When my friend's mother died, alone in her apartment full of stuff and empty bottles it was his job as her only son to go through it all. Take some home if it seemed to have value, throw a lot of it away, fill recycling boxes with the empties that were so profuse. We bonded a long time ago around the idea that our mothers had no idea how to mother, and had no business having us in the first place. Neither of us have any siblings, but we have plenty of memories. I know my mother didn't really start drinking until my older years, I'm not sure when his did. We both can tell plenty of stories of drunken mis-behavior from the women who held us hostage until we were able to get up and out of there.
So his died alone, and brave man that he was, he walked into her cave of loneliness and dealt with her stuff. Some of it got a cursory glance and was brought home as-is, because he was not sure if there was anything of value in there, for him or for her. Were Dottie to drop dead I don't know if I could do the same thing, not without a lot of help. Just to smell her again, that cheap perfume, that old lady floral miasma that has existed long before she was old, it makes me shudder. I suppose parents, if left alone long enough go on with their lives too. They write things and save things and clip things out of newspapers, God only knows what you might find.
One part of her story he's never really told me is that she was an artist. Maybe not a painter, but an artistic type who seemed to work a lot with paper of different types. He grabbed three or four bags of that sort of thing and it's been sitting at his house. If that kind of thing were left over from Dottie's life I know I would hear it ticking, but maybe he had it stored in the recesses of the garage or something. He brought it all to me yesterday. A dead woman's art as yet unmade.
There were sheets upon sheets of interesting paper, some handmade with flowers pressed inside. There were many flowers that had been pressed to dry after being first taken apart. If one knew what kind of flowers they were then they could be reassembled into their original shapes. They are old, some of them are so tissue-paper thin that a breath will lift them off the page and send them drifting. I imagined her hands, picking those flowers, carefully laying them between sheets of heavy paper to dry, and the years that must have gone by since that happened. I can feel that she was younger and happier when the flowers were originally picked and carefully laid flat. There are many of the same type, and I can see her in a field of flowers gathering in sunshine she planned to preserve and use for art later. There is some hope pressed thinly between those pages, but it's old hope, long gone and only a wisp of it remains.
The paper; oh my God the sheets of delicious heavy paper that were there for me to find. Heavy, some with fibers visible from the back. Some that look like slices of geology, the way you can see thousands of years in one rock if you cut it or wear it away with time. Heavy, hand-made, thick paper with flowers embedded just under the surface. She made that paper. While my friend was busy needing a mother her hands were creating this beautiful paper. Maybe she made it after he had left for good, some substitute of beauty where it was love that had been called for in the first place. All of it jumbled into bags, as though the process of creating lost interest for her, or she stopped believing in beauty all together.
There are hundreds and hundreds of greeting cards, thick blank, colored paper, with the blank white insert for writing on the inside. More envelopes than even that. Who was she going to write, or thank, or invite? Maybe she was going to make and sell. The jumbled nature of the bags clouds my pictures, and all of those are overlayed with the stories I've heard of her. I have a different image to add to her in my mind now though; former elegance gone to seed like those large roses that bloom and then become overblown and only reluctantly drop their petals. Bags of potential art, all stuffed into there on top of itself. Did she keep it that way in a closet somewhere or was that the way he packed it for transport? Gold-foil sea horse and butterfly stickers by the dozens. Stars, dots, long strips of decorative paper just waiting to be applied to who knows what. Bags of junk, weighted with the past for my friend, a pirate's chest of treasure for me.
It was joy to not only discover each new thing, but to watch his face as he saw how much I wanted, no, needed to have this stuff to add to my own collection of art supplies. There are things in there that are old, too old to go re-purchase now. The paper itself was worth the carrying of those bags through years and distance to lay at my feet. 21 brass bells, of varying sizes and tones in one bag, what were they going to be? I had to string them all up on some found winery oak that Michael brought to me just the other day. I didn't hit my bed till one o'clock until the bells were in place waiting for whatever they will become. They may already be what they will be, in rough draft. If they are going to live like that they are begging me for some beads, wooden and rustic, and a better alignment in height so that none touch each other. I couldn't find my rest last night until they were out of that bag and hanging though, they carry an importance of their own.
Now what I need are boxes. Unfinished wooden boxes, or that kind of pasteboard that is strong and holds its shape after you paint it and add layers of image and paper to it. He asked me what I would do with all that stuff that just looks like stuff to him, and I showed him my file of words and images that I've been carefully clipping out of magazines for years. The envelope of mouths, the one that has only eyes, the random images that grabbed me, like the rat being injected with a syringe or the giant scorpion, the head with a heart where the brain would normally be. And words. Thousands of words and phrases all cut with precision and waiting for the time that I would combine them into a kind of poetry on objects. Paper, words, they call to me like a sailor to the sea. Since he's never seen or received any of that kind of art from me he had no idea of the value I would find in those bags. It was a gift of major proportions.
Now I have a dead woman's things, and I'll make him something. I'll channel Annette (That was her name) and try to give him just a little of what she had yet withheld, for whatever her reasons. I'll make something beautiful out of his dead mother's bags of jumble. Then I'll go on doing it until I die myself and my own kids have to figure out what to do with all of the leftover art supplies I've never managed to use. There's no accident that I've slowly taken over almost one whole wall of the living room with my art desk and neatly arranged supplies, I was able to make it all fit right in and there's no extra mess to be seen this morning. A month ago I would have pawed through the bags and said "Thanks" and it would have gone in the pile with my own chaotic things. I prepared a space for it and it came.
Thank you Cheng. Thank you Annette, I'll make beauty out of your chaos, and I'll love and connect more than you ever did. Maybe I'll make a piece for you and leave it wedged into a piece of driftwood at the beach, or feed it to flames that it may carry it's spirit to wherever you are now. I'll forgive you, since I can't forgive my own mother yet, maybe that will help me on my own journey. In the meantime I can't wait to get into all that paper, it is calling my name even as I type.