I started going through some of Mother’s things back in July when I was at home with Dad in Minnesota. One of my projects was to turn Mom and Dad’s walk-in closet into Dad’s walk-in closet. I bagged up some of Mother’s clothes for a consignment store opening up in Fergus Falls. Other items I’d donate to a local church.
While I was in their bedroom I eyed a tall narrow set of drawers in the corner, nearest Mom’s side of the bed. That would be good for Dad’s apartment, I thought, anticipating the possibility that he’d be moving out of the lake home and into town for the winter into an assisted living place we’d visited.
It’s awkward opening up someone else’s drawers once they’re gone, but I did. I started pulling out Mom’s socks and underwear. That went quickly but when I opened the drawers that contained her jewelry, I stopped cold. Her current necklaces and earrings were bagged up individually so nothing would get tangled. I recognized pieces she’d worn last summer. Looking at her accessories made me smile and think about how adorable she was, but it was heartbreaking at the same time.
I closed those jewelry drawers. I wasn’t ready to do more: Too fresh.
I checked under her bed to see if she had any other clothes in storage containers. That’s when I saw something that she’d had for decades. It was her old white leather jewelry box, the one that used to sit squarely in the middle of her dressing table in her bedroom on the farm where we lived when I was growing up. I opened the lid and looked at the rows of clip-on earrings. I wasn’t six-years-old—I was in in my sixties—but the memories were fresh as breakfast.
Mother and her clips
Oh, I loved to play with those earrings! In the summertime Mom would be out in the backyard tending to her gladiolus, dahlias, morning glories, zinnias, and marigolds. She’d be busy for hours pulling weeds, cutting things back, making that garden a showcase.
I could be busy for hours, too, and she’d never know. I’d go up the stairs to her bedroom, head straight for the jewelry box, open the lid and decide which pair of earrings I’d try on first. I’d clip them on my little lobes and look at myself in the mirror.
Wow! So fancy! So sparkly! So grownup! Then I’d sneak into her closet and pull out her hats and high heels. I’d open a drawer in her bureau and reach in for her white gloves. It was delicious fun but also depressing: It would only take forever before I’d be old enough to wear such glamorous things.
Now, decades later, I stand in front of her vanity with her jewels. It’s summertime again. She’s not out in the garden tending to her flowerbeds. Dad’s taken care of that with some hired help. He’s insisted they be as lovely this year as if she’d done it herself, and it is.
It’s quiet; no one’s around. I pull out each pair of earrings and try them on. When I look in the mirror I don’t see myself. I only see Mother.
I’m sitting next to her in church. I look up at her and she’s so pretty. Or I’m sitting in a chair in the basement of the church on a Wednesday at her Ladies Aid meetings. I look at all the women sitting in a circle and she’s the prettiest of them all. Or I catch her broad smile and those multi-colored earrings decorating her lobes as she laughs with relatives sitting around a picnic table at Chautauqua Park in Valley City at a family reunion. Being a grownup looks so easy and glamorous.
This grownup looking in the mirror now feels neither easy nor glamorous. It feels like hard work.
I put the earrings on the vanity. They are treasures, treasures for someone. They have more parties to go to, more exciting conversations to be a part of. They need good company. They need someone who enjoys fashion the way my mother did. They need Maggan.
Maggan in Sweden
You might recall me mentioning Maggan before. She’s my Swedish friend. We first met by email. She was writing to me as editor of Tara magazine, a magazine in Sweden for women over 40. She was interested in getting the rights to reprint a chapter from my book, 40 Over 40: 40 Things Every Woman Over 40 Needs to Know About Getting Dressed.
When I got that first email I had to call Mom right away. My grandfather came from a small fishing village on the west coast of Sweden. I never met him but suddenly I was feeling a connection to him beyond the pictures of his tall, lanky body in overalls and the kind stories Mother told me about the man who nicknamed her Girlie. Mother gave me the name of the town and told me to ask Maggan about it. When I did, Maggan said, “Why, we’re practically family!”
I never visited that town where Thoren grew up but I did visit Stockholm, twice after those first emails. Two summers in a row I was paid by Tara magazine to go over there and do makeovers on lucky winners of a contest posted by the magazine. I spent time with Maggan and her partner, Anders, also a journalist. When I found out that they spend a solid month or more in Los Angeles every fall near Thanksgiving time, I invited them to experience a Thanksgiving with us. They were reluctant at first.
We keep losing count, but I think last year was the tenth year in a row that we’ve spent Thanksgiving together.
They are family. They are “the Swedes” for short and every year Mother is hungry for details about the Swedes. Mother speaks Norwegian and one year she and Maggan spoke on the phone to each other finding some crossover between the languages. It was always a fantasy of mine that they would meet in person.
They’d have gotten on so well. Tall, naturally confident, social, and kind, they’d have enjoyed the best of each other. I’d have seated them next to each other for sure. I’d have sat back and watched them nod their heads in agreement, laugh and joke and be all-Scandinavian together.
Later in the evening, I’d serve them pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream on top. I’d bring them their coffee and they’d hardly look up at me, they’d be so engaged. I’d be so proud to have been the matchmaker, bringing together two of my very favorite people.
When Mother passed, Maggan sent me a card and wrote, “I am honored to have been known to Alma as one of the Swedes.” When I read that line I burst into tears because Maggan was so right. Mother was so tickled about our relationship. I think she lived vicariously through the stories I’d share with her. They were her Swedes, too.
Mother’s clips go International
Who better to enjoy Mother’s earrings than Maggan? You see, Maggan doesn’t have pierced ears. She finds earrings at thrift stores because clip-on earrings are hard to find. One Thanksgiving, Maggan brought a few clip-on sets she’d found in LA. She couldn’t wait to show them to me.
While I didn’t know how the colors would be or if they’d work into her outfits or not, I selected several pairs for Maggan and put the rest of the earrings back in the jewelry box and put the box back where I found it.
I got a message from her the day my airmailed package arrived:
“I have no words! What a gift! I am so stunned and amazed that I have the jewelry from beautiful, lovely, Alma. What an honor. I hardly can express my feelings. I am deeply moved and very happy. I love them and I love you all.”
Over the next few days I got notes and pictures in emails. The subject line on the first one was Going out to dinner with Alma.
She wrote, “Just so you know, it is a lovely summer evening in Stockholm and Alma and I are going out to dinner with Anders. So proud to wear her lovely jewelry.”
A couple of days later: “Alma and I am going out again this night to have late dinner at a favorite restaurant in the Old Town, at the bar at Bistro Ruby.”
And another day: “This is from when Alma and I went shopping for new coffee mugs and some sparkling wine for the annual cake party. I think Alma likes to prepare for a party. Then we had dinner with Anders in an old traditional restaurant, The Artist’s Bar, and had yummy smoked salmon from Norway.”
The loss of my mother has been – well, wrenching. Words are hard to find. But if you could look inside my heart right now, it is bursting with joy.
I’m guessing that sharing Mother with Maggan, seeing them together in my mind, must be a lot like it was for Mother seeing Maggan and me together, like peas in a pod. Of course, in the case of Maggan and Mother, those pods are covered in rhinestones and they have clips on the back.
Those two—I’m so happy they have each other.