My 96-year-old mother bid farewell to her house a few weeks ago, and moved to an assisted living facility. She’s happy there, with lots of people to talk to about what matters most to her.
Her physical move necessitated the dispossession of her house and belongings. Who would assume that daunting job? That honor, with its headaches and backaches, falls to her adult children and grandchildren.
Mom let it be known that she would be watching.
Relinquishing personal items comes with great difficulty when you’re raised during the Depression in a miner’s shack. “Somebody might want that tattered bedspread,” she would warn. “You could make patches out of that, for knee holes in jeans.”
Her reluctance to part with possessions made me stop and ask myself: How do I manage the relationship process with my mother during this emotionally charged transition, and what do we do with a houseful of hard-earned and carefully chosen furnishings that are now mostly outdated and unwanted?
This challenge brought to mind a phrase I noticed a few weeks ago while visiting Cawdor Castle in Northeast Scotland. Above the portal was the founding family's coat of arms dated 1672. At its top were the words "Be Mind Full."
Cawdor Castle in Cawdor, Scotland. Image by Braveheart on Wikimedia Commons
How might I pay homage to that family motto from long ago? I needed that terse admonition in order to coordinate the physical purging of Mom's house while responding appropriately to her heartfelt protest: “Don’t throw anything out!”
What does it take to stay Mind Full amid a heap of belongings, as my aged mother confronts her fears of loss, letting go and mortality?
Mind Full Ideas
Two ideas occurred to me as I considered “Be Mind Full.” The first was to resist passing judgment about what my mother has chosen to store in her basement, boxes and drawers. If she finds sentimental value in the old winter coats she never wears, so be it.
Is it my job to figure out why she would store a broken lamp for 20 years in her bedroom closet?
My second idea focused on connection: maintaining one-on-one contact with my mother and each of my siblings to inform them of progress and ask for suggestions.
These two intentions – suspend judgment and stay connected – guided the extracting and salvaging process at Mom’s house.
Clear in my head, it was time to get to work. Two siblings and my son, Nick, volunteered to dive in.
As Nick and I sorted through her trunks and trinkets, a Mind Full mantra kept me going: “I have no idea what it’s like to live in my mother’s skin, to be raised as she was raised, and to believe what she believes about saving and keeping.”
My sister, Tina, came up with a Mind Full idea: donate ALL our mother’s belongings to a local refugee re-settlement program.
This idea made especially good sense in the context of our multi-cultural family (our members include immigrants from Sicily, Laos, Mexico and Bangladesh).
Not knowing much about refugee re-settlement, I was eager to make contact with a local program.
So off I went in a loaded pickup truck to Mary’s Place, a recently closed Catholic church in Rochester’s 10th Ward. As I pulled up, several foreign-born women speaking broken English stood on the front steps, greeting and thanking me.
Three of the re-settlement managers -- Hani, Djifa and Charlsey - - asked us to deliver Mom’s donations directly to the homes of refugees in the neighborhood. We gladly helped transport the treasures to their eager new owners, climbing up rickety stairs, across well-worn linoleum floors, and into the tiny bedrooms characteristic of 80-year-old houses.
I thought this would be a simple drop-off, not a home visitation process.
As it turned out, I found myself in a neighborhood I would not have otherwise visited, interacting with recently arrived refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Togo and Nepal.
What began as an act of charity evolved into a mutually beneficial exchange. The refugees I met received second-hand couches, cabinets and kitchenware. I learned about the three-year famine in Sub-Saharan Africa, the eagerness of newcomers to interact with Americans, and their appreciation for helping hands.
A Mind Full effort to suspend judgment, stay connected and embrace difference turned a tedious project into a rich learning encounter.
I’m planning to invite a few of the refugees I met for dinner, and to treat them to a special guest – my mother!