August 21, 2011

Bill Nemitz: Parents gone, but 'soul stuff' lives on

I thought I was the only one with this problem: For the past few years, I've been drowning in my dearly departed parents' stuff.

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Elizabeth Peavey takes on her mom’s belongings in a new play.

Photo by Shoshannah White


"MY MOTHER'S CLOTHES ARE NOT MY MOTHER" premieres at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland on Sept. 15. For information, go to

There's Dad's mug from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, class of 1949, and Mom's from Regis College, same year.

There's Dad's knit hat from Babson College, where he taught until months before he died in 2005. Every winter since, I've donned it before I head out to do the snowblowing.

There's Mom's music box, Dad's collection of fine-carpentry books, Mom's recipes, Dad's still-full filing cabinet, the ceramic doves they lovingly called "Bill and Coo" that stayed with Mom until we lost her in 2008 ...

And then there's me, month after month since those oh-so-difficult, difficult days, winnowing down the pile in a never-ending funk over what to keep, what to give to my kids and, horror of horrors, what to throw away.

So imagine my relief last week when Elizabeth Peavey reached beneath the dining room table in her Portland home and said, "Look at this. It's almost pathological."

Out came her mother's purse, untouched since Shirley Carson Peavey left this world in 2009 at the age of 82. The receipt from Hannaford's, the open tissue packet, the comb, the glasses, the half-full bottle of L'Oreal nail polish (color: "Wishful Pinking"), even the $11 tucked neatly behind the license and credit cards in the wallet -- it's all still there.

"I can't tell you how many people, men and women, have told me, 'That's exactly what I'm going through and I don't know what to do either. I don't know what to do with this stuff!' " Peavey said.

And so Peavey, 52, who splits her time between freelance writing and teaching public speaking at the University of Southern Maine, has decided to take this universal dilemma out of the closet and onto a stage.

Her one-woman play, "My Mother's Clothes Are Not My Mother," debuts Sept. 15 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center at 76 Congress St. in Portland.

What's it about?

Well, on the surface, it's about the day Peavey walked into her mother's condominium in Brunswick and, still grieving her death six months earlier, began sorting through Shirley's clothes and other belongings.

But as anyone who's done the same thing knows, it's about much, much more than that. It's about memories, stories, family history -- all embedded in what to anyone else would be a seemingly useless pile of, well, old stuff.

Peavey's father died from a heart attack when she was 27, leaving her and her mother joined at the hip as Elizabeth grew into middle age and Shirley grew old.

To be sure, the inventory of belongings shrank as Shirley moved from the family home of 52 years in Bath, to the condominium in Brunswick, to the assisted-living center in Yarmouth where she spent her final months.

Still, when the time came to finally empty and sell the condo, deciding what had value and what didn't proved no less daunting.

Fortunately, Shirley wasn't a pack rat.

"She would dive-bomb for a piece of lint before it hit the ground," deadpanned Peavey. "Her house was immaculate. Her person was immaculate. I think she ironed her underwear."

But some things -- more than her daughter expected -- Shirley kept. Like the leather coat Shirley bought in Italy, the scarf she picked up in Scotland, her stack of children's Valentines that go back to the 1930s, the letters from Shirley's Aunt Mabel -- in one, Mabel sympathizes with the apparent difficulty Shirley is having going through her own late mother's belongings.

"This is one of the hardest things we have to do," Mabel wrote.

(Continued on page 2)

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