I seem to have become the keeper of the family photographs. I didn’t ask for this job. But actually, as overwhelming that is was when it was bestowed upon me, and as overwhelming as it is when I think about the giant Rubbermaid tub filled with years of images, I am happy to have them in my possession.
Some of my earliest memories are of uncurling the scalloped edged, black and white photos that were taken by my father in Asia and Europe. They presented a life to me that took place in locations so distant that it was simply unfathomable to my young mind. They served as proof of my parent’s youth. They served as proof that life existed before me. I have always fanaticized about time travel, not traveling forward but back so that I might relive moments or watch silently as history unfolds. I love the way that photos can hold a moment in eternity.
Last winter my otherwise remarkably, healthy mother became ill. Her stomach was persistently sour, she often felt dizzy and confused and nothing tasted good. Her medical care provider prescribed her an antacid and told her to return when she had finished her prescription. When my brother called her one evening and heard her slurred speech he asked the nearest neighbor to take her the hospital. It was then that I heard her describe the taste of food as metallic. It was then that the light-bulb of recognition flashed for me. In a few days the hospital doctors diagnosed stage 4 cancer. The lesion on her brain was the likely culprit of the metallic taste in her mouth.
At the time I was frantically juggling. For 5 months prior, my husband and I had been preparing to move to China for his work. My then 17 year old daughter had been diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. My husband's family had had several cases of auto-immune disorders which had resulted in life threatening illnesses. Olivia was due to graduate the following May and we were facing the prospect of having her away at college and being treated by a pediatric rheumatologist in Kansas City while we were living on the other side of the earth.The idea that my mother was fatally ill was simply unfathomable. Attempting to process it made my head feel like it would explode. I went through the motions each day. I performed the English training that I do for a living. We filled out passport and Chinese Visa applications, waited for the acceptance letter from the American School my son would attend in Shanghai, went to doctor’s appointments for my daughter and visited my mother as frequently as possible to find her declining more each time. I’m certain that there was a perception that I was cold and unfeeling. In truth I was completely overwhelmed. I was numb by default. I felt alone and on many days, I did nothing but cry. In the past when I heard someone describe despair so deep that a person couldn’t get out of bed for days, I was unable to empathize. During those months, I experienced a hint of it. My motivation for getting out of bed was the work that I love and my children who needed to see my face.
My Indonesian mother, Dutch father and their two oldest sons immigrated to the US. They had had a comfortable life in Indonesia where my father managed a rubber plantation. After WWII Indonesia fell into communist rule and all people of Dutch ancestry were forced to leave. The Netherlands was in economic recovery after WWII and finding jobs to support a family was nearly impossible. Thousands of families of Dutch/Indonesian ancestry were given refugee status and relocated to many corners of the earth. My parents and brothers landed in Kansas.
I often wonder what my mother eyes saw when they landed in Kansas City. I wonder what she thought as she looked out over farms and fields as they drove west to Lawrence, Kansas. I know that their beginnings in Kansas were humble and I’m certain that the people that kindly welcomed them into the community knew little about the countries where my parent’s lives began.
When my mother was 13 years old the Japanese had invaded Indonesia. I know that her 13 year old eyes saw more violence, injustice and brutality than any child should ever see. After the war the Dutch military came for what they called “reconstruction” but was actually “re-colonization” and she met my father. Later in life my mother spoke of the comforts she’d had in Indonesia, the hired help, the status in their lives and how that compared to her beginnings in Kansas. This might explain the state of dissatisfaction that seemed to manifest in so many areas of her life. She was beautiful, stylish, talented, generous and frequently “at odds” with members of her family, people in her community, American culture, the opposing political party and the hypocrisy of Christianity. Ironically she had been raised Catholic and was extremely devout in her belief.
My mother was the “driving force” behind making money and saving money. She sold eggs, cleaned houses, recycled, pinched pennies and stretched dollars. Her experience with scarcity during the war seemed to be the voice in her head that drove her. She was obsessed with having “enough” of everything. She hoarded food, perishable and non-perishables. Her multiple closets were FULL of clothes that represented styles and trends from each decade during her life in the US. She hoarded cooking utensils, baking dishes, pans and cooking appliances. She collected enough office supplies to run a business for years. Each year she planted and tended a garden big enough to feed a community and in some cases she did. My mother could never turn away a homeless pet or a hungry person.
When my father passed away in 2008 my mother refused to the leave the home that she and my father built on the land that they’d worked so hard to buy. She lived alone in the too big house, with her cats and her dog, planted her too big garden and did her best to care for her much too big yard. She was lonely and felt isolated but she wouldn’t give up her home. At times when I would call her she was happy and animated. More often when I would call she was frustrated and unhappy. Seeing her was frequently a ”mixed bag” which made it difficult to see her with frequency.
In late March my husband, my son, my daughter and I traveled to Shanghai for ten days. We visited the school that my son would attend, found an apartment nearby and visited the city. One Sunday while walking through the French Concession (the area of Shanghai named for the Concession that was held by the French from 1849 to 1943 and is now a popular tourist area) I saw a Chinese woman of my mother’s era flanked by her two sons and followed closely by her other children and possibly grandchildren. They were quite a procession. The woman was clearly the matriarch of her family and carried herself with an air of distinction that was clearly bestowed upon her by her children. She and I briefly made eye contact though I seemed to have been rather invisible to her, I will never forget her or the realization that I made at that moment. The scene that I witnessed would have been my mother’s dream and she in fact had earned it.
When I returned from China my mother had lost all her hair, she had lost even more weight and was very, very weak. On April 17 she passed. The following week my husband’s company announced that it would not send us to live in China as planned. All of the months of preparation came to a halt and the earth also seemed to screech to a stop on its axis.
More than a month later we held a memorial at the church that we had attended as children. It was the same church that sponsored our family to the US. Each of us; my three brothers, our spouses and our children gathered with friends and community members to celebrate my mother’s life. Some of her favorite hymns were sung by many of the voices that I’d heard each Sunday throughout my childhood. Their voices blanketed us with their familiarity and love. The next day we met with our children at my parent’s home and carried their ashes to the top of the hill which marked the border of their land. We stood in a circle and each shared a memory. We laughed and we cried. Each one of us filled a cup with some of each of my parent’s ashes and scattered them.
Life has started to return to something that feels almost normal. About a month ago I realized that my grief had come in layers of loss as I slowly allowed myself to “feel”. I have come to terms with not moving to China and I might even feel a little grateful not to have. My daughter decided to wait a year to start university and is actually managing her health without medication. My parent’s house and land sold rather quickly and I sadly said goodbye to it. My husband and I are making plans for the future.
I haven’t quite figured out how to mourn for my mother. On some days I can feel her near me. On other days I am resentful and confused. And there have been days that I recognize her humor in something that I hear myself say and I laugh out loud.
Downstairs there is a Rubbermaid tub filled with images and moments. There are photos of my children and those of my brothers. There are photos of friends who are a part of our lives today and some that we will never see again. There are photos of relatives that share our DNA that we have never known. Best of all, there are images of my parents who are adventurous and young and healthy and always will be.