Unexploded Ordinance

shelley wood unexploded ordinance-smI told you I’d packed up her house last April, but that was not the truth. I must have stretched the facts for my own consolation, hoping to span the sad things and leave behind only the cutlery and pillowcases.

Last year I bagged and donated all her scarves and sweaters to stop myself from burying my face in them, emptied the bathroom of the soaps and creams that smelled like her, dumped out the countless pills that let her down. And I thought I was done.

Then her house finally sold and I had to box it up completely, her voice in my head amused and aghast at what I kept and didn’t. Among the donated or discarded: the placemats that once furnished Christmas suppers, the chipped white cups that came out for tea, the linen she’d use to make up my bed in the guest room. A battered cardboard box with a plastic, peekaboo window on its lid offered up a nest of chicken eggs blown and decorated by me, age nine or ten, along with greetings to her from the Easter Bunny. These went too.

It took me an hour to load her books into the back of a pick-up truck and another to find a place that would accept them. “Can you take just one box?” I pleaded at the Kitsilano branch of the Vancouver Public Library. I had 20 boxes in the truck.

The first librarian, noting my puffy eyes and slumping willpower, was up for brainstorming solutions, but her squashed and greasy superior stepped in to overrule her. “You can bring in a box, but there’s no way we’ll want every book,” she huffed. Tearing up, my spine creaking out of alignment after heaving so many boxes — I felt combustible, skidding towards violence, thirsting for kindness the way you crave air at the bottom of a dive. Who was this heartless toad in her pilled cardigan? Librarian or not, she would never in a million years own or read as many of the world’s best books as my mother, nor have half her intuition and compassion. I walked out without another word and left the entire collection at the Salvation Army.

And what did I keep? Because mine at home was broken, I kept her toilet plunger, hearing her chuckle as I boxed it up. There you have it, she might declare, another chapter for the Wood Family Colon Chronicles, her sparkling eyes darting over to mine across the dining-room table as my husband blocked his ears, protesting: Can we please, for once, talk about something else over supper?

Also found, kept, and wept over: all of my report cards saved from kindergarten through grade 12, journals she kept of vacations we took together and others from before I was born. At the bottom of her roll-top desk, a jackpot: every rambling letter I wrote to her when I was on the other side of the world, age 20 and missing her desperately.

Mothers — understand that when you keep these, when you tuck away a lifetime’s treasures in the chest in the TV room, this is unexploded ordinance. We will unearth it when you leave us. We will find the birthday cards we drew by hand, the Mother’s Day brunch menus we penned in our best calligraphy, the countless notes telling you flat-out that we love you more than anything. And that will still be true when we find them, although now it’s a love that goes flapping, panicked, into the hollows, circling without purpose, nowhere left to perch.