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Objects of Loss

In the months and weeks following my mother’s death, my father and I carefully pulled apart the pieces of her material life. We sorted through her closet, threw away her cosmetics, gave away her cookbooks, her shoes, tossed away the little scraps of paper that ran rampant on her desk, her looping handwriting cascading across them in messy lines. We threw away the mail that came for her, and stored away other things like her wedding dress and her jewelry. We even found a new home for her beloved pet parrot Norman.

It was one of the most outwardly painful things I’d ever experienced, this dismantling of a loved one’s physical life. I’ll never forget staring into a dresser drawer that contained only a wide assortment of her shoulder pads, or the time I came across a little box in her bathroom that contained strands of her hair that she’d collected as it fell out from chemo.

Other things I relished in their vanishment; using the last bar of soap she had scrubbed herself with, running it across my own body as my tears mingled with the shower water. Defrosting and reheating sauces she had made and stored away, using the pens from her desk until their ink ran dry.

As for the things I kept, they were numerous. I wore her clothes, her jewelry, kept her notebooks and high school year books. I even still have one her plants, kept alive all these last eighteen years through moves and boyfriends and other losses.

If I could have kept everything I would have. If I somehow could have left that house intact, exactly as it had been the day she died, I would have. I would like nothing more than to be able to wander through those rooms yet, to sleep where she had slept, to run my fingers across the nightgown she’d left sitting out on the little bench at the foot of her bed.

But I couldn’t. None of us can do that.

About two years after she died I was visiting Atlanta with my father and he took me along on an errand to a consignment shop where he had placed most of our valuable furniture and art. I was twenty by then and I wandered the cavernous store, finding myself startled each time I came across a sofa or a painting that had once hung in our living room, but that had now become part of an imagined living room set designed to appeal to a passing stranger.

By the time I had toured the entire shop, noting each and every thing that had once belonged to the life I had formerly known, I was in tears. My father was at the register, going over a detailed list with the manager and I could feel my breath coming in heaves, could feel the world collapsing inwardly around me.

Just before I turned to walk out the door I noticed a large ceramic Mexican serving bowl that my mother had used a hundred times when I was growing up. I walked over to it and picked it up gently in my hands, knowing that I would not set it down again until it was in my own home. I turned to my father and I saw in him the same knowing he’d had when I showed up one afternoon in tenth grade with an abandoned kitten I’d found. He knew that there would be no arguing with me, and so I stood there patiently, tears streaming down my cheeks, as he found the item on the manager’s list and crossed it out.

I flew back to New York City later that week, that giant ceramic bowl sitting in my lap for the duration of the flight. I found a place for it in my tiny East Village kitchen that had no business housing such a large object, and I dragged it out to California with me when I moved here ten years ago. I took it with me to Chicago too, and then back here again to Los Angeles two years ago.

Over the last fifteen years I’ve used it almost once a month, making my mother’s macaroni and cheese, or her New Year’s Day Hoppin’ John, each and every time marveling that this object almost belonged to someone else.

Last Tuesday, in a slip of my soapy hand, it fell into the sink and broke.

IMG_3472

I still can’t get over it.

I can’t even bring myself to throw away the pieces. They’ve been sitting in the laundry room for days now, waiting to go out with the trash, and today when I was headed out the back, garbage in my hands, I could not take it with me. Instead I moved the pile of pieces to my office.

I know that I will eventually have to let them go, but not just yet.

I know this about everything.

Yet still. I cling.

We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea. – Pema Chodron

I’m working on it, Pema. We all are.

34 Comments

  1. This is beautiful. Truly. That link to your mother is palpable, and when I saw this photo on your Instagram (which brought me here), I knew it could only have belonged to her. Don’t throw it away. Sometimes you have to hold onto something that means so much, even if it can’t serve the same purpose. Keep it tucked away as a reminder or display it proudly, knowing that even in its broken state it is still a link to her. Best of luck to you!

    Comment by Katie on September 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm

  2. Breathtaking and heartbreaking, Claire. I find myself letting go of the tangible artifacts of my life easily – sometimes to the point that I tearfully regret having given them away once they are no longer mine. But the feelings, the memories, the guilt, the longing, the anger – these I cannot bring myself to walk away from. Much like your mother’s bowl, we can all attempt to reconstruct and to glue it all together again once something is broken, but deep down we know the truth – that it will never be the same… Sending you hugs. Jamie

    Comment by Jamie Krug on September 15, 2013 at 12:39 pm

  3. Amazing. Your writing is superbe. The way you convey your emotions is palpable in your words.

    Comment by Jessica kennedy on September 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm

  4. Find a pottery studio, I’m sure this could be repared. Maybe not for food, but it could be used as a fruit boel or something.

    Comment by Kate on September 15, 2013 at 2:44 pm

  5. You can crazy glue this back together! You might not be able to bake with it again, but it can still be a beautiful bowl to remind you of your mother. My husband has glued many broken ceramic items together (in more pieces than this one) and you can barely see the cracks. Don’t throw it away!!!

    Comment by caringreader on September 15, 2013 at 2:47 pm

  6. Really sad, Claire.
    Maybe a mosaic of sorts would serve this piece justice.
    As always, it’s lovely to “hear” from you here. Your story continues to be compelling. Much Love.

    Comment by Nicolette on September 15, 2013 at 2:55 pm

  7. Maybe you and the girls can make a mosaic using it. Perhaps a stepping stone for the garden. Or a flower pot. Or even another serving dish??

    Comment by Tricia on September 15, 2013 at 2:59 pm

  8. Oh my, Claire. I feel terrible for you, honey. You know, my mom used to say “possessions possess”. It used to tick me off something fierce. I’m not sure why, it just did. And then mom died. When I had to clean out her apartment I almost went crazy trying to figure out where I was going to put everything in my home. Then I heard her voice telling me that old line. It didn’t make things easier, but it helped me think more rationally. I kept the things that I felt would help me share my memories of mom with my loved ones. I hope at some point you’ll feel comfort in remembering the meals shared with your sweet family and treasured friends using your mom’s dish.

    Comment by Brenda on September 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm

  9. Oh, my. Tears. I agree that maybe there’s a way to keep and honor the pieces, a mosaic, or something? Sometimes inanimate objects contain so much. xo

    Comment by Lindsey on September 15, 2013 at 3:58 pm

  10. I just went through my mom’s closet – 2 years later, I have her Escada suits, a ridiculous fur coat from the 80′s and her serving platters/grandmothers china and table cloths. I was amazing how much shit was dredged up just bringing the stuff with me – I felt I had to keep telling her what I was doing – yet I woke up in a sweat the night before I left, vowing I’d leave it, and then having to reconfirm with my brother that I was doing the right thing. Somehow these ‘things’ have so much weight to them – they are inexorably tied to a million emotions, and disturbing their rightful place makes them stir up a plethora of memories, feelings you didn’t know existed. Thank you posting this. love!

    Comment by antonia on September 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm

  11. Oh, Claire, today marks two months since my mother passed, and I still haven’t touched her green and white striped shirt that is crumpled on the floor of her closet, inside out from when she took it off after returning to the house from what would be her final outing (to the hospital, naturally). I’m dreading the dismantling of this home. We are a family of hoarders–going back generations and on both sides of my family–so going through everything will be no small feat, even without the burden of sentimentality. Anyway, your post hits home right now. I’m so sorry about your bowl. I think of you often, and hope for all the best for you. Much love.

    Comment by Susan on September 15, 2013 at 4:51 pm

  12. So beautiful, Claire. I too suggest a mosaic – what a wonderful tribute it would be to keep in your home!

    Comment by Sara on September 15, 2013 at 6:15 pm

  13. This one broke my heart Claire, truly. Every word made sense. For me it wasn’t a bowl, it was a ridiculous spoon rest. I just stared at it and sobbed while my husband furiously glued together the pieces. If you need to hold on to those broken pieces just a bit longer, then do. Thanks so much as always for writing and sharing-

    Comment by Jenn Meer on September 15, 2013 at 6:37 pm

  14. Oh gosh, this broke my heart a bit. Thank you for sharing this with us. It brought me back to all the nights I stayed up far too late reading your book, so engrossed in the life I kept reminding myself was real and not fictional. I love your writing, your way with words, and the way you mold details of the story in such a way to manipulate your reader’s emotions. You have a gift; and I’m very much looking forward to your next book.

    Comment by Angie on September 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm

  15. Claire – Your columns on grief and loss bring me to tears. I lost my mom 18 months ago and the grief is still so heavy within me… When I read your posts I feel simultaneously inredibly sad and completely justified in that sadness. This is a process and it takes time. Losing mom is a life-changing event, and holding onto her in any way – be it a physical item or an ethereal memory – becomes a priority. I am nowhere near ready to let go of anything, and I feel your sadness and pain as I look at the broken bowl. Do not throw it away! A stepping stone is a lovely idea to keep mom nearby for many many more years. And they are also very portable :-) Thank you and please keep writing these updates: you have no idea how many of us you help.

    Comment by Kim O'Hara on September 15, 2013 at 7:18 pm

  16. May be this would be helpful? I saw it on another blog http://www.lilblueboo.com/2011/07/upcycling-broken-china.html

    Comment by Marina on September 15, 2013 at 7:25 pm

  17. Her real legacy to you was things you could use. Love and care, education and ethics, ideas and enthusiasm, happy times and golden memories. These are things you cannot lose, and do not break.
    You were right to use the dish and think of her every time you did, rather than lock it in a cabinet to gather dust. You were right to use her soap, though it would inevitably vanish.
    My mother died a couple of months ago and it has turned my mind to what I would like to leave my children. I would encumber them only with things they would want to use.

    Comment by Paul Tredgett on September 15, 2013 at 11:04 pm

  18. I so get this. I have a curio filled with a number of broken pieces of my mother’s china. It looks like a clean break. You may not be able to use it any more, but perhaps you could mend it for display?

    Comment by Allie on September 16, 2013 at 4:59 am

  19. YOU bring SO much comfort to me – you make me KNOW that I am okay. My sweet dad passed away five months ago and I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday in March – so I was blessed to have had him so long, but it is still so hard to navigate the world without him. I feel like a child so often — my anchor is gone. I have his robe hanging on my closet door now and I smell it often. I miss him. Thank you, darling Claire. You are a gift to the world.

    Beth

    Comment by beth davis on September 16, 2013 at 6:07 am

  20. Claire,
    You’re beautiful heart felt words always touch me. Remember you well-used and loved that bowl, and created new memories with it that would make your Mom proud. I would have the shards made into a bracelet or necklace. I’ve seen some incredible jewelry from pottery shards. Something you can hand down to your daughters one day. Or make a beautiful garden tile. I am a hoarder of the sentimental. Just remember, she would be happy you used it, enjoyed it, and remembered her with Love.
    Take care my friend!

    Comment by Tracy Weeks on September 16, 2013 at 8:42 am

  21. Hi Claire,
    My mom passed away 2.5 years ago and now my family and I are living in her house, the house I grew up in. My mom loved this house. It does offer comfort but it is also difficult at times as I still find her things tucked away from time to time and some of the decor is the same. The attic is filled with everything from my childhood that she kept. Every card that she received from my brother and me is up there. Going through her belongings was heart wrenching and now I am going through her mother’s house as she is not here to do it with me. Finding things that my mom gave to her mother is amazing but also very emotional. Reading your post helps me realize I am not the only one going through something so intense.

    Danielle

    Comment by Danielle on September 16, 2013 at 9:27 am

  22. There are always tears when I read your words, Claire. Thank you for sharing. This must have been brutal – and perhaps healing? – to write. I am agreement with those here suggesting a mosaic piece/peace. Peace, yup.

    Sending love.

    And thanks for reminding me about my desire to delve into Pema.

    Comment by Melissa on September 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm

  23. *am in agreement

    Comment by Melissa on September 16, 2013 at 2:24 pm

  24. Oh Claire. As always every image and word you write of resonates with me. Keep the bowl, the broken pieces and the decades of memories it comes with. You will figure out what to do with them and the bowl will still hold the same
    place in your heart but will just be in a different shell. It will come to you. Peace, love and gratitude to you-

    Comment by Eva on September 16, 2013 at 8:53 pm

  25. Hey, don’t throw away the pieces. Don’t glue them if you don’t want to. Eva is right – you’ll figure out what to do with them…it’ll come to you.
    When my father was in his late forties, he went back to the house he grew up in and brought back a cracked earthen pot his mother had used just before she passed away (he was three then). It meant the world to him. So, again, don’t throw away the pieces.
    (And, oh, damn soap!)

    Comment by Kavita on September 18, 2013 at 10:18 pm

  26. I know the feeling too well–I dropped a large yellow Pyrex bowl that had been my grandmother’s into the sink and it shattered. I’ve even looked at replacing it, it is part of a set, but the fact is it will not have the same feel to it. A vintage bowl from a thrift shop or from eBay will carry someone else’s memories, not mine. Even if it looks the same.

    Comment by Jennifer Simpson on September 19, 2013 at 11:47 am

  27. Beautiful. After losing my own parents, I understand completely. Perhaps those pieces should be used in some other way. Tucked into a pot to cover the hole before adding soil? Broken up further and held in a dish? I would hang onto them until you’re good and damn ready. Sending love.

    Comment by nicole on September 25, 2013 at 5:14 am

  28. A mosaic sounds a great way to keep your mother’s Mexican serving bowl near you

    Comment by toi on September 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm

  29. Don’t throw it away. Glue it back together – it’s just like our lives – sometimes they get shattered and then we have to reconnect.

    Comment by Becky on September 26, 2013 at 8:06 am

  30. Wow. I relate to this on so many levels… Just this Saturday, as I did the dishes, a bowl my mom had gifted to me years ago slipped out of my hands and broke…causing me to collapse to the ground in tears. Because even though she had never owned that bowl, it was a gift that only she could’ve given to me — it was the exact same color as my kitchen walls and something I’d never buy myself…after all, at the age of 25, how was I to know just how much I would use a bowl like that? Why is it that moms always know what you need before you need it? That is one of the things I miss most about her… Sending you good thoughts.

    Comment by Jen on October 8, 2013 at 9:26 am

  31. I can identify with your life in so many ways. Both my parents have passed away and I can not let go of many of the items in my basement. Your story also made me smile as I remembered the macaroni that my mom made and the casserole dish I too have. The objects link us to the memories and the memories are all we have left. I hope that you find something to do with the dish that is comforting and a tribute to your memories.

    Comment by Carrie on October 10, 2013 at 10:41 pm

  32. It’s funny you mention the soap, Bill & I used different soaps and I kept his last one in the shower. After 2 years it’s finally melted away, I’m taking it as a sign that it’s time to move forward. Get on with living rather than merely surviving.

    Comment by Meg on October 17, 2013 at 11:41 am

  33. Don’t throw it away!!!!!!!!!!!! xxx

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintsugi

    Comment by Stina Maksimowicz on October 25, 2013 at 9:27 am

  34. I cried for you. And that bowl. I so get it. Thank-you for sharing.

    Comment by Jordan on April 15, 2014 at 6:34 pm

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