As we drive home from Kalispell, the setting sun behind us, the sky in the east turns from blue to grey, the sort of end-of-the-day color that heralds the moon high in the sky. The mountains to the east, part of Glacier National Park, grow dim, as if behind tracing paper, the sort of thing we used to make a picture on top of a picture, for those of us who had no art skills. Geese swirl overhead, and it’s so peaceful that none of us speaks.
Or maybe we just have nothing to say. We’ve been to the Winchester Steakhouse, where my stepdad, Jerry, meant to buy us dinner on our last night. But instead we insisted on paying, for his birthday we told him, which is Friday, when we won’t be here. He doesn’t think it’s fair, but charming husband has given the waitress his card before Jerry could do anything about it, so it’s too bad for him.
I haven’t accomplished much during this visit, by which I mean, I haven’t gone through any more of Mom’s drawers, I haven’t winnowed out the discards from the keeps, I haven’t sorted the pictures. Underneath the table is a big plastic box, full of pictures, that I put there on a previous visit, but there’s a drawer in the desk that Jerry points out to me that is more important to him. “There’s cards and pictures in there, and I don’t know what to do with them.”
“I’ll go through them,” I tell him, and he pulls open the drawer to reveal the folders from the mortuary, the cemetery, the probate papers, and underneath, cards and pictures.
“I want to keep those,” he says, indicating the death documents, “Just in case.”
The next day I go back to this drawer, and I look at the cards and pictures underneath. They’re cards and pictures that someone put away less than two years ago, and they’re pictures of, mostly, the funeral, and the after party (whose idea was it to have an after party anyway?), and the cards are sympathy cards. I put them in a neat pile to take home with me.
I also take possession of my grandfather’s old camera, and I go through some software for the computer, most of which I discard. It’s old and useless. I pick up a few of the small hard disks that were so prevalent just a few years ago (or so it seems) and on them my mother had printed “pictures,” and I wonder what to do with them. I don’t want to get rid of them in case the pictures are ones that should be kept, but how can I tell? My mom’s computer, now Jerry’s, doesn’t have one of those drives, and neither do any of my computers at home. I’ll keep them though, and figure that out later.
Other than that, I’m not productive this visit. Charming husband and I go for long drives and visit Glacier National Park, Jerry takes us for drives and shows us the buffalo down the street, the river that’s perfect for floating, the Canadian geese in a nearby pond, and at night we sit in the living room and we watch baseball. I’m calling these few days a vacation, and so I’m living them as a vacation.
Eventually I’ll have to deal with the big giant box of pictures, unless someone else gets to them first. I’m not sure what to do with them. I don’t know many of the people in the pictures. I know my side of the family, mostly, though not always, and I know fragments of Jerry’s family, but there are so many kids and grandkids and great grandkids and friends and strangers and there’s a past that I don’t even know about.
My mother had a life without me, and there’s so much of it I don’t know about. I was my mother’s oldest, but I wasn’t her favorite, and except for a few of the early years, I lived apart from her while growing up. She loved me, but we had separate lives, and while our lives intersected enough for us to have a relationship, I’m not sure we ever understood each other.
That’s okay. We just did the best we could with what we had. I feel like an intruder, rummaging through the remnants of her life. On previous visits I emptied her closet and her drawers, I took possession of the correspondence she’d saved all her life, and I sorted through the files and labeled them so Jerry could find anything he needed. I showed him where the bills to be paid were, and what he needed to do. I took home a few items of clothing, the last unfinished afghan she’d been working on, a box my uncle, long deceased, had made.
The photo albums sit on the shelves still, the framed photos on the upper shelves. I’ve looked through some of the albums, but I can’t bear to do anything with them, much. I do find a newspaper clipping in one album, a story in which I was featured many years ago when I was an NCOIC in the Air Force. I removed that one and kept it, because it was funny. But the rest? I don’t know. There are many pictures of my mother to be found in these albums, and I don’t want to lose those, but I don’t want to cannibalize the albums either. Neither do I want to take them. They’re not mine.
I can barely keep together the pieces of my own life, much less the pieces of someone else’s. The boxes of correspondence she kept all her life I have now, but I haven’t looked at them, other than when I looked at them to pack them up. They’re not to me, though some of it is from me. But much of it is from other people, perhaps people who don’t want me reading the letters they sent to my mother long ago. Some of them are dead now too.
There’s so much past here. Tomorrow we leave, back to our own lives, and I’ll come back again someday, and maybe then I’ll have a plan. I doubt it though. I’m not much for planning. Maybe someone else will get to the albums and the big box of pictures first. But probably not.