Last week in “Bolivia: The Witches’ Market,” I wrote about my parents’ mystical leanings. They’d both experienced phenomena not easily explained and were confirmed believers in an afterlife, certain you could communicate with the spirits of the dead. They passed their beliefs on to me, in my father’s case, perhaps unintentionally. Not so my mother.
When I was still quite young—no more than 8 or 9—she taught me how to make a rough approximation of a Ouija board. We wrote the numbers 0 through 9, the letters of the alphabet and the words “Yes” and “No” on paper, cut them out and arranged them in a circle on a smooth flat surface. In the center we put a small juice glass, bottom side up. Then we each placed the fingertips of one hand on the base of the glass and waited, breath held, for a communication from the great beyond.
And boy, did we get some doozies. Mostly my mother’s dead suitors. There were kind of a lot of them.
Even after I moved away from home, we still found time to do “the little glass” during our visits together. We didn’t stop until my mother hit her mid-70s and fell into the black hole of dementia. After battling the disease for the better part of two decades, she died 2 ½ years ago.
Anyone who’s had a loved one with dementia knows what a horrible struggle it is to witness. We can only imagine what it is for the sufferer to endure it. We watch our loved one become increasingly withdrawn and fearful, cast adrift in a terrifying world that has moved on far beyond their comprehension. Our hearts break the first time our loved one fails to recognize us. Once we’ve been forgotten entirely, we feel ourselves dangerously close to being cut loose from our own moorings, as a tiny part of us—the unique and special part the loved one knew and cherished—ceases forever to exist.
I know some of my readers have been in that same boat with me. Because sadly, dementia is not at all unusual. And we have felt each other’s pain.
When she died, I didn’t mourn. I’d done that years before, when the real Eloise died. The real Eloise, who was funny, smart, inclined to be dramatic, a great (and sometimes outrageous) conversationalist, a cutthroat bridge and Spite and Malice player, fiercely and competitively retentive of every fact, factoid, sound bite, or trivial snippet she’d ever learned. Over the years of her illness I’d eventually accepted what happened to her, and found it harder to remember her as she’d been before. So much of her life had been lived as a suit of empty clothes.
And that seemed to be the depressing, but unremarkable, end of it. Until last week when I decided the time had come to sell some of the jewelry she’d left me.
That day, Glen and I went to the bank and sat in the tiny locked room reserved for safe deposit box holders to examine their goods in private. As we sorted through my mother’s things, he put the items I wanted to keep back in the safe deposit box; the rest went into a shopping bag, which we would take immediately to the jeweler’s. I already knew what I wanted to do with most of it, so the sorting went pretty quickly. But then I opened a small, black fabric-covered box. Inside was a baroque pearl ring.
I told Glen the ring’s history. One of Mother’s jilted suitors had given it to her in the mid-1960s. After their breakup (which the man was quite bitter about), she kept the ring. (Readers who knew my mother will be nodding their heads right now and saying, “Yes, that sounds like Eloise.”) Since she never did wear the ring much, I was unsure of how much it might have meant to her. Should I sell it or keep it?
I stared at the box for a few indecisive minutes. Then, in desperation I looked up at the ceiling and said, “I don’t know what I should do with this, Mother. What do you want me to do?”
Glen gave me a startled look. When the ceiling didn’t answer me, I closed the box and handed it to him. “Put it in the bag. I’m going to sell it.”
A couple of hours later we were nearing the end of our appointment with the jeweler when it dawned on us the pearl ring wasn’t there. Every other piece was out on the counter but that one. So we looked in the shopping bag. We shook it. We repeated this several times, even though there was clearly nothing in it. We looked on the floor. We opened all the little boxes and pouches we’d brought, now empty of their rings, brooches and earrings (much of which had “a charm bracelet-y quality,” according to the jeweler). We did this even though none of the containers looked anything like the small, black fabric-covered box. Puzzled, we finally decided Glen must’ve put the ring back in the safe deposit box by mistake. It was still at the bank.
At home later that afternoon, I began removing the empty boxes and pouches from the shopping bag. There was nothing for them to hold anymore, but I’d saved them because they mean more to me than their contents ever did. Some are marked with the names of jewelers in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore—places my mother and I had visited together. They conjure memories the two of us made long ago.
Guess what was one of the first items I pulled from the bag? That’s right. A small, black fabric-covered box. I opened it to find this:
For a moment all I could do was gape at it, stunned. Then I smiled.
My mother’s physical presence is no longer intact, but her spirit is. She’s herself again.
Yes ma’am, I got your message. I’m not selling the ring. I promise. And I’m so happy you remember me now.
Happy Mother’s Day.
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