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'90s FAMILY : Signs of Love Amid the Belongings of a Full Life

November 29, 1995|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My mother never met a jar she didn't like. That also applied to boxes, rubber bands, string, old Christmas cards and scissors. She saved everything, probably because she grew up poor and fatherless, one of the survivors of the Great Depression. She died in December of 1989, surrounded by possessions crammed into every corner of her 1,100-square-foot tract house in the San Fernando Valley. It was left to me, her only child, to dismantle the household.

Friends, family and neighbors accepted the two refrigerators, three TVs, closets full of house dresses and winter coats, dishes, silver, furniture, framed pictures and poker chips. Personal items such as old greeting cards, tattered photographs, ancient check stubs and childish drawings of stick figures went into boxes marked "save" that were tucked into a corner of my garage to collect dust and spider webs.

On a recent morning, while writing the accompanying article about family pack rats, I decided to clean up my own act. Digging through dusty boxes in the garage, I found among my mother's things a scratchy tape recording, a hank of hair and signs of love.

The tape marked "Ann Marie"' was recorded by her on one of my birthdays. My birth, she reminisced, interrupted a penny ante poker game among friends on a Saturday night. Everyone was having fun, she said, until this strange gusher poured down her legs, mortifying her and frustrating my father because he held four aces. Annoyance crept into her voice as she side-tracked with a pithy comment about my father's gambling ways. Her voice on the tape was sharp and clear, as her voice used to be before cancer took it.

The tape goes on, taking me along on the wild ride to John B. Murphy Hospital on Chicago's north side, long since reduced to rubble, the bill for my birth there never paid. My dad lost his job, and then they just forgot to pay it, she said, a bit apologetic, until she laughed and the joyful sound of her laughter unleashed my tears, hoarded against pain, released at last.

I found the hank of hair in an old crocheted purse, silk lined, torn at the zipper. Here, as neat as if it were on its way to school, was one braid, a rubber band fastened near the bottom. I had pleaded for curly hair like my third-grade classmates, and the braids gave way to the awful permanent. The smell of burning rods still drifts past my nostrils when the memory banks overflow.

I held the rich, auburn braid against my gray hair. I saw shining eyes in the mirror, my mother's eyes as the mirror flashes her image back at me, her deft hands braiding my stubborn hair.

Some things are not meant to be tossed out. Some things last forever.

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