Her terrific one-woman show, which I attended yesterday at St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, is about losing a parent, hanging on, letting go, and why it’s all so damned hard.
Through a series of connected monologues that she delivered to the audience while sorting through the contents of her mother’s closet onstage, she gave us a privileged peek at her childhood, her mother, and their relationship.
Elizabeth is nearly the same age as me—just three months younger, to be exact—and I’ve found that I often have an immediate affinity for women who were born within a few months of my birth date.
When I meet someone new, and we realize we’re only weeks or months apart in age (no matter what drastic differences we later discover between our respective childhoods and adolescences), we start off the getting-to-know-you process knowing that we have a set of common experiences. We were the same age—exactly—when Big Events happened that rocked our worlds, like JFK’s assassination, the Watergate scandal, or the airing of the first “Brady Bunch” episode.
We can remember the lyrics to “The Erie Canal” (fourth grade music class), “Seattle” (theme song from the ABC series “Here Come the Brides,” 1968-70), and “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing” (Coke commercial, 1971).
Throughout the show, I found myself making mental comparisons. Clearly, Elizabeth’s mom was more sophisticated than mine—she smoked cigarettes, she wore stylish clothes, and she and Elizabeth’s father entertained often at parties in the family home.
These were all things that were foreign to my experience. My own mom, who was a widow, entertained only family and close friends (and never at fancy dinner parties), wore clothing in a style best described as “suburban drab,” and was death on smoking and drinking.
But look: our moms’ taste in decorating both endured a heavy pine “Colonial period.” (Elizabeth still has the dark-stained pine grain-scoop-or-whatever-the-heck-it-is to prove it. It’s a prop in her show.)
And listen: her description of her dad’s prized rec room—complete with bar, of course—sounds just like the one my best friend’s parents built in their basement in the late sixties. (I bet it had the exact same fluorescent lighting and fake wood paneling, too.)
But even if you aren’t the same age as Elizabeth (and me), if you’ve lost your parents, you’ve probably already figured out that a lot of what you’ve gone through is a fairly universal experience.
Elizabeth says that people come up to her after the show, wanting to share their own stories. They tell her about their own mothers’ particular possessions that they just can’t bear to toss or give away—most often nearly worthless objects, like a tattered apron or hideous artwork.
They send her emails with the subject line, “My Mother’s Dishes Are Not My Mother,” “My Mother’s Keys Are Not My Mother,” and even, she says, “My Mother’s Player Piano Is Not My Mother.”
Before I attended the show, Elizabeth (whom I had met three years ago when I took her two-part memoir class, which is how my writing group got started in the first place) sent me an email about the performance. When she told me about the player piano, I thought about the things I have kept that were my mother’s, and why I haven’t been able to part with them.
I have my mom’s copper Jello molds, even though I seldom use them (I still have PTSD from her tomato aspic and a certain lemon-Jello-and-cabbage creation). I have one of her grocery lists (“Bread, creamed corn, evaporated milk, apples, celery”—obviously it was a corn-chowder-and-Waldorf-salad kind of day). I have this “Don’t Yank the Crank” t-shirt from a failed campaign to save the Bryant Pond Telephone Company in the early 1980s.
And I’m hanging onto all of it for dear life.
I guess I should be grateful that my mom never owned a player piano, and that her most unwieldy legacy is a 50-year-old Castro Convertible couch.
I remember going with her to the furniture showroom to buy that couch when I was about five years old. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, it was always kept covered with a floral slipcover, and although the original upholstery did eventually wear out, when my mom retired and moved to Maine full-time in 1982, she had it reupholstered and it was as good as new. She sat on it a lot to read, knit, or watch TV, especially during her last few years, when she did more sitting than she ever had before.
After Mom died, I insisted on moving her prized Castro Convertible to camp, where it continues to see heavy use for about four months of the year. Even if I ever did want to part with it, I’d never be able to find anyone to help me move it. It weighs about two tons, and when my brothers, who had moved it for her countless times over the years, brought Mom’s couch to its final resting place at camp, they all declared, “Never again!”
But hey, you know—it’s still in great shape, and even though it’s been ten years since Mom died, every once in a while when I sit on it, I can still imagine I catch a whiff of her Arrid cream deodorant.
How could I ever let it go?