Unravelling and Reweaving

To Save a Life

For Beth Bracale, sorting through the material traces of her mother's life becomes a task of honouring her memory. It is also an encounter with her own mortality and a reflection on the choices out of which we weave a life.
has taught reading and writing to elementary school students, English as a Second Language to refugees, and self-empowerment to adults. She lives with her husband and granddaughter on a small farm near Lake Erie, where they await their first Soay lambs.
Martha left the land where her family had lived for over a century, moving a thousand miles away to create another new life for herself. The name she used was not the one she was given at birth, but the one she had accepted the first time she recreated her life. She left two families behind in her move from the Midwest to the East Coast of the United States. Her adoptive family saw her off on her journey, while her biological family, including four brothers, had said their goodbyes years before. At twenty years old, she was already adept at unravelling and untangling the threads of her life, then using them to weave a new creation.

I became part of the reweaving when Martha brought me into the world. She met and married my father in Boston, and I was their first child. I wasn’t to learn much of her story until decades later. What I did learn, on a subconscious level, was how to unravel and reweave lifestyles that no longer fit. Sometimes the fabric of our lives seemed damaged beyond repair. Deaths, divorces, poverty and violence somehow left us with just enough salvageable threads to at least make repairs, but often to create a new way of living, beautiful in its own way.

The rips and tears often came from falling. Sometimes a fall from grace, or from idealism, but there were actual, physical falls that precipitated an unravelling. My six-year-old brother’s tumble at the shopping mall announced the onset of his death eight months later from bone cancer. My mother’s own fall at the factory where she worked marked the beginning of her physical decline. Then finally, a spill from the rocking chair where she had drifted off to sleep caused her to leave her home for the last time. My mother continued to fear falling until she died.

That fall from her chair also marked what I’ve come to think of as the passing of the loom. I inherited a two-fold responsibility for my mother as she moved toward her final transition. While the inner experience was distinctly personal, the outer process was common enough. Help my mother stay at home as long as possible. Oversee her care through her final days. Complete the tasks that come with the death of a parent. See to the disbursal of her belongings. The deeper responsibility, the one most felt, was to oversee the complete dismantling, thread by thread, of my mother’s life. Then to gather the material and piece it together in a virtual tapestry representing the story of her time on Earth. In order to tell her story, I had to learn it myself.

My mother was a very private person. To those outside her small, inner circle, she seemed friendly and pleasant, but without much depth. She gave generously of her time, her support and her advice, yet she guarded the recesses of her inner life closely. Mom believed that what you didn’t know wouldn’t hurt you – or her. She perceived my openness to be thoughtless, even reckless, so she felt I wasn’t to be trusted with her secrets.

I was eighteen years old before Mom told me that she had been adopted as a young teen. Even then, the explanation she gave was brief, with few details. I was floored, and had a million questions. The woman I’d called Grandma all my life was her adoptive mother. She was German. So we weren’t of German descent after all? Then what were we? Where were Mom’s real parents? Did she have siblings? If so, did I have aunts, uncles, cousins? I had grown up thinking I had none, as my father was an only child. I had thought Mom was, as well. She refused to answer more than a few questions, or to discuss it further.

Grandma Rose, Mom’s adopted mother, filled in some of the gaps for me. Martha had four brothers. As children, they were often neglected, and Martha would bring her youngest brother to the fire station where Grandpa Sid worked, looking for food. Grandpa Sid brought them home to Grandma Rose a number of times, to clean them up the best she could and fill their empty stomachs. Eventually, Rose and Sid adopted Martha, who had to testify in court against her mother so that custody could be reassigned. Martha took a new name and stepped into a new life. She seemingly never looked back. Years later, a grandmother herself, Mom was reunited with her brothers. She answered a few more questions for me then, but still very few.

I was permitted to talk to my uncles, but forbidden to ask them for information she hadn’t already offered. For the most part, I complied. There was still one question, though, that nagged at me. What was my ancestry? I had never identified with being part German the way I did with the French and Dutch of my father’s family. I felt more in common with Scots, Irish and Native Americans, with whom I had no genetic connection, or so I had believed. During a phone conversation with my uncle, he mentioned that he collected Native American music. The question flew out of my mouth before I thought better of it. Yes, we are part Native American, he said. And Scots and Irish. He didn’t know what tribe, or what clans, but he’d try to find out.

Later that day, the phone rang. I picked it up eagerly, thinking it might be my uncle calling back. It was my mother. I had forgotten what it was like to be yelled at for something I had done, though it hadn’t been uncommon in my teenage years. Yet here I was, a mother of teenagers myself, and it felt as though nothing had changed. How dare I go behind her back? It was none of my business. I had no right. She would hear no argument. She would tolerate no further disrespecting of her wishes and her privacy. Did I understand? Yes, I did. So well that I still felt guilty when I traced my lineage a year after her death.

In addition to guarding her privacy fiercely, my mother also guarded her belongings. She liked to share with others, but for every item she gave away, she brought two or three more in. As her friends aged and needed to downsize, she took in some of the things they hated to part with, giving them a ‘good home’. If a friend had financial trouble, Mom wouldn’t offer charity, but she would buy something of theirs to help them out. Sometimes she’d offer me household goods I didn’t really want, but I would take them just to help make space for her. Once I donated some items Mom had given me to a neighbour’s garage sale. Later that week, my neighbour confided that my mother had bought them all back and sworn her to secrecy.

Throughout my mother’s house, tucked between and winding through the alarmingly expanding quantity of possessions, was the paper trail of her life. Guarding her privacy included never throwing anything away that might reveal her identity, finances, or anything else of a personal nature. For most of her life, no one was permitted access to any of it. Only when her health began failing rapidly enough to worry her did she invite me to help her sort through it all.

We spent two weeks sorting, talking, working together and rebuilding a bond of trust. I learned about the health concerns she’d been hiding, and she confessed to falling out of the rocking chair and landing, head first, on the floor. She asked me to do things for her that neither of us would ever have imagined, like writing her checks out to pay bills and doing her laundry. My heart ached for her when I looked at her calendar and saw the day her always-elegant handwriting changed to crabbed, jagged scratching. It quickly became clear that Mom could no longer live in her house on her own. The further she let me into her private world, the higher my panic level rose.

We had two weeks to create a care plan, put it into place and clear space in her home to do so. Then the school year would begin, and as an elementary school teacher, I would have little time to help Mom myself. Two weeks to bring order to fifty years of accumulated remnants and relics. I was faced with the physical remains of not only my mother’s life, but of the rest of our family’s as well. I had imagined that in two weeks we could get a good bit of it organised and cleared away, but we barely made a dent. Mom insisted on sorting carefully through all the papers herself, one by one. My efforts at cleaning were continually side-tracked by her requests for me to run little errands, move things around, or simply listen to a story she had remembered. As I listened, part of my mind was busy creating a schedule where I could balance school, my own home and my mother’s needs.

That’s where we were on the Friday evening before school started. Just before I left her house to head home, it became frighteningly apparent that my mother could no longer walk on her own. I called my husband, Ron, to let him know I’d be staying the night with Mom. I lay awake through the night, listening to her cry out in her sleep in fear. I reviewed my options, trying to decide what to do. I remembered she had long ago given me the contact information for her preferred care facility and the name of a visiting nurse, should anything ever happen. Obviously that ‘anything’ had indeed happened, so I quietly got up and dug through my purse in hopes that the little scrap of paper was in it somewhere.

It was all I could do not to shout out loud when I found the note in a slot in my wallet, but I wanted Mom to sleep as long as possible. I started to wonder if they would be able to help us at short notice, on a Saturday, but realised I couldn’t entertain those doubts. I needed to take action – lots of actions – and there was no time for even one thought that might slow me down. I waited impatiently until I thought an actual person might answer the phone, rather than an answering machine. I chose not to tell my mother what I was doing until I had a firm plan. I anticipated her putting up a fight, even in her immobilised state. There was no time for either of us to trip over loose ends. I began gathering items we would need for the day ahead while I waited.

Miraculously, the care facility my Mom had chosen had an opening. The administrators who were needed to prepare the admissions paperwork were willing to come in on their day off to get the appropriate documents ready for our arrival. The visiting nurse adjusted her schedule so she could make the hour’s drive in the early afternoon to help get Mom cleaned up for the trip. The nurse also offered to assess Mom’s needs and notify the care facility so they could have all the required equipment in place. The next step was to tell my mother.

The fact that we had to move quickly, coupled with the urgency of her physical needs, helped Mom gracefully accept a situation she otherwise would have adamantly opposed. We had a small block of time during which we could leave. The facility was a three-hour drive away, and we needed to wait until the visiting nurse completed her tasks. I called my ex-husband, Julius, who lived nearby, to let him know what was going on. He and my mother were close, and she trusted him more than she did anyone else in the family. He offered to come with us on our ‘road trip’, and I accepted gratefully. We had only a few hours to prepare.

Mom impressed me with her calmness and clarity that afternoon. Keeping busy kept us from worrying about what we couldn’t control. She directed me to her suitcase, and I found and packed the items she chose to take with her. She told me to cancel appointments with her dentist and hairdresser, and gave me her address book so I could do so. We were able to round up the receipts for the previous month’s bills, so I’d know what should be paid in the coming weeks. She helped me locate her driver’s license and other documents required to check her into the care facility. Because she had wisely done all the legal paperwork years before for just such an occasion, I had documents on hand that gave me Power of Attorney to handle financial and health care needs on her behalf. I was grateful to her each of the dozens of times I used those documents over the coming months to tackle the many tasks that were to arise.

The visiting nurse was the first person to whom I presented the POA documents, though she had my Mom go over the paperwork for the visit and sign as much as she was able. The nurse was gentle but firm, providing a reassuring presence for both my mother and me. Once Mom was dressed and ready to go, we were faced with yet another challenge – how to get her out the door and into the car. We had thought to borrow a neighbour’s wheelchair to ease Mom down the ramp leading from her front door. That still left the task of getting her up into my vehicle. After a few moments thought, the nurse said, ‘Well … you could call the fire department.’

The firemen who arrived to help were a bit perplexed at first, since there had been no accident or injury. They agreed it was a pleasant novelty to transport someone in order to avert a fall, rather than because of one. The nurse and I joked with my mother about being carried by handsome young men to her awaiting ‘carriage’ in order to distract her from realising the whole neighbourhood had been alerted to her move by the emergency vehicles parked in the street outside. So much for privacy. I was proud of my Mom all over again for moving with humour and grace through situations that would normally find her angry and uncooperative.

Waving goodbye to the firemen and the nurse was a pleasant distraction from thoughts that this might be the last time Mom ever saw her home. We stopped by Julius’s apartment to pick him up. When he got in the car, Mom visibly relaxed. Having Julius with her made her feel safe. Over the course of our three-hour drive we joked, sang, reminisced and even stopped for a bite to eat. It actually did feel like we were off on an adventure.

There were moments of silence, though, when our thoughts turned to what the future might bring. I was focused on finding the care facility and getting Mom settled in. She, on the other hand, was concerned about being left alone to face whatever care and recovery might turn out to be. She had long dreaded ending her days in a nursing home as so many of her friends had, with visits from family and friends far too rare. Julius assured and reassured her he would visit every weekend. (He kept his promise, bringing flowers, her favourite foods and treats for the staff each weekend and holiday for the next nine months.)

Once we arrived at our destination, I was surprised at how readily Mom settled in. She seemed pleased with her new surroundings. The level of loving care provided by the staff was exceptional and reassuring. At first, Mom seemed to thrive. Then a couple of weeks later, I got a call at school saying she had lost the use of her left hand. I had counted on her getting better, not worse, or at least that’s what I had hoped. It hit me as I hung up the phone that my mother had reached the end of her life. She might not die today, or tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be long.

Still, we held to the hope that Mom would recover enough to come home, if only to live out her final days. Our goal was to clean and repair as much as we could while she was away. Mom had put Julius in charge of the home maintenance projects she’d been putting off, some for as long as forty years. My job was to sort through the bins and boxes and shelves and stacks to identify what could be thrown away or recycled, what could be put in storage, and what Mom would expect to find in place on her return. She was still mentally sharp, especially when it came to her belongings, and would be able to tell if anything was missing. To be safe, I decided to start by removing what could obviously be discarded.

I soon discovered this would be no quick and easy purging. I shudder to think what might have been in the first boxes of magazines I threw away, before I accidentally dropped a stack. Lying on the floor among ten-year-old issues of women’s magazines were a handful of photos from my mother’s childhood, a letter from an old friend and a recipe in my grandmother’s handwriting. My glance fell on the box of old receipts I had set aside for a quick sorting before tossing it in the garbage. I flipped through a few envelopes and papers and relaxed a bit when they seemed to be the usual monthly allocations. Then I found the medical insurance card we’d been looking for, stuck in the back of one of the envelopes. Remembering my mother sorting through her papers piece by piece, I took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. This was the reason. What I had hoped to accomplish in a few days promised to take weeks.

The more work we did, the more we found to do. Hampers of laundry nestled in with bins of rags. Hidden at the bottom of one of the rag bins we thought we could just toss was a jewellery box. Pinned inside the pocket of an old, frayed robe also tagged for the trash was my mother’s engagement ring. Tacked behind magazine clippings on a bulletin board in the laundry room were a signed check made out to ‘Cash’ and a credit card. Nothing could be taken at face value as trash. Every single item would have to be carefully examined before being moved out. I began to wonder how many months of work, rather than weeks, loomed ahead of us.

Meanwhile, I became more and more familiar with the intimate details of my mother’s health issues. One result was I started seeing her body in my mind’s eye when looking at my own. I’d wash my hands and see her hands. It startled me the first time it happened, because my mother’s hands had always been very different from mine. I’d catch myself mentally traveling back to when my mother had been the age I was now, looking for similarities in form and function, trying to predict my own future – or ward it off. What aspects of her failing health might I have inherited? Which of them could I affect with lifestyle choices? Which were out of my control?

So suddenly it nearly choked me, I wondered how many years I had left. How many good years? I’d often read of the moment people become aware of their mortality. It was no longer an intellectual concept for me. If I went down the same road as my Mom, I had twenty-two years left to live. Twenty-two years were nothing. My last twenty-two had gone by in a flash, with little to show for them, in my opinion. If that was all the time I had left, what would I do to make the absolute best use of it? I wanted to look back on my life with satisfaction, rather than regret. Here was the beginning of my own reweaving.

Meanwhile, my mother seemed to improve a little. She was eager to return home, even though still bedridden. Since winter had turned to spring, transporting her became more plausible. We started putting together a plan to outfit the house and assemble a team of caregivers to meet her needs. All that came to an abrupt halt with a phone call at the end of April. Mom had suffered a seizure during routine care. Her favourite nurse held her hand as she drew her last breaths. Within fifteen minutes of the first call, she was gone.

Mom hadn’t wanted a funeral. She had often told me she wanted a celebration of her life instead. I decided to hold it at her newly renovated home. Her family and friends could enjoy it, even if Mom couldn’t. We gave ourselves two months for Julius and his crew to finish the house and for me to create a display of photos and other memorabilia to tell my mother’s life story. The extra time also made it easier for our out-of-state relatives to join us for the special event.

I sat down to create Mom’s obituary. She’d provided no instructions for that. I envisioned the horror on her face at the thought of her privacy being breached by such a public proclamation. I wanted to respect my mother’s wishes, yet honour the need of her friends and family to mark her passing with the expected information. In my opinion, going without any public notice of her death was not an option. The writing of it began with an immediate stumbling block. Which of her names should I use? Her married name was safe – she’d been known by that most of her life. But what about her maiden name? Which one should I use, the adopted or biological? Or both? I didn’t want to alienate any member of either family who loved her. I settled on using her adopted maiden name, since it was the one recognised legally, but I listed her biological brothers in the obituary, both those living and those who had preceded her in death. Thankfully, if anyone had a complaint or criticism, I didn’t hear of it.

Next, I focused on how to represent the many facets of Mom at her celebration. I had collected boxes of photos from her house that had to be sorted and put in chronological order. I planned to group them in collages to represent important stages of her life. There were treasured items I wanted to display, like Grandpa Sid’s fire chief hat. In addition, I had decided to create a display of mementos that people could choose from so each would have something by which to remember her.

Much of the reality of my mother’s life was unknown to her friends, and even to most members of her family. I needed to decide how her story should be presented. Reveal the raw facts, both good and bad? Focus on only the positive? Highlight just what Mom would want shared, or all that her friends and family would appreciate? This presentation would help shape people’s lasting memories of Martha, the complete woman, much more than just my mother. This would be the final, and very public, reweaving of her story. I decided to focus on the beauty, joy and generosity she lived. I didn’t avoid the darker aspects. Not including them at all would actually have made them stand out to those who knew Mom well. The shadows were alluded to, or framed in the best light.

My sorting began to feel like an archaeological dig as I uncovered artefacts that held clues to my mother’s actions and motivations. I discovered my concept of ‘Mom’ was fairly two-dimensional, framed in the little box of my own experiences and expectations as her child. The reality of ‘Martha’, however, was more complex than even three dimensions could define. Though I had spent my first seventeen years living with her and nearly forty more in constant contact with her, I found I barely knew her at all.

I turned over a black and white photo of a beautiful, bright, young Martha with her whole life ahead of her. I found myself mourning for her, far more than I had for the mother whose ashes I had delivered to the mausoleum. What had happened to that young woman? I knew the reality of it well, but I marvelled at the possibilities gazing back at me through her eyes. She had travelled farther than might have been hoped for, and yet it didn’t seem enough to me. Had it been for her?

When I became a mother myself, I understood better how far Mom had come, and why her rules and standards, however rigid or irrational they might seem, were non-negotiable for her. When she was rescued from a childhood of chaos, she embraced the customs and beliefs of her adopted family. Their strict principles provided order, safety, security, and Mom held to them religiously, even superstitiously. She did break the rules, now and then, in small ways. She tried to sneak out of the house with forbidden lipstick on, but got caught by my grandmother, who made her scrub her face clean. She let her friend ‘tote’ her on the handlebars of his bicycle, and ended up in the front seat of a police cruiser when the bike crashed into it. She told us these stories to reinforce her overarching principle in our minds: Follow the rules. Always. Rules are what keep you safe.

With each new discovery, I stepped more fully into the role of Keeper of the Family Stories. Grandpa’s fire hat reminded me of young Martha getting her finger caught in the electric beaters, which the firemen had to cut off with the Jaws of Life. The washboard hanging in the laundry room brought back the image of teenaged Martha washing clothes by hand in the basement. I had plenty of time to contemplate, as I sorted through box after box, bin after bin. For whom do I keep the stories? What tales will I leave behind of my own brief journey on the planet? More importantly, have I made certain it was worth the trip?

Not only were the reminders of Mom’s stories laid out before me. In my excavating, I’d rediscovered those of others long gone. Gram, who read me stories with different voices for all the characters. My youngest brother, Glen, who died a brave death at the end of his first year of school. Grandpa James, who threw pots on a farm in a lifetime rewoven more than once before I was born. Aunt Irene, who died mysteriously in the prime of her life. Aunt Louise, who assumed Aunt Irene’s identity in wartime New York. Grandpa Sid, who willed himself to die rather than burden the family with his care. With the exceptions of Gram and Grandpa James, none of them had children left to carry on their stories, their traditions, or even their names. Here and gone, with only a handful of brittle photos, tarnished mementos and fading memories to mark their existences.

After a day of celebrating Mom’s life with family and friends, the remaining photos and mementos came home with me. I found places to display a few treasured items, but most of them sit in boxes on a shelf in my basement. While I’ve been able to let go of many things, I feel the need to hang on to these few for a while more. I’m not sure for whom or what I’m saving them, but for now, they’re safe. After a year spent looking back into the past, I’m eager to move forward. It’s time to use the skills I learned from my mother, to take up the threads and reweave them into yet another work of art.

The creation of my own life tapestry is a never-ending process, weaving the experience of each moment together with each choice I make. The outcome is most vivid and meaningful when I take responsibility for my every decision and action. When confronted with situations not of my choosing, I make a conscious effort to look for the gift, rather than the threat, embracing my power rather than giving it away in fear. Happiness is not somewhere in the future, dependent upon certain people and events. If I look through eyes of joy right now, then joy is what I’ll find. A life based on fear is no life at all, and so I choose to spend my remaining time on Earth living.

Comments
  1. Love, love, LOVE this! So eloquent. So thoughtful and loving. Your mother would be so proud of what you’ve accomplished, putting this into such beautiful words.

  2. My aging mother is arriving for a visit today. I consider this a piece of timely instruction. Thank You.

  3. This is so well written!
    I feel like I know your mother so much better now.
    I can feel the love and respect you have for her through your words!

  4. I enjoyed your story and have a picture of your mom in my head. And her house and the boxes of assorted contents. Glad you had a chance for her to open up some of her past to you. Glad you shared it.

  5. This is really eloquent and beautiful. As a forty year old I have only just discovered the importance of my families lives and stories in creating and shaping my own and those of my children. This piece has helped to reinforce and clarify that for me. Thank you.

  6. I can totally relate to this from my recent experience of supporting my father at the end of his life and now dealing with his effects.

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