My Rub with Borrowed Gifts

I am sheltered in the basement of friends. I’ve lived most of my adult life alone and now I am part of a family, a community, where there is mutual ministry. At night before bed, an eleven year-old little cutie named Hope draws me pictures while we listen to books on Audible through my Bose radio.

After my dad died this past fall, my mom rapidly declined. She has likely always had undiagnosed mental illness, but now, with worsening dementia, it was clear she couldn’t live on her own. After a few tries at assisted living and passes through psych units, she’s tucked in with my sister. She, too, is part of a family and a community where there is love and mutual ministry.

I grew up in a beautiful home with sturdy antiques generations old and gold and silver engraved jewelry likely worn at the turn of the century. Long before Etsy and online artisans, my parents had a knack for collecting one-of-a-kind pieces. When much of the Chicago meat packing industry shuttered its doors, my dad purchased a hardwood maple butcher-block counter for a hundred bucks. He had a woodworker cut the legs in half and restore it. It’s a breathtaking piece and stood in our family room for years. Eventually, it came to me, and has threatened to throw out more than a few backs during innumerable moves across country. My dad always asked, “How’s the butcher block? When’s the last time you conditioned it with linseed?” And he’d inspect it when he visited and polish it himself.

My parents built a unique, elegant home, and I was prohibited from touching anything. “Eye candy,” a friend once told me spying a stunning, brightly colored Murano vase on my parents’ glass shelf. The couches and chairs in the living room were off limits for our heads (grease) and for our bottoms (dirt)—and forget our feet. A slight tuck up under our knees was unheard of. But the beauty still danced around me growing up, and each time I visited. It shaped my taste, my respect for my parents’ eye, and my love of nice things.

The idea of an inheritance waved at my two siblings and me from time to time, but receiving such beauty collected over 60 years of marriage and generations back, seemed inconceivable, at least to me. These were my parents’ beloved possessions, items that were polished, dusted and lovingly cared for. Over the years instances would come up—painful ones I’d rather not recount—where I got the feeling they cherished these things more than me, more than my siblings.

So this fall, it happened. My dad died and my mom couldn’t live on her own. My sister and I flew out to Sarasota and sorted through their condo. I held Murano vases, my great grandfather’s Black, Starr and Frost pocket watch, and pewter beer steins from the mid 1800s. I slept on a prized couch (with a towel under my head…). And I leafed through ancient first edition books. It remains one of the saddest weekends of my life. What made my parents happiest in life had been abandoned – what composed part of my identity as their daughter had been lost. Thoughts of my last visit, of my dad polishing silver, while he was nearing death haunted me.  Laying on my mom’s bed touching her jewelry while she dressed for a night out brings a stab of pain. I was never allowed to touch the star sapphire ring, then, soon after my mom’s death, I wore it pumping gas. No longer able to sit with the dichotomy, it sits in a vault. Friends urge me to sell – I definitely could use the money – but I’d be losing another piece of them.

For 48-plus hours in the trip to Sarasota I ached with sorrow. I wept. I fought with my sister. My deep love for my parents mingled with loss and their denial of the inevitable (death) made the abandonment more evident, more painful.

My two siblings and I haphazardly made choices of what we’d like in our homes. Then my sister and brother in law hired movers to make three deliveries: One to Ohio, one to Colorado, and one to North Carolina.

Furniture and assorted boxes were delivered without ceremony. I took a half day off from work. I unpacked while waves of joy, sorrow, and guilt washed over me. In subsequent days, I’ve enjoyed the antique writing desk with its little nooks, the hearty, comfortable bed, and a hand carved table that sat next to my dad’s end of the bed. For some reason, its elegance makes me feel grown up.

The odds and ends I received are gifts, maybe a loan, but there’s a hitch. First, these items don’t belong to me. My mom may be incapacitated but these are still her things. We borrow them, providing a place of storage where they can be enjoyed. Second, the rush of furniture and items of worth forced me to deal with life, my life now without them and as a single woman, which suddenly feels incomplete.

I made choices over the years. I leapt from my heart. God guided me at times. The wind moved me here and there, from a city to a cause to a ministry. In the process I never married, never bought a home, never accumulated any material worth. I still fill out the 1040EZ. My sister and brother cultivated stable homes and families—my brother has a home that’s beyond museum worthy. I live in a basement room, albeit a cozy one.

A breathtaking Murano glass  vase now sits on my bookshelf as does a beer stein. The few bits of jewelry, two antique purses, my dad’s sterling silver track and field medals, and a badge the New York City police department gave my grandfather in the 1940s are all tucked away in the back of a drawer. They’re not mine. And frankly, I’m not sure what to do with them. Meanwhile, my dad’s worn, cheap every day watch sits on my dresser. Every time my eyes lock on it, I am stabbed with loss. I miss my dad. Oh my God, do I miss him.

This rabbling mess of a blog has no tidy ending. I can say that family and friends love me and have my back. They shelter me. I am engaged in tremendously fulfilling ministry. And I hope to someday spend a few months on the mission field in India doing hospice work among neglected and shunned populations. This is truly what matters in life. Gosh, I know that… but there will always be the rub.

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