There were seven people in Jeannine LeDuc’s house a week after she passed
away, there for the purpose of going through her things and deciding what to keep
and what should be parted with. Three of them were her children, two of their spouses,
and two of us were her grandchildren, but to all of us, she was a mother, and we all
knew her as “Ma.” She was also a figure much worshipped by all of us, her life having
been spent entirely unselfishly, for the good of her family, and we all acknowledged
that she was, being of another era, one of the last people we knew who could ever
be truly called a Lady.
The whole house spun with nostalgia on the day the seven of us arrived there. Some of us had traveled a considerable distance to be here. For years, we had lived far away from this house that we had all once, at some time or another, called home. The memories that being here brought back to us had most of us in some sort of deeply sentimental trance, happy and sad at the same time. That first night, we all sat up late saying to each other, “Do you remember when...?” countless times. Then, when at length we ran out of happy memories to recount, a sort of somber silence fell, and I remember breaking it by saying generally to the room, “I have this odd feeling like we are all children too young to be left home alone here.” For all of us, being here had brought back our childhoods, and our parents (for Jeannine’s husband had predeceased her) seemed to be missing in an unnatural way from our home, with no promise of return.
Jeannine had been a proud woman and a secretive one. Her bedroom was a place no one was ever admitted to, and we all knew better than to even knock on that door. The given reason for her sleeping apart from her husband for the last two decades of her life was that my grandfather snored so loudly that it was impossible for her to sleep. And this reason may very well have been the truth: even those of us sleeping in separate bedrooms from my Grandpapa had a hard time sleeping some nights because of his snoring. But I suspect that Jeannine also valued having a place that was only hers, probably a desire that was a by-product of the fact that little in her life had ever been about herself nor had much of anything ever solely belonged to her.
She considered the word “feminist” to be a slur and an insult if anyone ever tried to apply it to her. She had been born a free spirit, she was a devoted follower of politics, she had liberal views and was excited to see social change: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of her personal heroes. She was delighted with how successful her daughter was in her career. But she had been raised to believe that her own place in society was to be a devoted wife and mother, and that it was her duty to sacrifice her personal hopes and dreams to taking care of her family. And this she did on a daily basis for fifty years. She gave up everything she had and everything she was to take care of us, except for this one small room in her house that belonged only to her.
So when we had to go through it, I think we all felt a little bit guilty about being in there at all. We were ransacking the one tiny place where she had enjoyed the freedom of being herself.
In this act, as it had been the night before when we were going through all of our memories of Jeannine, we found bitter-sweetness. We found pretty little things that reminded us of our good times with her, quirky objects that made us laugh... we also found a diary in which she had meticulously kept track of all of the symptoms of the illness that had ultimately killed her. I found that she had specifically written out in her will that her old clothes should be passed on to me. They were gorgeous, perfectly-preserved outfits from the 1940s and 50s, and I loved them.
Over the next couple of days, as we went through all of her things, we smiled and we laughed and we cried. Sometimes our task was emotionally draining, but the worst thing of all was when it was over. It was then that we all had to face the fact that there was nothing left; we had to leave her behind now in every way except for in our memories. While we had been going through her things, it had seemed somehow that she was still with us. There was still something tangible left of her that we had not seen before. Now that was gone.
The house became rather still and silent. Each person began to keep him- or herself. I went to the room I had been sleeping in for this past week and looked through the clothes she had left me again. Something in me caused me to try one of the dresses on. To this day, I’m not sure where the sudden desire came from, but I took off my jeans and T-shirt and stepped into a pretty black dress, high collared with buttons up the front and small black belt around the waist. Oddly, it fit me perfectly, to a tee. Ma had been of a much different build than I, shorter and slighter, but even the black belt around the waist was a perfect fit. There were small indentations in the fabric of the belt which indicated which loop she had always used, and that same loop was the one that fit my waist.
Not thinking very much of it, I walked out into the living room in the dress to see it in the big mirror on the wall there. I didn’t know this at the time, but found out later that at that point in my life that my hair was cut much the same way Jeannine’s had been at the time when she had worn this dress, and that my face was similar to hers when she had been younger.
My cousin walked into the room then, and I turned around and said simply, “Look.”
He gasped. With a smile on his face, he called out, “Someone get a camera!”
The rest of my family, puzzled, rushed into the living room to see what was going on. I saw then that they were all wearing the same expression of excited disbelief that my cousin was, and someone did run quickly to get a camera. For a moment I was confused. Yes, it was odd that the dress fit me so well, but what was all this commotion about?
The way they all stood looking at me, their smiles and their whispers of “...living image” and “just like her...” answered my unspoken question, and I realized that I had, completely unknowingly, given them something invaluable, something very much needed at that particular moment. I posed and smiled at the camera even though I always hated having my picture taken, because I knew that I had given them all one more, one last, glimpse of Ma.