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.

click image to enlarge

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

Photo by Shoshannah White

TO SEE THE PERFORMANCE

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

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.

Then there's the curling iron.

"This has absolutely no value, It's yucky," Peavey said. "But look, there are little strands of her hair still on it and I used to help her curl her hair. It's like I'm still holding on to something that says, 'She was here.' "

Which, according to University of Southern Maine psychology Professor Carol Nemeroff, is precisely the point.

Nemeroff has devoted much of her research over the years to what she calls "the magical law of contagion." First coined by Scottish social anthropologist Sir James Fraser almost a century ago, it recognizes that the moment someone touches and uses an object, it's transformed from just "stuff" to what Nemeroff calls "soul stuff."

"It's permanent. It's indelible," Nemeroff said in an interview last week. "Once that stuff is in (my father's MIT mug), putting it through a dishwasher isn't going to change it."

In other words, that wasn't just a curling iron in Peavey's hand -- it's an emotional conduit that, simply by picking it up, transports her back to an afternoon doting over her mother's hair.

Ditto for the top to a pressure cooker that now resides in Peavey's home office -- it's all that's left from the night Peavey made a charred mess of her and Shirley's weekly steak-and-cabbage dinner.

Peavey said she's still putting the finishing touches on her show -- for tickets, go to www.stlawrencearts.org or stop by any Bull Moose music store. But if all goes well, she's considering taking it on a national tour.

(Talk about the ultimate irony: Unable to discard her mother's stuff, Peavey soon could find herself making a living schlepping it all over the country.)

The title of the play comes from that day, alone in her mother's bedroom, a still-grieving daughter looked at the 60-year-old prom dress ... the dress Shirley wore to Elizabeth's wedding ... the little white ankle socks ... the T-shirt Shirley wore when Elizabeth took her golfing at Sebasco Estates ... and told herself over and over, "My mother's clothes are not my mother. My mother's clothes are not my mother. ..."

Try telling that to the wool winter coat with the fur collar -- "I think it's real critter," observed Peavey -- that Shirley bought back in the 1960s at Bernie's Fashions on Congress Street in downtown Portland.

Peavey can still hear herself telling her mother, "Will you please chuck that thing? You haven't worn it in 40 years!"

But that was then -- and this is now.

"After she died, I took that thing home with me and wore it all that winter," Peavey said wistfully.

Really? That old coat? Why?

"I couldn't not wear it," Peavey replied.

Smiling, she added, "Why do you wear your dad's hat?"

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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