My mother and I tried to enter through the lobby door of the condo this morning, juggling black coffees and glazed donuts for my family. The key code wasn’t working and a resident was kind enough to let us in.
“You changed the code, did you?” my mother asked.
“Yes, a while ago. Must be a while since you’ve been here. Just ask someone up there to tell you what it is,” he said indicating to the apartments overhead.
“Well, she’s dead,” I mumbled as the mirrored elevator doors slid closed. “We would have to go a little higher than that.”
My mom and I giggled. My grandmother would have too. The same way we laughed together in that very lobby 5 years ago November, when she glanced around to see if anyone was looking, then snatched an entire stack of George Bush campaign pamphlets from the mailroom and pitched them down the incinerator chute.
“Not in my building,” she proclaimed.
It was the most rebellious thing she had ever done in her life. I guess it’s never too late.
It’s strange, being here at Momsie’s apartment, waking up this morning on her side of the bed, on her pillow, her smell still hugging me tight and keeping me warmer than even the quilt in the unseasonable cold of Southern Florida this week.
The first thing I did this morning was look for Momsie’s red shoes, the leather slides that we laughed about ten years ago when we realized we both owned the identical pair. I slid my toes in and I looked down to see her feet at the end of my legs, the way I see her hands when I wear the ring that she once wore on her own fingers.
My mother and I, together but alone, took inventory of the closets and drawers. Quietly. Carefully. Trying to keep our emotions in check as we went through the business of purging.
But even as we discarded, we saved, taking mental inventory of Momsie’s world as she left it: Two dozen pairs of slacks (“slacks”) in every shade of tan. A BCBG sweater set hanging crisply among the no-name cardigans purchased at the flea market. A collection of cassette tapes I had made her years ago – Nat King Cole, Andrew Lloyd Weber, The Rogers & Hart Songbook. A DVD of the movie my cousin Ryan had written. Two yellow-tinged hard-cover desk dictionaries from 1957. Countless photo albums. Three drawers full of makeup.
Of course the makeup.
She looked so beautiful, the nurses said when my mother and her siblings arrived at her bedside, so put together, that even on a respirator, her body lifeless and her soul starting to peek around the corner to the next phase, they couldn’t imagine she was nearly 92.
She would have liked hearing that. Maybe she did hear it.
I’m overjoyed to discover that Momsie enjoyed her last day on earth among the living. She went out playing bridge with The Girls, not wasting away in some nursing home in confusion or pain or dementia. Her mind never left her and she didn’t allow her failing body to hold her back. In her final years she danced at my cousin’s wedding, allowing burly men to lift her up in a chair in a Hora five feet over the parquet floor. She knit scarves for her great-grandchildren. She took herself to the movies, calling us with hilarious tales of the rude, loud old people who talked through the quiet parts and asking us to explain the pop culture references.
She exercised in the swimming pool, despite a fear of water. She waited on line for hours to vote for Obama. She baked dozens of her famous frozen blackbottom cupcakes and sneaked them to us in cupped palms even just before dinner. She loved her family with all her might. And she outlived so many friends that at her 90th birthday celebration, she gloated that as vibrant and lively as she was, she was the oldest one there.
“See that one?” she would say a little smugly, eyebrows raised, pointing to a man hunched over a walker. “Eight-three.”
I nearly made it through her bedroom closet, emotions intact, until I was unable to resist the desire to smell her robe. The robe that she had likely worn only two days ago.
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that her smell is still here, filling her home, even as she’s never returning to it.
This is where I suppose there would be comfort for me in the notion of heaven, if only I could convince myself to believe in it. I don’t. But last night, as I drifted up 95 amongst the streaky headlights of the traffic, the song Dancing in the Moonlight came on. And I thought, who knows, maybe she’s dancing with Popsie right now, 20 years after he left us. Maybe somehow somewhere they’re seeing each other again and she’s scratching his back and he’s working on his golf swing, and all is right with the world.
Or maybe she just lives in my heart. I know she lives in my children. And that in itself is plenty.
Momsie was the last of her generation. And with her gone, I can’t help but feel as if the leaves of a strong tree have blown away in the wind, leaving the branches bare, and those of us below more exposed to the world. Not unsafe, but vulnerable. It brings with it that equally disconcerting and reassuring feeling as one generation passes and the next comes to be, that life does go on. And what we have left to show for our time here is one another.
They say you can’t take it with you. But who wants to take it with us, when it’s a greater privilege to leave it all behind.
The last blackbottoms Momsie will ever make are nestled on her freezer shelf right now, and surely they’ll be gone before the week is through.