They Said She’d Only Need Five or Six Outfits: "I'll Go in Style"
Nordic Museum in Stockholm, Sweden display of shoes from 1700 until 1960
They said all she'd need was five, maybe six outfits. Laundry twice a week. This place, this 'extended studio' that was actually only a long L-shaped room. The social worker at the hospital after Mom's emergency said what counted now was the round the clock care the nursing home would provide.
Studio, guess they could call it that because the narrow main room, 235 square feet to be exact, had a sink and a kitchen cabinet stuffed in one corner. Two big rectangular windows on the outside wall let in light, the single rented hospital bed with its motorized metal frame under one of them. Off the short entry hall, the bathroom was so small that when you sat on the toilet your knees blocked the shower. There was only one closet, on the other side of the entryway. The kind with roller doors, the kind we got yelled at as kids for knocking off their tracks.
Still, five or six outfits, not me. Summertime and of course Mom had to have all her pull-on capri pants, the new white ones she liked so well. And the black ones and blue ones. And her favorite long pants, the faded nubby blue and white polyester checked ones, her first pair of trousers from the 60s, her index finger wagging 'women's lib' at Dad back then. Wore like iron. And all the matching tee shirts and blouses, the maroon and white checked one I'd picked out myself for Mother's Day. The piles of clothing draped over my arms, so high I could just see over them, I made my way from my packed car at the entrance of the nursing home.
Mom's room, one of forty in the home that sprawled single story across a hilltop in Portland, was halfway down the long hallway. Clang, clack metal and wooden hangers up and down. Past the staff, the woman from Kenya with her hair piled high, her dark brown eyes big at how much I was hauling in. The furnishings and move-in were solely up to the families.
That checked shirt starting to slide off the top of the pile, me gyrating underneath to keep it there, hangers buried at the bottom now digging into my arm. Everything back in balance, my chin planted on top, the smell of talcum rising from the clothes, the powder Mom always used. A burn started deep in my chest, resentment. No one to help. Deep breathe. Keep going. Couldn't let myself think any further. What the real issue was, what the doctors were saying.
Past the vintage dressers with old photos, props to make the place seem charming, even homelike. Back and forth until I emptied my car. My arms aching, my fingers picked pink in places from the tops of hangers. Over half the closet, only two doors wide, filled already.
Next day I brought all her winter stuff. My mother, age 95, grew up in the Depression, never threw anything away if she could help it. She'd fought when we had to reduce her holdings to the little one bedroom senior apartment where she'd lived the past seven years. My goal, I didn’t even stop to question why, my goal was to cram in all her clothes. Heavy, the granny patch bright yellow and blue and white sweater she'd knitted in the 70’s that I didn't ever recall seeing her wear. Her jackets, the blue one she'd knitted a cap to match. The purple one from my brother with the little jumping whale pin. And her shoes, plastic boxes sliding around in the cardboard box overflowing with them. All the Medicare-provided old lady black-laced shoes, the insoles custom-made, to help ease the pain of diabetic neural pain.
Until I couldn't squeeze in one bit more and the closet shelves and floor were wedged full of boxes. The sliding doors almost to the point of bulging off their tracks. But, I got it all in there. The extent of my determination.
This place, I finally realized, no matter what the doctors said, that round the clock care, this was how I was going to keep my mother alive.
Now I could turn to the helpers I hired to finish the job. I was intent on creating a corner just like her apartment. Two guys with a truck loaded up her big screen television set, her favorite lamp with the shade made out of pearly shells bought years before at the Sears outlet store, the doughboy maple end table that dated to my childhood. Her easy chair, the one she’d been so proud to buy right after Dad died. With its big white and blue check and red and yellow flowers. Even the yellow hassock that sort of matched, her place to put her crocheting when she rested. She still made slippers for all the family, to keep their feet warm. They called them "owski bowskis."
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