Saturday night in Ottawa, and my friend Lani and I are passing out after a second long, hard day, delving into my mother's lifetime accumulation of possessions, and trying to figure out what should go where - to me or my brother, to my kids or someone else or to Goodwill or recycling or garbage. Mountains of stuff - cupboards, drawers, boxes and bags full of stuff. It makes me want to live in a pristine, empty white room - except that somehow beside me, as I write, is a cavalcade of new possessions that at some point will make their way to Toronto and into my house. Which already is not, shall we say, pristine or empty. Or, for that matter, white.
My mum was very bright and energetic, poor in childhood, lived through the deprivation of the war, then, as women did, she married and had children and stopped work. Her work was us and my dad. When he died in 1988, all of that ambition and energy had nowhere to go. She had no job, and so her job became ... to shop, and to collect. I've already posted a list of her collections, to which today we add - eggcups, letters - every single letter ever sent to her, since the Forties, other papers, including dry cleaning reminders and ticket stubs; she collected tools, shoe shining equipment, knitting and sewing stuff, art, art books and art equipment, sheet music, pots and boxes, calendars, brooches, old English pottery - and mostly, my mother collected silver, particularly Georgian silver, mostly Georgian silver spoons. Many many spoons. When we opened the trunk today, Mike and I thought we were rich, at last - gorgeous spoons, all hidden away in cloth bags with tags telling what date and from where - Edinburgh, 1789. Beautiful fish knives, ladles, teapots and creamers, trays ... bought at antique shops and flea markets for decades, one by one, often at great expense.
Mike checked the website of a man he'd met who deals in Georgian silver, to see ONE spoon of the kind we had listed at $350. Drooling, he called. And then the dealer explained that no one is buying silver these days; that that spoon had been listed there for years; that he buys silver now by weight, not for its beauty or age. Mike has not given up - he is taking in the oldest spoons and ladles and the beautiful fish knife, in the hopes this guy will fall in love and offer the earth. But now we know better. And then I'd open another drawer and find - more spoons. More pots, more boxes, more more more.
Moral: when you are a highly intelligent and energetic widow, get a job.
Mike had brought his friend, named Mike, to help him, and I had Lani, and with the help of these two, we got through two brutal days. My brother and I have the same taste - whenever there was a choice of two similar items, we both liked the same one. So there were many toss ups, times when he gave in or I did. The important thing is that one of us always did. So in the end, though I lost some things I would have liked to own, so did he, and we both got a goodly percentage of things we coveted - a bit of furniture, a few old books, some art, a rug or two, and, yes, spoons. All of which will eventually have to go to our own poor kids. We gave some stuff to Auntie Do, who exclaimed, "A silver teapot! How lovely - I've never had one." Win/win.
Much, much more to be done - many boxes of my father's stuff still, and records, including a box of 78's, and family photo albums - endless. More weekends in Ottawa, for sure. But the worst of the choosing and distribution is over.
And now I must pay tribute to a beloved friend. Lani and I met in January 1975; she saw me in my first show in Vancouver and instantly decided I should be the other woman in a travelling theatre troupe she was putting together. We toured the Kootenay Mountains in an ancient Dodge bus with four crazy actors, and thus began one of the great friendships of my life. Lani is a sublimely eccentric, fiercely loyal, kind and loving and very short redhead; she chainsmokes and ingests many other substances, at least she used to, and considers ketchup her only vegetable. We did many more shows together, and have continued to write and talk ceaselessly through the years; she and her wonderful partner Maurice and beautiful dog Bourbon - "a borderline retriever," Lan calls him - now live in Stratford.
A few weeks ago, when it was time to consider this very difficult sojourn in Mum's condo, haggling over scores of sentimental items with a brother with whom sometimes I have not gotten along, I knew I must have someone at my side and on my side, someone sensible, hard-headed and organized. Lani was the first person who came to mind.
She volunteered immediately, and this is what that meant: getting up at dawn on Thursday to drive in a blizzard to her brother's in Mississauga; getting him to drive her to the Go train to Toronto; sitting without a cigarette for the 5 1/2 hour train ride to Ottawa with me; and then spending two solid days in a bitterly cold city helping warring siblings sort out family issues and silver spoons. She - and my brother's Mike - saved our lives. I have no doubt that though my bro and I had both resolved to be level-headed and fair, the minute we were at an impasse, we would have jumped back 50 years and been at each other's throats. Instead, we bartered and teased like grown-ups all the way through, the work got done, and we are still friends. Thanks to our friends.
I can never repay Lani for this gift. She says all she wants as payment is for me to do the same for someone else one day, as friends helped her after her mother and then sister Charley and then her father died.
So I will. But not in the near future. Please, please do not ask. I would cry.
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