My Mother’s Secret Drawer

We have cleared the scarred surface of my mother’s bureau of the fragrant and intimate clutter of her long life. The unopened bottles of perfume, harvested over decades of birthdays and Mother’s Days, have been given away. Carefully, my eldest sister plucked tufts of her silver hair from the bristles of her brush and then placed both the brush and the feather-light ball, as fragile as a spider’s web, into the black plastic garbage bag we carry with us from room to room. My mother’s lipsticks, I took for myself. I use them cautiously and lick my lips after each application, so that I may taste my mother upon my tongue. The clock, with its oversized numerals, designed for the visually handicapped, has been given to a neighbor whose sight is failing. A cousin has sent my mother’s hearing aid and glasses to a foundation that recycles such items, and my daughter has claimed the olivewood box in which they were concealed. My mother was a vain woman and did not want to be reminded of her age and her infirmity.

Now my sisters and I stand before the opened top drawer of the bureau, the drawer which my mother always locked with a small gold key. Throughout our childhoods, that drawer was the only place in our home that was inaccessible to us, although each of us had caught a glimpse of its contents. We would steal up behind our mother as she removed one item or replaced another, as she rummaged through it searching for a document or a brooch. Important things were stored there, we knew, valuable things, the papers that governed our lives and the small treasures that validated and enhanced her own. This was her private place and even now, a half year after her death, we approach it hesitantly, tentatively.

The right hand compartment is piled with envelopes, the contents of each identified in her beautiful script. Always, she had used the orange Parker fountain pen, our father’s first gift to her during the distant days of their courtship when he had been an immigrant furrier and she his shy, part-time bookkeeper. The ink, which I remember in its cerulean brightness, has faded now to the barely discernible lightness of a forget-me-not. We divide the envelopes between us and sprawl across her bed, like girls at a pajama party, “important Papers,” I read aloud and remove the deed to the house, her citizenship papers and marriage contract, our birth certificates, small cards from the Board of Health testifying that we were vaccinated against diphtheria and small pox. She never discarded anything that bore a government stamp.

My sister opens the envelope marked “Cards” which we see at once contains only the hand-crafted efforts of the children we were and those of the children we bore. The oatmeal— colored drawing paper of my elementary school days flakes beneath my touch. We drew flowers and snowflakes, hearts and fir trees. Surely, the sentiments were copied from the blackboard. HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY TO A SPECIAL MOTHER. YOU MAY FIND ONE FRIEND AND LOSE ANOTHER BUT YOU WILL NEVER FIND ONE AS DEAR AS YOUR MOTHER. Our children, products of progressive education, were less inhibited. They sent her collages fashioned of glittering bits of paper, bright swatches of fabric. Their Magic Markers danced across colored paper to create rainbows and space ships and, on one, a bright silver bird cut from aluminum foil who sings, “GRANDMA, GRANDMA, I LOVE YOU, I DO.”

“What do we do with them?” I ask and answer my own question by placing the envelope in the carton I will carry home that night.

The seal of a manila envelope is broken and the bed is spangled with small oval mirrors backed by tinted portraits on polished enamel. We shuffle the mirrors and pass them from hand to hand, then place them portrait side up on the bed. I am reminded of the games my daughters play with their Taiot cards, but of course we are not trying to read the future. It is the past we seek—our mother’s past and thus our own. We have, after all, become the women that we are because of the woman she was.

One portrait is of my mother’s younger sister, Goldie, dead at 24 and mourned by mother throughout her life. There is a group photo of my mother in a flowered, lace-collared dress, flanked by her younger sisters, all of them large-eyed and dark-haired. And there is another of my mother in a middy blouse with two young women whom we do not recognize. “Beck?” one sister suggests. “Maybe Zelda,” my other sister says. Our mother’s intimacies are elusive and we do not want to be cheated.

We study the smiling face of a fair-haired young man who wears a straw hat and a polka dot bow tie. He too is unfamiliar to us.

We hazard guesses. He might have been a neighbor, a cousin, the fiance of a friend. Then, abruptly, we cease. Our curiosity is disloyal, invasive. Our mother would not approve. We busy ourselves dividing up the mirrors until only the portrait of the unknown young man remains and that, mysteriously, disappears during the course of the afternoon.

We examine the envelope marked “Rose.” Our aunt, my mother’s only sister to graduate from college. And amidst Rose’s report cards from Seward Park High School, the notifications that she had made Dean’s List at Hunter College, her honor certificates, we find my mother’s library cards from the New York Public Library. The years are 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920 and each card is covered with stamps—date borrowed, date returned. We see that she checked two books out of the library each week, and we imagine her rushing to the East Broadway branch after a long day bent over the ledgers of the dry goods company at which she worked.

We wonder about the books that accompanied her home. Geography and history. She knew the capital of every state. spun dates toward us as we studied. Poetry. She committed long poems to memory. “Evangeline” and “Hiawatha” and “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” Poems were her companions as she stood at counter and sink. Cutting up vegetables, squeezing fresh oranges from the mound of halves that confronted her each morning, she would burst into words as others burst into song. “Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands….” The needs of her parents and her siblings had forced her to leave school; and I understand that she placed her library cards with my aunt’s academic awards because they comprised her own education, her own secret diplomas, her own touching and formidable achievement.

Other envelopes are marked with our names and contain report cards, clippings from school papers, induction certificates to Arista, Arkon, Young Judaea, the Girl Scouts, a melange of postcards and letters. There is a note I wrote her from camp. “I hate it here. I am so unhappy. Please take me home.” Why did she keep that, I wonder. Did she want to punish herself as sometimes I punish myself by remembering by own maternal indiscretions, the well— meant judgments that my children perceive to be cruelty?

In the left-hand compartment of the drawer, small boxes are stacked upon each other. These contain her treasures, not her valuables. I open a small white box and finger a sea gull carved of wood which I brought her from my windjammer cruise in Maine. There are pins and necklaces of Elat stone, chai charms carved of silver and amber. Shrouded in cotton in a white box from Martins Department Store (which surely closed two decades ago) is her charm bracelet. My sister holds it up, tarnished but tinkling with all the mementos of her good fortune, eleven tiny shoes to mark the birth of each grandchild, the dates carved in strokes so small and narrow they have almost disappeared into the metal, charms to mark her 70th birthday and then her 80th birthday, a charm in the shape of the State of Israel.

Now we open the little boxes in a frenzy of excitement, with laughter, as we finger the beads she bought in a Jerusalem market place, the blue and white Delft pin she bought in Amsterdam, the enamel bracelet she carried home from Japan. We have stumbled into the souvenirs of the early years of her widowhood when she traveled with energy and excitement. She had done her duty as daughter and sister, wife and mother and she claimed her reward with zest. We pass the Jerusalem beads from hand to hand. We remember the night she showed them to us. “He wanted twenty shekels but I got them for fifteen. ” How proud she had been of her shrewdness and her daring. The beads are pink, and I claim them for my younger daughter who always played with them when she visited her grandmother.

In the center of the drawer are the binoculars she never used, the traveling leather medicine case marked with her initials, the capsule containers empty, the folding spoon pristine. We find the orange Parker pen, its gold point wiped clean. We unfurl fraying tissue paper and find white kid gloves and long black leather gloves lined with cashmere and mitts crocheted of metallic silver. There too are the scarves, square of bright and patterned silk, long swathes of pastel cashmere, woven lengths of wool from the island of Mykonos and the bazaars of Istanbul. We tie them about our own necks, drape them over our heads.

One of my sisters asks if she may take the white silk scarf I brought from Paris.

“It smells of Mama,” she says.

I nod. I know that my sister will never wear it, but she will take it from the drawer once in a great while and sniff it, searching out the mother scent.

And beneath the scarves are the intricate calendars that mark the Hebrew dates of the deaths of her parents and her siblings over consecutive years, the maps of the cemeteries with the grave sites marked. We look hopelessly at each other. Who will assume her responsibilities to the dead? We think of how the memorial candles flickered on her kitchen table when we visited.

“My mother’s yahrtzeit,” she would say in reply to our curious glances. Or that of her sister, her brother, her father.

We divide up the calendars, the maps. We will try to keep faith with her commitment but offer each other no guarantees.

The drawer is empty now, divested of memory and treasure. We wipe it clean and place the small gold key on the bureau top. Surely the Russian woman, to whom we have given the bedroom furniture, will have need of it. Like my mother, like all women, she will claim a private place to harbor treasure and memory, to conceal, and thus preserve, her own sweet secrets.

Gloria Goldreich is a novelist whose newest book That Year of Our War will be published by Little Brown this spring.