Her shoes were on the closet floor, neatly lined up. I could see where her toes had merged with the leather and left toe outlines. I could see where her heels had pressed into the inner lining.
In the pockets of every jacket, coat, bathrobe and apron I found wads of linty, used tissue. Didn't she know that paper tissue was invented to be, unlike cloth handkerchiefs, disposable? To my mother, if there was an unused corner on a tissue, it was wasteful — extravagant, even — to just throw it away. There were wads of tissues in her purses as well.
I had recently bought myself a gray leather purse, hoping it would pass for a neutral color. I got tired of changing purses every time I changed outfits. I took my purse home to Michigan when my dad called to say he needed the three of us kids to be there with him; my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Mother had from six weeks to six months to live.
I was the first to arrive. Because she couldn't breathe when lying down, Mother slept sitting up in the brown upholstered rocking chair that had seemed old even when I was young. I slept on the floor beside her chair, so she would not be alone when she awakened, which was frequently. When she couldn't sleep, I read to her or simply held her hands while we sat silently together, each with our own imaginings of what would come next.
The next morning, my father and I took my mother to the doctor's office. A needle, inserted into her back, extracted fluid from the space between her lungs and her chest wall. She could breathe more freely, and we took her home to sleep.
When my sister arrived, she and I left to do some grocery shopping so we would have something to feed to all of the family members who were coming to say goodbye. When we got back we were astounded to find our mother in the family room, music blaring, practicing her square dance steps.
"Mother! What are you doing?" we asked almost simultaneously.
"I feel good," she said, "and I want to go shopping. I want a purse like yours."
She wanted a purse like mine? Why now, when she didn't need the durability of good leather? Why now, when it would be forever nearly new? Why now, when she would die before the new leather smell wore off? I wouldn't have been more surprised if she had marched into Habicht's Ford dealership, grabbed Bob Habicht by the sleeve, pointed to the ivory-colored Lincoln Continental on the showroom floor and said, "I'll take it!"
So purse shopping we went, and she bought herself a gray leather purse very much like mine. I still wonder why she had waited until she got a death sentence before she started treating herself nicely, occasionally buying something expensive instead of being so painfully frugal. Maybe she finally realized, What's the point of saving it? I'm going to die soon anyway. She didn't have to worry anymore about how long she'd have to make their retirement money last; she knew at least her part of the equation.
That gray leather purse and all of her shoes were among the very first of my mother's things I gave to Goodwill. I couldn't stand to see where her feet had been, and I couldn't stand to see the nearly new reminder of waiting too long for the good stuff.
Kayt Kennedy is a freelance writer who lives in Safety Harbor.