Book Review: After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
on Baking

Stone Bracelet in a Jewelry Box

For the past five years, every January you could find me in my scrapbook space, making layouts about Christmas. Christmas in January—that was my thing, because I never could really manage making any layouts during December. (Scrapbookers who make projects like December Daily make no sense to me. I can barely get Christmas together, let alone an entire daily album.) This was my way of coping with January, of bringing light and memory and prettiness to a month that, in Utah, includes too much air pollution and so many smoggy days.

Well—for the past five years except last year. In January 2019, I spent most of my time with my mom in the hospital, and then at her home while she was in hospice, and then planning her funeral. And then the next three months were consumed with cleaning out her house.

During those months of sifting through the possessions acquired during an entire lifetime (really, more than one lifetime, as there were also my dad’s possessions still in her house, and both of my grandparents’, including some items of my dad’s dad, who died in the 50s), something shifted in me. When faced with the quantities of stuff at my mom’s house, I started questioning what kind of legacy I want to leave for my own children. What possessions matter the most to me? What might matter to them? (Because I don’t think these are always the same things.) I realized that without stories attached, most of her possessions are just items.

For example, I kept a beautiful bracelet I found in her jewelry box, made of a sort of bronzed gold and what look like rocks that have been polished smooth and then sliced into thin slivers. Stone bracelet 01
I think it is striking and unusual, so I kept it and I wear it—but that is its only story. I don’t know where she got it, or if she loved it, or why she kept it. I don't remember her ever wearing it.

I wish I knew the story, even if she just bought it at Dillard’s one day because it was on sale.

Stories matter: this is one of the pieces of knowledge that cleaning out her possessions taught me.

Which should bring me around to more scrapbooking, because I have always been drawn to it through the story aspect.

Instead, I have almost entirely stopped scrapbooking.

I’ve still been taking notes and writing some stories. I’ve still been taking pictures. I’ve even still been buying supplies.

But I only made about twelve scrapbook layouts last year.

This is because every time I sit down to scrapbook, I am filled with the same feeling I had when I first started tackling my mother’s collection of fabric. She had so much fabric. I understand this, buying things you think you might use and then never getting around to actually using them. It’s why I have supplies in my scrapbook drawers that are ten or twelve years old—because I bought it but then never got around to using it. I can look at it (a piece of patterned paper, a sheet of alphabet stickers, whatever) and still see how could use it. But there isn’t enough lifetime left to use it all.

I saw her fabric stash and I thought about how many quilts she finished—in her house, there were only three finished quilts. Dozens of partly-finished quilts, with all the supplies packaged together to be finished—one day. She made and finished others, of course, as gifts for many people. But in her house, three quilts. Four daughters. I decided to be the daughter who didn’t get a quilt from my mother, and I decided that without rancor or passive aggressiveness. I already own quilts I have made. I wanted my sisters to have my mother’s. I thought I will just finish one of these that she didn’t finish and it will be the same thing.  I thought about the quilt I own that was made by my great grandma Amy, and how that should be enough. None of my sisters have that quilt, I thought, so they should have the ones our mother made.

That quilt—maybe that is where it starts, really. This heritage of making things. My earliest memories, which are really only feeling memories (rather than story memories), are deeply attached to that quilt. The patch with the salmon-colored floral, the hue of turquoise that unites the other pieces, the fraying cotton thread, its vaguely musty scent: those aren’t just sensory details, but they are in essence what my childhood feels, smells, looks like. If I hold it I reconnect with the child I used to be, sitting under the quilt in my grandma’s bedroom while she told me stories about her parents.

I treasure this quilt. I “treasure” it by keeping it safely stored in my linen closet, where, true, it can’t really be damaged, but it also can’t make any new connections. Upon my death, my children would find it in the closet and know it was the quilt the grandma I was named for made…but that is all. That is the only bit of connection they would have, because I kept it safely in the closet.

Like the stone bracelet in the jewelry box.

It is all tied together—scrapbooking, quilting, making things. My mother’s jewelry, her china and clothes and the boxes of pictures and the yarn and the fabric and the half-finished quilts. The doll with her head hanging on by a thread, kept because the sound it made reminded her of Michele as a baby. All of her possessions were part of who she was, but our relationship didn’t allow for us, somehow, to know each other’s stories. (If, to flip this, she were to clean out my house because I had died—she wouldn’t know the stories of the possessions I value the most, either.)

So then I must bring this to myself, sitting down to make something. It’s become easier to make quilts than scrapbook layouts. Because quilts—quilts say something. They are useful, and soft, and warm. They are items that touch you. They are intimate, but without the potential for damage that intimacy can hold. They are items that can exist when their maker is gone, and it is almost like touching that person, to touch the quilt she made. You can be gone, as the maker, but the person wrapped in your quilt might still hear a little echo of your voice. They would certainly, at least, feel less cold.

Since I didn’t get a quilt my mother made, I can only have that if I finish what she started, and then it is not from her but from me.

I bring myself to this process of what I want to make. (Not making anything at all isn’t feasible for me. Making is how I cope, even if the making is unnecessary and superfluous.) I want to tell stories but I am, deep down, wondering: why am I telling stories and then shutting them away in scrapbooks? It is the same as the quilt in the linen closest, the bracelet in the jewelry box. It is—it is this truth? Is this the truth:

Am I just like my mother?

Do I keep my stories to myself? Am I shuttered up? Have I made relationships with my children that don’t allow for openness and connection, that don’t really breathe, that aren’t deep enough to allow for the real, actual person who exists?

Do I want to scrapbook not really because I want to leave my memories here before I’m gone, but because I don’t know how to truly connect with the people I love?

I know my mother loved me—but I also know she didn’t really know me. This is both of our faults, and it is also the reality of death. I can’t fix it anymore. (I don’t know if I could fix it even when she was still here. Even if she’d been her for twenty more years.) I wanted her to see me for who I am, not for who she was disappointed I didn’t become, and I’m not sure she did that. I’m not sure she could.

And that is the legacy I don’t want to pass on to my own children.

When I sat down to write this, I thought I would write about my scrapbooking goals. But here I am, in true Amy fashion, mired deep in existential thinking. Which is a pattern I keep repeating, every time I try to scrapbook. I start making a layout and end up wondering if I have managed to make a life with any meaning.

And then I start making another quilt.

And I know I am not following any healthy routes here. I know I am walking toward a cliff, but never jumping off. I know I am not ever managing to address the real issue, which while it grows from the soil of my relationship with my mother, isn’t about my mother. It isn’t even about me. It’s about healing what is in the future. It is about the fact that when I die, I hope the scrapbook layouts and the quilts have meaning for my kids, or for their spouses if they have them, or for my grandchildren if any arrive here. But more, I hope our relationships have meaning. I hope they know why I loved the silver necklace I wore the most (not just because I bought it on a trip to Mexico, but because my mom, Haley, Jake, and Nathan were in the jewelry store with me when I bought it, and because I had gone running on the beach that same day and I had a blister on my big toe from the sand in my running shoes, and because my hair was curly that day and my left shoulder sunburnt but not my right, and because I spoke in mangled Spanish to the store owner when I bought it and because the air smells different there than anywhere else I have ever been, and so when I put on my silver bead necklace it isn’t just a piece of jewelry, but it is the memory of that day in San Lucas and the feeling that my mom was glad I bought it) but even more I want them to know I loved them for exactly who they are.

Those words are repeated over and over in their scrapbook layouts.

Repeated and then put into a sheet protector and closed into books that no one looks at very often. That might become just some other stuff they have to sort through when I am dead. I don’t want them to have to feel what I felt during those three months of sorting my mother’s possessions. The way every choice (keep? discard?)  was like murdering her.

I want that knowledge to live inside of them. Not only after I’m gone, but right now. Right this second. Because I don’t want them to have to feel what I am feeling right now, a year after she died, that my mother loved me but she didn’t really love me.

They won’t be without quilts.

They won’t be without stories.

I hope they won’t be without the knowledge that I love them.

Stone bracelet 02

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