Excerpt – Enter Mourning, Chapter 3

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Enter Mourning: A memoir on death, dementia and coming home

By: Heather Menzies

Clearing away the personal baggage, unresolved resentments, unexpressed regrets is as necessary as clearing out the family home.

Chapter 3: The Clearance (excerpt)

The stillness of the place registered, but only in passing, mostly as an all clear. Mum was safely installed in the seniors’ residence, having gone straight there after her winter in Arizona with Jan to find her single-room suite all decked out in what I’d guessed to be her favourite things. This left the cottage on the Rideau River empty of people but full of stuff, a clean-up chore that someone had to do.

I took out the key from under the boot-board, unlocked the door and stepped briskly inside –air like damp sheets on the line, the smell of stale breath….

For me, grieving a death begins well before the last breath; at least, it can. It begins at the point of contact, where and when you cross into the fullness of the experience, not just the circumstances of what’s happening. Mourning commences when you begin to pay attention, starting perhaps with what blocks the way. …

Some instinct prompted me to return to Mum’s cottage some days later with my camera, and I roamed the place like a tracking dog with a poor nose for scent, but sniffing still. I stopped in front of Mum’s dresser, cluttered with all the little things she used every day: bobby pins, safety pins, straight pins, tubes of red lipstick, plus things she’d saved to mark a special occasion: a name tag from a reunion of the “girls” who’d served in the Red Cross during the war, another from a McGill alumni tea and fund raiser to which I’d taken her. There was dust over everything, and a fine network of long hairs dropped from when Mum had stood here brushing her hair vigorously every morning. I picked one up, then another, revealing a languid alphabet of dust-free lines where the hair had been. Here, an S, there an L and there an almost perfect O.

Being the “dutiful daughter” had been my alibi, a mask of presence behind which I was essentially absent. And that wasn’t good enough for what lay ahead. This much I knew, and it drove me like an untraceable itch as I prowled Mum’s old home, uprooting things, holding my camera up to my eye. I was trying to find the pulse of resentment, of loneliness, whatever long buried feeling it was that bound me to the past, unresolved tensions still prickling like a wall of thorns between Mum and me. I took picture after picture—the fly swatters patched with wire and bicycle-patch glue, a pair of jeans with patches on top of patches, Mum’s gardening spade outside. As I waited for something to pounce, I found myself just enjoying the images I was seeing, and Mum’s personality shining through them, hard working, parsimonious, and creative. This was Mum, doing what she wanted to do, that’s all.

All Contents Copyright © Heather Menzies