The first day was easy.
We went through my mother’s condo in La Jolla distributing her antiques, art and jewelry as she had instructed and anybody who had a preference for anything else said so and that was that. Easy.
The second day was hard. Because we got down to the nitty gritty, the dust-covered files, the photos of my grandmother, the notebooks and lists. The stuff nobody wanted. It was the autopsy of a life.
In a different time. It was a time when raising a family, keeping up the social life and cooking good meals were not just a full-time occupation but also an art. Part of it had to do with my mother’s French culture.
The meal was a central part of the day in our house as it was and largely still is in France. My mom did not cook at all in the last couple years, when she depended more on her helpers.
But we discovered in her kitchen an extraordinary number of differently shaped and coated pots and pans, from small, square frying pans to a round sheet with indentations used to cook escargots.
And it reminded me what an expert cook she had been.
For the French, especially Parisians like my mom, food is critical but equally so is one’s appearance, and my mom always dressed impeccably and stylishly. She used to tell my sisters that there was nothing to dressing well if you had money, it was dressing well when you had none that took skill.
That included finding beautiful fabrics at a discount and following complex sewing patterns on her sewing machine at home. Along with taking the time to cook great meals, she took the time to sew many of her own dresses and those of her daughters.
It is the kind of time that women whose employment rates now rival those of men rarely have these days.
A third aspect of French culture that our family runs across frequently is the French obsession with bureaucratic documents and forms.
One antique that my mom and dad had collected was a big, French wooden jug used to hold wine. Folded carefully and laid down in the bottom of the jug were two big pieces of high-quality paper that were my mom’s high school and college diplomas.
The high school diploma, especially, was a large document about two-and-a-half feet across with engravings of pastoral scenes all around the edges windmills, fields and waterways and a precise script in the middle of the document attesting to my mother’s graduation in 1940.
And in file cabinets and my mom’s writing desk, there was a lifetime’s-worth of correspondence. Typed letters from my dad. Just about every postcard or letter her children had ever sent here.
My nephew Nick commented that the modern equivalent would be having a large disc drive and saving all your email for your whole life, something nobody does.
Then there were notebooks with lists. All kinds of lists. A list of all the guests at a Christmas party, with the year noted. A list of all the folks who sent Christmas cards that year and all of those who had cards sent to them.
A list of the courses, an extensive one, served at a Christmas dinner, with the year noted, and this blew me way there was a list of the elements in her daughters’ December wardrobes, with the year noted. All of it was saved in folders, and she kept them whenever she moved.
It seemed in such great contrast to modern life, which I would call disposable.
Where such records would not be written or kept, where letters are rarely composed and mailed, where clothes are bought at the Gap, where cooking for a family often involves take-out pizza, where life is a basically a mad rush.
I throw records away after a certain time. Partly because I see no point but also because the past seems half-dead and cemented in place while the present remains bright and allows for change.
But I think for my mom, the past and her kids and her grandkids were at the center of her life, were the wealth of it, the experience of it, the variety and beauty and intensity of it.
A feeling reflected every time she saw us.
After getting most of the condo cleared out, I was walking to work this morning. I heard a young man, in the uniform of students at a cooking school here in Pasadena, as he put his cell phone to his ear and said quietly, “Yeah, Ma.”
That’s a conversation I can no longer have.
The first day was easy.