MOM’S LAST LAUGH • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Thanks, Mom! So much for me ever having an excuse to go shopping again.

She always sent me home with big bags of stuff I didn’t want, including gadgets I’d never use and treats I didn’t like. But as soon as she died, everything in her apartment became sacred.

I inherited that magpie gene, which is doubly expressed in my son. So anything I could actually bring myself to throw out, he made me keep.

Mom’s possessions were equally divided between the lovely, the hideous and the remarkably inconvenient. At eighty-seven, she’d looked, sounded and functioned like someone at least twenty years younger, until the doctors got their hands on her. Her wardrobe included regulation old-lady polyester pants and stuff a fashionable twenty-year-old wouldn’t have scorned. After giving away ten bags of clothes nothing could ever induce me to wear, I still ended up with so many really nice sweaters and t-shirts and jackets and coats that all I can say is thank God I ended up with her metal double-size wardrobe as well. Even so, almost a year after she died, I had three suitcases full of clothes that I couldn’t cram anywhere. (That doesn’t include the big bags of stuff that I’d never, ever wear myself yet can’t give away, but feel sufficiently detached from to stash as far away as the garage.)

It took til December for me to prepare the last meal of fried matzoh ever to be remotely connected to Mom. She’d been in the hospital when the Passover gift package was delivered. For months after she died, it sat under her kitchen table. During the long summer and fall of weekly sleepovers at Camp Mom, while I sorted through and packed up her life, I gobbled up the macaroons and made fried matzoh for myself on her stove. Back in my own kitchen, as snow fell outside, I opened up the last lonely little package of tea matzohs, broke them into her bowl, mixed them with her fork and fried them in her pan.

Wasn’t til the following spring that I could force myself to throw out the freezer-full of stale challah that was elbowing everything else in there out of its way. Once in a while I’d pull out a piece, toast it up nicely and discover it was still stale. I’m not great at understanding scientific processes but I did have the uncomfortable feeling, somewhere in the back of my mind, that staleness is irreversible. But I come from a line of people who’ve gotten pretty far on unreasonable hope.

My apartment could fit inside Mom’s with room to spare, so of course the furniture I always knew I’d inherit is sitting in storage, along with twenty-five cartons of stuff. I shipped the one modest box of things my brother wanted off to him in Canada. But you don’t really expect me to give away the Danish modern breakfront, the cherry bedroom set or the comfy chair, do you?

When Mom’s uncle died, she got some of his stuff too, so everything, no matter how ordinary, is saturated in family history. My brother and I now own enough old linen tablecloths to open a retro restaurant; my son, and his children’s children’s children, will never need to buy a single piece of flatware.

I can’t bring myself to discuss the handbags. I wouldn’t actually carry most of them, but —

The saddest things of all, of course, are the dozen pairs of panties and the dozen pairs of socks I bought for her stay in rehab, carefully writing her name on them in laundry marker as though I was sending her off to camp. She never wore them, even though I begged and begged the staff not to put her in diapers. My fastidious and self-respecting mom, in hospital with a fractured spine that had gone undiagnosed for five months, even in the agony that I know would have squashed me flat, insisted on being helped onto a portable commode when she was beyond holding a cup of water.

You don’t throw out perfectly good new clothes, do you? So now I walk around in underwear marked “N. Levine”. How do I explain that if I get hit by a car?

Mom only carried on about the small, everyday stuff of which life is made. Big stuff she handled on her own, with grace and courage, until the doctors took them away from her. Getting close to the end, she warned me that she wasn’t going to forget what I’d done to her.

Even though I’d tried everything, trying to protect and save her, even though I have nothing, as everyone keeps telling me, nothing to feel guilty about, that was only the drugs and the pain talking, I really wish Mom hadn’t said that.

Good thing, after the way she’d looked, lying dead in the hospital, neatly laid out in one of those tasteful white body bags that looks like a remainder from a bridal shop, I viewed her in her coffin before the funeral. In her traditional linen shroud, with its little headcovering like a baby’s cap, she looked like a beautiful little girl. I could believe that the traditional shomer, who was with her from her death straight through to the service, had eased her soul.

I collected the hopeful little pot of salmon-colored miniature roses that we’d brought to her room in the rehab center for Mother’s Day, two weeks before she died, and put it on my windowsill, where it pretended to be happy. It produced one white rose — and then it died. Talk about overemphasizing a point! I took that rose, pressed it carefully, and put it in one of those five billion picture frames I’d inherited from Mom.

And as I pretty much suspected would happen, the second most frequently uttered Jewish mother threat did come true. You know the one — “You’re going to miss me when I’m gone.”

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds.

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