Everybody has one – that one drawer in the kitchen allocated to any small item that has no place to call home. Our kitchen drawer is currently the proud home of an elastic band, a receipt for a vacuum cleaner that we bought three years ago, a key that has no lock, a lock that has no key, as well as several other items such as a paperclip, a sim card that nobody has claimed, and a tub of 5c coins that we cannot do anything with. The older I get the worse it gets. Every year it seems new items, that cannot be thrown away, are added to the drawer – blazer buttons, unused ID photos, string…
I am not a hoarder. I know this because all these items fit in a single drawer. My mother, however, was a different matter altogether. Her kitchen drawer spilled over into a small room attached to the back of the garage, and there her stash of items grew. She wasn’t keeping any of it for herself, it was all intended for other people. She had bags full of seeds she had collected while on walks, she would spray paint them gold and use them as Christmas decorations. Apparently, this meant she needed three black bags of seeds in reserve. She had an enormous collection of milk bottle tops, which she intended to make games out of for underprivileged children. She had bags of wool and magazines, from the 1970s, containing knitting patterns that she had never used but simply couldn’t get rid of.
“When are you going to clear out that room?” we would ask. She would reply that she had plans for everything in there and flat-out refused to part with anything. Time went on and her collection grew as steadily as ever but there seemed to be less activity in the outside room. My mom wasn’t in there as much anymore, her arthritic hands struggled with making anything but still, she clung on to her collection fiercely saying, “someone else can make good use of it”.
I looked at her collection of postage stamps (still on their envelopes), collected over 40 years, and wondered who on earth was going to make use of those.
The time came for my parents to move into a retirement village, which meant it was finally time to tackle the dreaded outside room. My father and I fetched a chair for Mom so she could sit down right outside the room. I would go into the room and fetch a bag of whatever was closest and then show it to her.
“We can give those seeds to someone,” came her words. I looked at my father and he motioned for me to put the seeds on the rubbish pile while she wasn’t looking, and so this continued for the next three hours. My father popped out to get us some lunch and, while he was gone, I came across a folder that contained pages from magazines. Some were patterns for clothing that would never be in fashion again. Other pages were on how to correctly fold and secure a cloth diaper.
“Rubbish pile?” I asked my mom.
“No, no,” she protested, “a new mother could use that.”
I looked at her determined face and realised this was a stand-off.
“You cannot keep everything,” I said. “When you are ready to let go, I will help you again.” I stormed inside. Timing was tight. My parents had little more than two weeks from the point of finding out that they were moving until their actual moving date – and it was looming. I also couldn’t stay indefinitely as I had to return to Hermanus to my children. I cooled down a bit and then went back outside and saw that she had added the folder to the rubbish pile.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said; and we continued with the sorting. My mom seemed to be adding a lot more to the rubbish pile now and I was adding things which I would previously have thrown away to the donate pile. Maybe she was right, maybe tiny felt off cuts could still be of use to someone, perhaps old Christmas cards could be brought back to life. Once the sorting was done there were 11 black bags to throw away and seven boxes of items to donate to the church. I was proud and sad… My mom looked tired but victorious. She had kept the boxes of stamps for herself.
Fast forward a couple of years and I receive an unexpected phone call from my father at 2 am.
“Mama passed away about 45 minutes ago,” he says. My body fills with terror and rage.
Later that day my brother and I arrive in Cape Town to be with my dad. The mood isn’t yet predominantly of sadness, it is of disbelief. Over the next several hours, reality rears its ugly head and the gut-wrenching hurt begins. I open her cupboard to try and find anything of hers that I can connect with. Behind her clothes, on the shelf, I find baskets and tins and I imagine what wonderful, personal treasures she has kept hidden for all these years. I open a tiny tin and find three buttons and some sweets, and the more I take out the cupboard the more I realise what has happened. These little boxes, baskets and tins are now her kitchen drawer. There are wet wipes and peppermints from restaurants she has been to. There is a glitter bouncy ball and a two-piece Lego block. There are a broken necklace and a curtain hook. My mom’s kitchen drawer is alive and well in the back of her cupboard. Just as I think I have discovered everything, I come across the piece de resistance and I begin to giggle. My brother comes to see what is going on, he takes a look and begins to laugh, and soon even my father is having a giggle. Right at the back of her cupboard in the furthest corner of the second shelf, I found a bag containing seven milk-bottle tops – the beginning of her new collection…
My mom was here on Saturday with my father. My brother and his girlfriend were here from further afield. Everybody who needed to be here to make a perfect family day was here. We celebrated Father’s Day and my mom was happier and more energised than I had seen her in ages. Less than 48 hours later she died peacefully in her sleep. I am keeping the milk-bottle tops.
Mama, I love you with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Sleep sweetly.