Confession: Why I’m Stealing My Mother’s Things

What I took from Mom—and what she kept from me.

may 2016 aol family thief in meClaire Benoist for Reader's Digest

I reach into the closet to unfasten the Belleek porcelain flower pinned to the lapel of a red blazer. From a navy blue blazer, I remove a dark green ceramic feather pin. I detach a sparkling rhinestone from the collar of a black jacket.

Every coat and jacket that belonged to my mother was adorned with complementary jewelry. I am breaking up time-honored pairings because I have to, because she died one recent evening when she sat down to rest and never got up. So it’s perfectly understandable that I unpin and put in my pocket the porcelain flower she bought on our trip to Ireland. It’s understandable, but I still feel like a thief, stealing bits and pieces of my mother’s life.

For each of the 22 Valentine’s Days after my father’s death, my mother displayed a satin-tufted valentine heart that he’d sent her from boot camp when he was a young World War II Marine in Parris Island, South Carolina. My sister Ellen and I found this precious item in the top drawer of her dresser. Finally, Ellen said she would take it.

Like thieves, we were going through her intimate items, keeping what we thought should be rescued and letting the rest go. Hold on to the gold and silver jewelry. Toss the old hair rollers.

The thief in me doesn’t want the outfits she wore to my and my siblings’ weddings. Instead, I take the wooden powder box, also a present from my father on Parris Island. As a child, I sat at the foot of her bed and watched her powder-puff her face. The puff is gone, but the box retains its distinctive fragrance.

[pullquote] The thief in me doesn’t want the outfits she wore to my and my siblings’ weddings. [/pullquote]

Her pink glass bud vase will sit on my kitchen counter holding a single fresh blossom every day. I can nod to it as I toast my mother in one of the crystal patterned stemware glasses that she brought to her lips when sipping Manhattans. Accomplices in crime, Ellen and I pull out desk drawers, open cabinets, and reach into closet shelves, conducting a raid on her two-bedroom home.

The treasures before me include surprises, like a lock of hair from my first haircut; my daughter’s laminated poem to her grandmother; the saved cards and notes from friends and family, including a love note to Dad in a Father’s Day card she sent him. Ah, love notes.

We’d had a small argument, my mother and I, over her decision to destroy the correspondence between her and my father during World War II when he served in the South Pacific. They wrote to each other daily for three years, without missing a day. I once asked my mother, “Where are your letters, yours and Dad’s?”

“Oh, I destroyed them,” she said as she casually poured herself a cup of tea. “How could you do that?” I asked. “I would have loved to have had the sense of what you and Dad were like in your 20s, during a world war. There was heritage in those letters, and you destroyed them?”

My mother looked at me directly and unapologetically said, “They were not your letters. They were mine. I decided that they were for me alone, no one else, so I destroyed them.” Gone! Just like that! What was in them? I wondered. Probably something romantic that would pale in comparison to today’s standards of sexiness. She shouldn’t have done what she did.

And yet, as I rifle through her clothes, books, papers, photos, the many possessions of a long life, I can see her point. She had a right to keep something of herself from the rest of us. Even though I wish she hadn’t, she possessed and protected her very private feelings in her own inner safe. Take everything else, she said in effect, but not those.

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