The Box at the Back of My Closet

And why it haunts me.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

My mother died at the age of 96. I think of her as having lived until 92 and then taking a long, leisurely approach to death.

That autumn when she was 92, she had a stroke. It was a brain bleed so massive that nobody expected her to survive, least of all the ER docs and the neurologist who told my sister, who lived nearby, to call in the family members to say goodbye.

My husband and I numbly threw things into suitcases and drove north through the night, turning a four-hour drive into three hours, and arrived at the hospital at midnight, at the same time as my other sister and her husband, who had driven south for roughly the same time and distance.

We gathered there, in the middle of the state in the middle of the night, to keep vigil. Mom, when we reached her room, was delighted to see us. Her head hurt, her speech was slurred and her body seemed to have become disconnected from her intentions, which as always were to be pleasant and avoid a fuss.

She could talk and laugh, but she couldn’t move. Or, more accurately, it didn’t occur to her to move.

By morning, she was still alive, though very tired. Five days later, the hospital discharged her, though she was completely bedridden and in no shape to go home. We found hospice care for her and placed her in a board-and-care facility nearby.

Months later, Medicare kicked her out of hospice. She was still bedridden and unable to do anything for herself. The young physical therapist who visited her kept saying what a shame it was that therapy hadn’t been started immediately after the stroke. We finally suggested to the therapist that she not say that anymore.

Mom’s sense of time was scrambled, as was her memory, although she recognized everyone and was still delighted to see us. She wanted to go home.

We couldn’t make that work for her, for many reasons. Life can be brutal in its practicalities. We transferred Mom to a nursing home. It was a nice one, well-staffed, but still, a nursing home. It was the kind of place where, while serving as a deacon from her church, she had once gone to visit stricken parishioners, people whom she described as “poor souls.”

She remained among the poor souls for four years until her death. During that time, she was well cared for. She had many visitors. On holidays we would bring the party to her, with decorations and food and wine, until she tired, which happened quickly.

My oldest sister, an artist, embellished Mom’s half of the room with photo boards and garlands. I visited as often as I could, reading to her and listening to her shreds of memories as she summoned disjointed stories from the past.

She talked a lot about my father. In her dreamy narrative, he was a romantic hero, the dashing young hunter who rescued her from her stultifying life in small-town Depression-era Iowa. They spent their honeymoon driving west, with mountains and valleys and vistas she’d never imagined rolling past her. They lived in Oregon, in Canada, and then in California, and she said she never missed Iowa, not for a minute.

My sisters and I remembered our father very differently. We recalled a man who vacillated between emotional distance and sudden, terrifying eruptions of rage that could scorch anyone in his path. We remembered our mother trying to pacify him and explain to us that really, he loved us, even though he had screamed at us or humiliated us in front of our friends or pushed us down the stairs.

But that’s not the way Mom remembered him, not at all.

The time came for my sisters and me to clean out Mom’s condo. Like everyone does at such times, we donated some objects, discarded others, and divvied up the things that had actual or sentimental value. Some items were boxed up to be stored for another time, one less stressful and urgent. Those boxes ended up in the back of closets in my sister’s house, the one who lived in the same town as Mom.

Eventually, that sister cleared out her house, and the closet boxes had to find new homes. One that was shipped to me was about ten inches high and a foot long, not large but rather heavy. On its side, in my sister’s neat handwriting, was my name.

I opened it and peaked inside. It was full of notebooks, composition books, some spiral-bound, some leather-bound, some just clipped together bundles of papers.

My mother’s journals.

As the writer in the family, I suppose it seemed logical to my sisters that I should be their recipient. But I gazed at the collection of my mother’s private thoughts in that box, taped it shut, and put it in the back of my closet.

It has moved with me twice now. Recently I’ve opened it again, and it still fills me with deep disquiet.

What is the right thing to do with my mother’s journals? She didn’t write them for others to read, surely. Would I ever be capable of reading their contents without judgment, without comparing her observations and thoughts to what I remember?

Would reading my mother’s journals alter my perceptions of her? Do I want that? Am I afraid to discover that my mother’s life in the decades after my father’s death and before her stroke was not the freer, more empowered existence that it seemed it was to me?

I loved my mother deeply and still do. But I resented the way she used to attempt to rewrite my history for me, to pretend that home life with Dad was a Leave It To Beaver era of healthy family function.

Am I afraid to read my mother’s journals because I’ve rewritten her past for her?

Or am I simply respecting her privacy, ten years after her death?

I truly do not know.

Featured Image: Photo by Dom J from Pexels


    • I’m not sure I do, Barbara. And yet I can’t see throwing them away. That box of journals has a heavy psychic weight.

  1. What a lovely post! About the dilemma that you present at the end – it is a question that I struggle with at times too, regarding my own family dynamic. I think it is possible for your perspective to be absolutely valid, at the same time as your mom’s different perspective also being valid <3

    • I think you’re right, Hannah. There certainly is no objective judge to render an opinion on whose version of reality is most worthy. But I still don’t know what to do about the journals, or why the fact of them in my possession makes me uncomfortable. Hmmm . . .

  2. I thought for a long time before writing a response to this post, Jan. Like your mother, my mom took “a long, leisurely approach to death” after a stroke and wound up in an assisted living facility at the age fo 87. She detested it. Called it a place for “old people”. I visited her every day and helped her with her shower and bedtime for 3 years. We had frequent field trips to the local bar for afternoon snacks and bloody marys and she came to our house for holidays and other family events, but still, she was depressed at having her autonomy taken away. Anyway…I think if it were me, I would have to read my mom’s journals. Just the opportunity to get to know her better would be irresistible. You will make your own right choice, Jan. Maybe bestowing them on one of your sons would relieve you of the burden of having them in your closet if you choose not to read them.

    • I will probably read them — in fact, almost certainly — but I think I’ll digest them in small bites. Thank you for your compassionate words, and for sharing your memories of your mother’s final years. I have inevitable, if illogical, sadness & guilt about having been too far away to be with her as much as I would have liked to in those years.

  3. It would be different if you were considering reading the journals while she still lived. I never had that choice with my parents since they never left diaries or journals but some things you might read in those journals could raise memories viewed through a different point of view which you might wish to correct or dispute. And you can’t now. Tempting as it is to read them, I would recommend leaving them for the next generation.

    • I will probably read them — in fact, almost certainly — but I think I’ll digest them in small bites. Thank you for your compassionate words, and for sharing your memories of your mother’s final years. I have inevitable, if illogical, sadness & guilt about having been too far away to be with her as much as I would have liked to in those years.

  4. I would read them. I am curious about what really goes on underneath people’s skin. I find it exciting.
    Like what happens in the movie: Bridge of Madison County by Clint Eastwood. Did you see that?

    • Elizabeth, it’s so interesting to see the variety in people’s responses to this post. You’re the first one who mentions curiosity — curiously enough. And yes, I saw that movie — but I detested it, even despite Meryl Streep! Each to their own 🙂

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