The closets in my dad’s house are stuffed with dead people’s things, a tomb of items we have yet to sell, can’t bear to get rid of, and can’t stand looking at. The house has become a museum in hiding — a modern interior at first glance that crumbles into decades past once you open any closets or drawers. Things like the 40 clocks my grandfather gifted my sister and me in his will filled every nook alongside my mother’s robes and wool sweaters, my great Aunt Fredi’s decorative egg collection and lots of furniture from a farm in South Dakota belonging to one of my mom’s great Aunts.
We’ve got to get rid of this, I think every time I go home. But it never feels like there is enough time or a time when all of us can come together and agree on what could go and what could stay. We’d done it twice already with mother’s things and sort of burned out on the heartache of it all.
One morning this Thanksgiving trip, I opened the closet to the study looking for clothes hangers. And that’s when I noticed the handful of buttons. Political buttons. My mother’s political buttons: “Nixon Eats Grapes.” “Clinton ’92.” “Jane Fonda for President.”
A panic seized me. I raced into the guest room where I last remembered seeing my mother’s antique dressmaking bust, which she had covered almost entirely in political buttons. The bust or as we called it, “the mannequin,” that had sat in the family room my entire childhood next to the TV, proudly wearing its hippie beads and political views. Then later migrating to the living room next to my mom’s guitars where it stayed until I went to college. After my mother’s death, my father started moving it around like everything in the house. The last I’d seen, it was in the guest room. But it wasn’t there anymore.
“Where’s mom’s mannequin?”
“Don’t freak out,” my sister said calmly. “We took it apart and saved all the buttons. It’s in the closet in the study.”
“No, it’s not,” I said, digging through the closet.
“I gave it to Del’s girlfriend, Linda,” my dad shouted from the kitchen.
I gave my sister a death stare. Linda. Who the fuck was Linda? He gave my mother’s mannequin to a woman I’d never met?
“Oh,” my sister said. This was news to her as well. My sister laughed when she saw the look on my face, “Nicole is not happy.”
“Don’t worry, I’m going to get it back. I just loaned it to her to do her dressmaking. It was the perfect size for her body,” he argued, justifying his unpopular decision, painting me as selfish for wanting to keep the mannequin with the buttons in the exact spots where my mother had placed them.
The bust was a signature item of my childhood. My mother used it to show me the importance of caring about elections and standing for something. We’d buy buttons each election cycle, then pin them on the mannequin after the election ended. There were sad buttons — Mondale/Ferraro. Happy buttons — Clinton/Gore. And more sad buttons — Gore/Lieberman. Buttons that stretched back to campaigns before I was even alive.
“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to get rid of it? I would have taken it,” I said.
“Like you’d have room for it in your one-bedroom apartment,” my father scoffed. This knowledge didn’t stop him from dumping my mother’s entire paperback book collection on me with a “take it or donate it” policy last April. I still had the boxes strewn about my place because he could no longer stand letting them inhabit the built-in bookshelves at the house.
“I told you I wanted it. It’s stands upright. How much room could it take?” I argued.
My dad didn’t respond. I looked at my sister. As usual, she wasn’t that upset. She was his accomplice. She had taken apart the dressmaking bust with my father over Labor Day when I wasn’t home and didn’t see its significance. I was all alone in this — the “sensitive,” “sentimental one,” trying to hold onto yet another creative thing my mother had done that mattered little to the uncreative members of my family.
A few days later my sister went home. My father and his new girlfriend took me to “The Hunger Games” sequel. And all I could think about was what my father had given away and how I wanted to walk out of the movie and go call Del — tell him it wasn’t my father’s right to loan out this mannequin that meant so much to me and that his girlfriend Linda was a grown woman and could afford her own dressmaking bust, one that didn’t have as much sentimental meaning to me, that hadn’t sat in my mother’s bedroom in Minnesota since she was 14.
But instead, I tried to remember the importance of not flipping out. It never produced the results I wanted. And I wanted this item back. When we returned to the house, I said in the calmest voice I could muster, “Would you maybe be able to ask Del for the mannequin back? I know it seems silly but it was sacred to me and I would like to have it. Maybe by January?”
“Sure thing, pal,” my dad said. “Linda has another one.”
Then why the fuck did you give it to her? I thought. But instead, I stuffed this thought away and said, ”And do you know where the other buttons are?”
“I put them somewhere safe. Follow me.” I followed my father into the garage where he unfolded the flaps of a plastic box and revealed hundreds of buttons. He had saved them all.
“Oh, I guess that these just got separated from the rest,” I said, dumping the buttons I’d found in the closet in with the others.
Before my trip ended, I was determined to find all the other things of my mother’s I wanted to save and to give away the items that I didn’t. I photographed clothing items and texted them to my sister asking if we could donate them so she wouldn’t be victimized as I had been.
I opened my bedroom closet and saw an old PC computer tower and a keyboard. “Can we get rid of this old computer?” I asked. My dad was silent. “If it’s mom’s, we can just transfer the files onto an external drive.”
My dad yelled from the kitchen, “No, I still want to hold onto it. Makes me think of your mom.”
I stared at the yellowing plastic, the clunky keyboard and remembered my mom clacking away in the study across from my bedroom while I was trying to sleep. Why’d he want to save this old thing? Besides, my mother hated it. She hated all the cheap computers my dad had pieced together. (One of the hazards of marrying an I.T. guy who ran his own computer business.) When the power button would get jammed down or the thing would run slowly my mother would complain about why we couldn’t just get something new and I’d joke, “The shoemaker’s kids have no shoes.”
I slid the PC to the back of the closet against the wall. I respected what my dad wanted to keep, even if I didn’t understand it.
The morning I left, I did one last look through the closets for any other keepsakes that I might miss, knowing their contents would change again by the next time I was home. But there wasn’t enough time. There were too many boxes.
I drove home knowing that everything was now fair game as my dad tried to give away his grief — to Del’s girlfriend Linda, to Goodwill, to other people we had never met. He had asked to give away our baby clothes that my mother had saved for our future children a few years ago. Would he ask again next time or just ditch them? It had been five years of living with closets stuffed with memories like time bombs. He had stopped asking permission to feel better.