A former student of mine from my 18 years as a high school English teacher in my home town, Woodruff, SC, lived in the house across the street from my home, where my parents lived from 1971 until they died in 2017.
The former student was visiting her mother and helping clean out closets. She texted me that she had found this in her mother’s closet:
Those houses sat on the golf course just north of my hometown, and I had spent my childhood in an even smaller town, Enoree, just south of Woodruff. Both very small town were mill towns, although most of the mills in the area are now abandoned or converted into apartments (I live in one of those mill-to-apartment complexes now in the larger city of Spartanburg only about 20 minutes north of my golf course home).
I immediately felt myself about to cry when she sent the picture of the hanger, an artifact of my mom’s small washing and ironing service.
I have romanticized my childhood, lived and doted upon with my mother often an at-home mom until she started working as an office assistant at the elementary school I attended for third grade (my sister was there in the second grade also).
My mother’s earliest work, that I recall, was as a cashier in the Winn-Dixie grocery store just across the street from where my dad was born in the kitchen of the house where his grandmother lived after his parents moved into the house just down the slope behind there.
The job at the elementary school was more about my parents’ racism than about needing to make money; this school was in the Black neighborhood, Pine Ridge, that sat across the railroad tracks.
She took the job to watch over us, continuing to closely mother us through life. Mom wasn’t a helicopter parent; she was a tether parent, always keeping us in her eyesight.
By the time I was a preteen and we had moved to the golf course, Three Pines, my mother became the bookkeeper for the country club. I also started working at the golf course—as an club house helper, as a life guard at the pool, and as an assistant pro throughout my teens into my early 20s.
My parents were never empty-nesters since they helped raised three of my nephews over all the years after I moved out until they passed away. At their deaths just 4 months apart, my youngest nephew was still living most of the time with my parents.
Over the course of about three decades, then, my mother shifted to what seems almost normal now, working from home.
She ran an elaborate yard sale, for a while at my great uncles defunct store between Woodruff and Enoree, but then in the front yard of their home.
That cobbled together job resulted in an emotionally and physically taxing experience after they died; my nephews and I had to clean out their house, incredibly cluttered from years of my other buying out yard sales and storing other people’s junk to sell herself.
But she had other at-home jobs too.
For a long time, my mother ran a daycare in her house; dozens of people recall her fondly since they spent years of their childhood in her care. This job was the essence of my mother, a natural mother of sorts beginning with her helping raise her brother and sisters as the oldest sibling.
My mother as daycare provider is bittersweet because her inclination to mother was also an inclination to self-sacrifice, martyrdom.
And then there was the washing and ironing service, what proved to be her last job as my father’s health quickly deteriorated and then she suffered a stroke just two weeks before my father passed away at her side in a care facility.
When my former student sent me the picture of the hanger, I recognized the handwriting, but I also immediately sent it to my oldest nephew.
He recognized the hanger much as I did, sharing associations that both warm and break our hearts. Then he texted that he still irons his clothes with an iron my mother gave him.
So I cried twice.
My parents shuffled off this mortal coil with hearts kept beating by medical wizardry—pace makers, defibrillators.
And they leave us who were often in their care with heavy hearts, hearts often so full that tears run down our faces.
Of all the things and people my mother rushed to care for, the one person she always ignored was herself.
That left her some parts doting and loving but other parts disillusioned and bitter.
A clothes hanger, some handwriting—we are left with everyday artifacts that rekindle the memories we must navigate with our heavy hearts.
the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying)
my mother has returned to where she began