned, selling my childhood home and retiring to a beach apartment. “Where am I going to put all this stuff?” she would say, though both of us knew they would have plenty of closet space. What she didn’t have was room in her heart for her grandchildrens’ toys collecting dust and plastic sippy cups that wouldn’t hold anybody’s juice.
On one of her last visits before she moved, Mom brought us a final box.
“I brought some things I cleaned out of an old drawer for you to look at,” she told me, setting the box on the table. “Just keep what you want, and if you decide you don’t want anything I suppose I’ll come by and get it from you. Sometime…” she trailed off.
I glanced at the contents. Inside were photo albums and old yearbooks, cards my brother and I had made her for Mother’s Day. I could see a stick figure magnet I had drawn when I was 6 or so, a pencil figure with a head full of curls like electrical coils, reminiscent of Mom’s early 90’s perm.
“Why are you giving me this stuff?” I asked.
“Well, I’m moving, you know. Sometimes, it’s just time.” I was unsure if we were still talking about the stuff.
Later when the house was quiet, I pulled out each piece of artwork, each card, each precious symbol of a childhood I had loved and laid them reverently on the table. It felt like a eulogy to my mom’s motherhood, a highlight reel of her love for us in pictures with Santa, gap-tooth grins, even a lock of my very hair tucked carefully into a pocket of my baby book. I thought about a similar drawer I had of my kids’ things, growing every year with documentation of their lives. I couldn’t imagine anything strong enough to pry those memories from my fingers. Death itself, I decided. Mom must have died inside.
Several months later I got the call that Mom had passed away. “Unexpectedly,” said the paramedic on the phone. As he told me the particulars, a scene from my childhood flooded my mind. I was standing in an empty kindergarten classroom. I had helped Mom pack up on her last day before summer break. Walls once filled with colorful posters lay bare. Seats that had been occupied by vibrant, wiggly children were empty. My sneakers made a strange echoey screech on the linoleum floor. The room was lifeless. I remembered Mom calling me from the doorway in a sing-song voice. “Ready when you are!” she’d said. But I hadn’t been ready. I wanted to mark the occasion, pay homage to all the little lives this room had nurtured, cocoon myself in this warm sanctuary I knew my mom could create when she wasn’t drinking. But she had already said goodbye. She had arranged her affairs and was ready to go.
As I hung up the phone, I realized that there would be a similar lack of fanfare in her passing. There were no things to squabble over or money to inherit. My parents hadn’t even moved. Dad had completely halted the moving process after Mom died and checked himself into rehab, determined to deal with his own alcohol problem and the trauma of finding his wife slumped lifeless in her chair. When I stopped by one afternoon to water their plants and grab Dad some essentials for his stay, I found packed boxes still littering the entryway, though everything primary colored was conspicuously absent. It was clear that Mom had never had intentions of needing kid-friendly materials at her new home. She was leaving Nana behind.
That night, my daughter climbed into my lap with a book, as she had done a thousand times before. I read about farm animals and pointed to the pictures, pausing to let her fill in the blanks of the well-loved book she had memorized. I finished the last page as Grace grew heavy in my arms and laid her peacefully in bed, soothed by the routine of predictable stories and this shaky, handwritten note on the back cover:
To Gracie, with love. Nana.