It’s sometimes quite sucky being the oldest child.
I should rephrase that. It’s sometimes quite sucky being the oldest daughter.
The oldest daughter has a heavy, heavy burden. As her parents age, she is the one they rely on most to help them navigate the uncertain waters of loss, grief, and change. She is the one who is there to act as surrogate mom to the other siblings when Mom is unavailable or otherwise occupied. She is the one who takes over duties as family historian, family ceremony-organizer, family glue. In short, she is the one who gets the full taste of what her mother dealt with the last 40 years.
Now that my mom’s Ohio house is sold, we’re scrambling to empty out the place and get the keys to the new owner. She has until the end of the month to be out, but is kindly trying to get out by the 20th so her buyer doesn’t have to pay another month’s rent in his apartment. She’s nice like that.
Of course, I’m helping. And I shouldn’t complain, because in helping, I’m spending a lot of quality time with my mom. Plus, I’m inheriting a lot of nice furniture and kitchenware and sentimental family objects. I did buy some of the furniture, but she charged me such a ridiculously low price that it’s almost laughable. See what I mean about her being nice like that?
Now, before you think me a leech lurking around and waiting for a handout, let me make it very clear that I’m not. My house is already full of inherited items, and I’m trying to pass many of them on to good homes. Let me also make it very clear that mine has been the shoulder Mom has leaned on these past six years. Six years ago was when my dad’s cancer first showed up. It’s when my now-husband and I got engaged, and my sister got divorced. It’s when my brother came out of jail and then rehab and started slowly picking himself up by his ass, into which his head had been buried for quite some time. It’s when I quit my investment job of seven years, somewhat with a sigh of relief, and started trying to make sense of my mom’s real estate business (for about 80 hours a week). It’s when my fiance got laid off, then started doing contracting work, and moved into an empty room of our office. Six years ago, things were as horrible as they could get, and also impossibly wonderful. But I was under so much stress that I lost all the hair in a silver-dollar-sized circle on the back side of my head. (The woman who gave me my semi-annual haircut noticed it and my fiance, ever the engineer, kept measuring it with calipers to make sure it wasn’t getting bigger.)
Yeah, that was six years ago. And then, suddenly, I was married, and fatherless, and then running a business, and fixing an old house, and helping my mom get over being a widow by getting her signed up on Match.com (hey, when you’re 61, you don’t have a hell of a lot of time, ya know?) And then, wooosh, Mom and I were each buying a house, and we were each selling a house, and then we were cleaning everything out of my childhood home and moving my Mom into a smaller place, and there was one week when all I did was move – we moved my Mom from her place, my husband from his grandma’s, me from my old house, and some stuff from our office. We hired movers for the heavy stuff. It took the movers about 28 hours, and they worked straight through. The police came to my mom’s house that night because she was moving from a snooty suburban community, and some nosy people there were wondering why three men with a moving van were taking things out of a house at 4AM. We all had to show our IDs. It was a riot- but, then, so are most things at 4 in the morning. And after that, we quit trying to be quiet and we started up the lawn tractor and drove it up the ramp into the moving van without a care in the world for the uppity ex-neighbors we were leaving behind.
Being the eldest daughter means you get to help your parent(s) go through their oldest, most cherished possessions. It means you get to sit through the requisite Culling of the Photo Albums, and relive every single one of your mom’s memories from high school on out, and you get to see pictures of your grandparents when they were your own age, and photos of kitchens that you’ve never been in, cars that have long since been wrecked, buildings that were long ago razed. You see pictures of your dad when he was courting your mom, and you agree that he was very handsome (and your mom gorgeous), but you silently wonder what she saw in him then, how she missed the glaring warning signs of things to come. You get dragged through 40-plus years’ worth of a sentimental journey, with your own emotional baggage thrown in, to boot; all those family memories, many great, but mixed with a buttload of bad. Old pictures of yourself with awful hair and braces crop up, and all the awkwardness and self-consciousness that you tried really, really hard to forget about comes flooding back. Bad feelings and sad feelings wash over you, along with that horrible, terrible black hollowness that ate away at your insides from about 1978 through at least 1994, and it all tugs on your throat and threatens to come back with a vengeance until you shut up the photo album and tell your mom:
“Just throw this stuff away.”
Because, really, what are you keeping it for? What is she keeping it for? That part of our life is over, and thank goodness for it. There were a lot of memories worth remembering, like the horseback riding trip in the Rocky Mountains when I went around a bend and saw the sun rising over Pike’s Peak and knew, even in my pre-pubescent, emotionally immature brain, that this was A Moment To Savor (and Did). But that memory is in my head, and I don’t need a picture of my awkward, pigtailed, scrawny self to remember it. I don’t need to hang on to this dusty old box of photos and let it silently weigh me down from a dark corner of my basement.
I see my mother letting go of her past and see how rejeuvenating it is for her, while ever so bittersweet. So many things once-treasured are now just what they really were all along: objects, material items; and they have no worth other than the importance we gave them for 40 years. And this clarity of vision, this sudden epiphany that my mother and I are slowly and simultaneously having in what is not-her-kitchen while we take pictures out of frames and fill up trash bags, is horribly painful and painfully liberating at the same time. We have been duped, lied to for so long, believing that things are Just So when, really, they were just That Way for us, and for just a while. Now things are Different, and it helps us see that there are many ways things Could Be, Could Have Been, and then there are moments of regret and tears of anger and sadness, both because of how things were and also because they’re not that way anymore. Change is so hard for people, even when it’s change for the better, it seems.
And as the Eldest Daughter, I experience all this doubly; I feel both my own soul painfully grating against sharp blades of memory, and also my mother’s emotional permutations, because Eldest Daughters are achingly empathic to our parents at this point in our lives.
The physical work of clearing out this house, in short, has been nothing – nothing – like the emotional travail of one afternoon clearing out the Keepsakes and Memories box.