The Little Things
There is a dumpster on the side of my parents’ house filled with fabric.
Reams and reams of my mother’s handmade curtains.
I put them there. I threw them away.
Well, I threw some away. In my third trip across the lawn tossing away the hours of her life, my knees buckled in the betrayal of it all.
Earlier in the day, I’d found a home for her dollhouse miniatures. Always a creator, my mother spent several years down the rabbit hole of dollhouse making. She delighted in little setups — Easter baskets, tiny Christmas puddings, a mini phone that actually dialed. She took us to special stores, got catalogs in the mail. Tiny thrills.
She constructed dollhouses from flat packed kits. I almost wrote she made them for my sisters and me, but that doesn’t seem exactly true. She loved everything about the cutting, measuring, and gluing. She chose each tiny strip of wallpaper and wired the rooms for lights.
The houses were ours to “play with” when she was done.
But I recall enjoying my mother’s enthusiasm more than the house itself.
In the great COVID clean out of 2020, I discovered a giant rubber tub of unmade dollhouse furniture and other small accoutrements in the way back corner of a closet.
I put up a note on the neighborhood listserv, but quickly realized my mistake. It matters to no one but me, the pieces are honestly meant to be marveled over rather than played with by a toddler.
It took me weeks, but I found her. Ann.
Ann lost her job a few months ago. She takes care of her daughter’s chihuahua while said daughter is stationed in Arizona. I found Ann on a Facebook site for miniature enthusiasts. Her ETSY shop is a marvel.
Yesterday, with all my kids in the car, I drove my mother’s beloved box of my childhood to Ann’s house. I cracked the lid to okay the contents and she wept. I wept.
Ann can’t buy what she needs to keep her ETSY shop going, and her shop is her only current source of income. My box of burden, the one I felt sure would end in the dumpster, Ann turned back into my mother’s chest of tiny treasures.
And goodness my mother would have loved that story.
I’m telling you.
She would have just savored the details of my desperate month of searching, the inevitability of the dumpster looming. The last-ditch Google search that brought me to Ann’s Etsy page. Ann’s instant reply to my message. That she lived one town over. One street away from where my dog had an early manicure scheduled.
Truly, it was a hero’s morning.
The afternoon’s glamorous task was the curtain donation.
My mother’s beloved charity shop had agreed to take them.
The ladies had admired her handiwork in person. No doubt, like me, they’d heard stories of fabric finds — expensive bolts of material in just exactly the amount needed for the sunroom’s new valences.
Or not quite enough yardage for the panels in the dining room, but the sweet clerk named Jennifer promised to look in the back and what do you know, they DID have more of that blue and white tulle, after all.
I’m certain, like me, her friends had worried when she didn’t answer the phone for a whole day, only to learn she’d trapped herself on the floor in a maze of fabric cut-outs, mouth full of pins, determined to sew her way free.
I’ve been trained to appreciate fabric, but it’s not innate.
Even after months of phone calls discussing materials (rope tassels in just the exact color she’d been looking for after going to three stores), I’d be home for days before my mother might ask, “so what do you think of the curtains?”
It kills me that even then I wouldn’t always know which room had the new set. Caring about what my loved ones care about is my superpower, but I’d often let her down. She’d have to ask, and by then my compliments seemed forced.
Sometimes, my father, having likely scattered the seeds of disappointment before me, would remind me in a whisper “don’t forget to say how much you like them.”
Curtains were hard for us.
But her enthusiasm wasn’t.
She deserved the oohs and ahhs. The fact that she was such an accomplished self-taught seamstress, that she could make beautiful creations double her size, and hang them all on her own was easy to appreciate. She was a marvel.
I may not care about fabric, but I cared about her.
After my morning miniature success, I was looking forward to bringing my mother’s works of art to her beloved shop. The curtains had been taken down by the staging company, which I forced myself on behalf of my mother not to take as an insult.
I’d planned an hour to get them off the rods and folded into bags.
Only they were sewn on.
Like a tailor sews a bride into her wedding dress.
Dozens of small stitches so the fabric would fold and fall just so.
Impossible to move.
I did try.
I took her small sewing scissors and ripped through the nearly imperceptible stitches, but tore the seams in the process and ruined the curtain.
I tried it again. Ripped again.
Like a raft headed for a waterfall, I felt the impossibility of my resistance.
How could anyone reuse my mother’s custom, handmade curtains anyhow? The futility suddenly obvious.
And then I was alone with the hours of her life. Hours of cutting and caring, measuring, listening to NPR, deep in her thoughts, pausing only sometimes for calls from her kids.
I’ve had a couple of these moments. It happened once at a CVS, when I disposed of all her medications. Minutes strung together where I feel like I’m letting her die all over again.
Look, I know. I get it. I never let her die in the first place, but I’m pretty convinced I’ll always a little bit feel that way. I’m learning to live with it.
I want you to know I screamed first. Rage and grief and helplessness.
And then I scooped up an armful of the fabric fixed on long, metal sticks and walked toward the dumpster.
It physically hurt.
I made two and a half trips before I fell to my knees.
I was utterly alone.
Except I wasn’t.
Seemingly out of nowhere, my arms were freed by a young man wearing the only shade of blue not found in any of my mother’s curtains. He lifted the folds from my arms, moved silently to the dumpster.
He gave me the privacy of no eye contact as I sobbed at his unbearable kindness. Doing my thing I couldn’t do, but had to be done.
Curtains disposed of, he returned to the window he’d been working to repair.
I stayed on my knees on the lawn until the waves of grief passed. Until my knees, tattooed with grass marks and very little blood circulation begged me to move.
I had places to be.
I used my shirt to wipe myself dry.
I made an effort to stand and found my helper hand again. This time his blue shirt perfectly matched the bundle of my mother’s hydrangea he held out to me, full eye contact.
And she would have loved that, too.
Kindness for the sake of it.
And the inclusion of her hydrangea.
Another labor of love.
Countless hours of amending soil, testing Ph balance, adding ground fish bones and fertilizer, watering, watering, and watering to finally get them to grow and bloom.
And they did.
And they are.
And they will.
Just like us.
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).