‘Packing Up’ by Suzy Freeman-Greene
Suzy Freeman-Greene is a Melbourne-based writer and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk fellow. During her fellowship, Suzy has been working on a collection of essays about her mother’s life and death. In this piece, she describes the confronting task of packing up her mother's home and belongings after her death.
The RSPCA helpers have driven up from Mornington. For all creatures great and small. We sang that at the funeral. The Lord God made them all.
We’re at Mum’s place – a small, immaculate Brighton house where she died five months ago. They’ve come to take some things for their op shop. But the lead volunteer – a sort of short, middle-aged head girl with smudged green eye shadow and a brisk English accent – is not happy.
This was her sanctuary. Its contents were assembled as carefully as the tiles in a Byzantine mosaic.
I’ve told Head Girl that my sister and I are keeping the furniture in the lounge room. But they can have all the clothes. And a mountain of books, handbags, cushions, vases, ornaments and kitchen stuff. Plus loads of bedding (Laura Ashley) and a ton of shoes, some never worn.
“Is that all there is?” she replies, fixing me with a withering stare. “No furniture? There’s five of us and another van on the way.”
Their trailer’s at the front door. They’re wearing practical, packing up clothes – loose shirts, cotton pants, fleecy jackets, sensible shoes – and they’re itching to get stuck in. But the house still smells of her. A cloying, comforting scent of talcum powder, lavender bags, perfumed drawer liners and 4711 cologne. It’s a smell that floors you when you walk in the door: mocking lists and plans, sapping energy. She could be here now, in the bedroom, pinning her diamante teddy brooch to the lapel of her hound’s-tooth blazer. Or in the bathroom, sprinkling talc in the bottom of her slippers. Or in the kitchen, plotting a new front in her garden’s endless war against possums.
This was her sanctuary. Its contents were assembled as carefully as the tiles in a Byzantine mosaic. I want to shoo this lot out the door. Close the curtains. Make a cuppa. Take to the couch and pretend. Instead we hover here, the six of us, in an unspoken stand off until I come to my senses.
This is crazy. She’s gone. They’re here. The house is sold. And what does it matter, who takes what?
“I guess you can have a look at the furniture in the garage,” I relent. “I’d booked the Brotherhood to take it but you can have it if you like.”
Down the path we traipse. Up goes the roller door, revealing the stash inside. A clothes dryer. A walnut dining table. A teak kitchen table with elegant curved legs. A high-backed chair upholstered in cornflower blue. A cane chair. Garden tools. Occasional tables. Mum loved furniture. The more you had, the more ornaments you could display. She had enough small tables to start several cocktail bars.
The mood lifts. Down comes the trailer and the gang get to work: carrying and stacking. “That’s a lovely chair,” says a woman with a blonde bob, as the blue chair disappears. They’ll even take the walking frame and a strange little peddling contraption that gets the leg circulation going.
We’re chatting about Mum, what good taste she had, when another woman – short, sixtyish and also English, with a blonde helmet redolent of Maggie Thatcher – asks airily: “Has she left the house to the RSPCA, too?”
I splutter, “No” and turn away, inwardly cursing the zealotry of animal lovers.
She could be here now, in the bedroom, pinning her diamante teddy brooch to the lapel of her hound’s-tooth blazer.
Back at the house a tall, young bloke arrives with a newsagents’ van. Head Girl takes charge again.
“Is this going?” she asks me, pointing to a wrought iron table in the hall.
“What about the outdoor furniture?”
I can feel the heat rising in my chest. “Why don’t I tell you what is going? Because it’s kind of upsetting being asked about things we’re keeping.”
They head to the bedroom. I retreat to a chair in the lounge. I don’t want to see them marching out with armfuls of flesh-colored bras and undies. Or the crisply ironed cotton nighties I found stacked in a drawer as neatly as envelopes.
“The smell won’t go until you get rid of the clothes,” a wise friend had told me. He’d lost his sister six months ago. I once read of the father of a dead American soldier who kept a hamper of his son’s dirty laundry in his room. That way, he’d always have his smell. I didn’t want to go that far. Still, I’d farewelled Mum’s clothes the week before.
Flicking slowly through the hangers, I’d caressed her duck-egg blue dressing gown – soft and homely, with a scent of breakfast and sleep; her magenta cardigan – neon bright, with something yellow and yolky spilt down the front; her winter blazer, the colour of Heinz Big Red Soup.
I’d fingered her bomber jackets, her cable knits, her elastic waist pants. The clothes hung dumbly, but I could conjure her body into them. Round tummy rolls filling out a jumper; swollen calves encased in stretchy black pants. I felt the heavy, slubby fabric of her good linen checked shirt and saw her arriving at our place in a cab, heaving herself out of the front seat with the effort of a weightlifter.
Like her, the coathangers were cosy and padded. They wore elegant covers made of floral print or pink satin, and quite a few had little cardboard luggage tags attached. “Black,” she’d written on some. “Navy,” said the rest.
“I know I’m past my use by date,” Mum liked to quip to doctors. I hated this line. It seemed so defeatist. But it was a pose. She wasn’t going easily.
“Whatever you do, don’t put me in a home,” she’d whisper after buying me afternoon tea or lunch out. And who knows? Teaming navy pants accidentally with a black top might be read as a fatal sign of decline.
She kept a lolly pink wheelie suitcase in her bedroom, packed in case of sudden hospital trips. Her body might be failing. But if an ambulance came in the middle of the night, she’d sail forth with toiletries, slippers and a clean nightie, perfectly folded.