Gifts from the Closet

It’s Saturday and I’ve managed to keep it open. I’m determined to clean out the closet in my spare room where Mother spent those last four months of her life. She died two years ago, and its high time I reclaim that space.

The day I sent the hospital bed back I’d cleared the room of her smaller possessions by stuffing them into the closet and quickly closing its door. Not one item has monetary value yet each was a treasure to her, a touchstone. Mother trained me never to throw anything out. On top of this I’d promised to find good homes for all her belongings. Having to make these decisions has been one of the holdups. The other is the emotional drain of dealing with memories.

I’ve opened the closet dozens of times and closed it again. Last month I pulled out the stacks of cards and letters, all tender love notes sent either to her throughout her long illness or to me after her death. All day and into the night I had unfolded, read through the blur, refolded, and reached for the next. Then each had gone back on the shelf. No progress was made toward my goal.

Today I stand once more running my eyes over the shelves. They focus on a small stuffed turtle, soft and floppy. I clutch it to me and allow memories and tears to flow freely. I know without thinking where it will go. Mother’s first great-grandchild, Samantha, has just been born. I’ll mail it now, but I should enclose a note of explanation.

Maybe I could say something like . . .

Dear Samantha,

This turtle belonged to your great-grandmother, whose name was Mabel Pancoast Waddington. He was special to her because of how they found each other. She gave him to me on her way to heaven, and I pass him on to you for the love and wisdom he carries. . . .

By now I’m realizing the turtle story must be told as part of the gift. It took place within the Women In Transition support group that was formed in Salem Quarter in 1991. This group consists of an assortment of women who come together every month to learn from each other how to persevere and, hopefully, how to prevail. We lift each other up to ease our movements through loss, change, oppression—whatever hurts or stymies. We do this with prayerful intentions and often with humor. We’ve talked about difficult deaths that seemed to come too soon or not soon enough. We’ve struggled through divorces—both wanted and unwanted, fair and unfair, liberating and limiting. We labor over relationships—those lost or imperfect or yearned for. We work at establishing boundaries—those invaded or missing or kicked in by high-stepping teens. We learn to talk about those pieces of our lives that knock us off balance. In the process we usually right ourselves. This was the fertile ground that Turtle walked in on.

As Mother began to struggle with the diminishments of aging, I had suggested taking her with me to the support group. "I don’t qualify," she had insisted. "I’m far too old, and I’m not in transition." But I knew she wasn’t that far from her final transition.

My own faltering memory must not keep me from capturing the essence of the turtle story. How can I bring it to life for a child three generations removed from the source? How can I possibly explain, especially to one so young as Samantha, the alchemy of covered worship or the mysticism of divine intervention? Perhaps I could write this as a fairy tale she will grow into as it is read to her, something like . . .

Once upon a time,

not so very long ago and yet forever ago, there was a beautiful matron named Mabel. She belonged to that quaint clan called the Quarter of Salem in the benevolent kingdom of Quakerdom. She did not know of her beauty, for her focus was outward, observing the beauty of others. She was known far and wide for her pudding of rice, her plain speech, and the gentleness of her ways. Attenders and members alike followed her with their eyes and ears, for she taught about Faith, and the Practice thereof, simply by the way she moved through her life.

One morning in Mabel’s growing-old years, she awakened to the notion she was utterly barren and worthless. With faltering steps she crossed the lane to the house of her eldest daughter, who had by now assumed the role of the mother. She lifted a crumpled face and uttered forlornly, "Mary, I have lost all my usefulness and am nothing more than a burden. Whatever am I to do?"

It must be noted that past reassurances, given many times over, had, alas, been to no avail. This day Mary just smiled and suggested, "Come with me to the meeting in the clan of the Quarter where we celebrate life’s lessons.

Those tender, searching women will recognize thy worth and be led to respond in a manner most convincing."

At the full moon Mary led Mabel, with gentle persuasion and a firm grip on her arm, to the Celebration of Life’s Lessons. Mabel eased her frail body into the circle of hungering women, feeling far too old to belong there. What she soon discovered that no one had mentioned was an invisible mist that rises out of this circle. It moistens the eye and dissolves all those walls that keep us separate and struggling.

When Mabel’s turn came to speak of herself she bravely said this: "I am decaying into uselessness. My mind has lost its grip and thoughts fall away. My eyes are dim and my ears cast about for sound. In my befuddled state I cannot complete a task. My pace is so slow I am left far behind, just like the lowly turtle. And at times, like the turtle, I hide deep inside myself."

Her voice trailed off and her pale eyes closed. Her brittle words hung in the air like December oak leaves. But lo, the moisture from the mist began to soften them and give them weight, and they settled upon the women who sat as one in the silence.

It so happened that Mabel’s mention of Turtle called forth his ancient spirit, and he whispered his sacred wisdom into the collection of open minds: "I am grounded in the Earth. I embody the eternal Mother from which all life evolves. I am longevity and the cycles of giving and taking. I withdraw inside to honor my thoughts and feelings and to tap the creative source." The whispers then evaporated into the mist. The spirit of the Turtle now mingled with those of the Fox and the Woolman and swirled about the heads of the women until all was distilled by the One. And the women were covered in Truth.

The stillness was like a held breath waiting to speak.

Out of this, one after another, the feasting women offered to Mabel that which the swollen silence had birthed:

"I see thee as ageless, in a place without time. Thee will reveal to me the immortal."

"Thy mind has been loosed from the trite and made ripe for intuition. Thee will give me insights."

"Thy eyes are focused beyond the flawed and battered. Thee will see my perfection."

"Thy ears filter out needless clatter and chatter in order to hear God’s word. Thee will teach me discernment."

"Thy task is now to wear like a halo the glow of a life rightly ordered. Thy example will inspire me."

"Thee has slowed to let the unessential pass by. Thee will teach me simplicity."

"What thee mistakes for hiding is merely the practice of going within where Guidance resides. Thee will show me the Way."

The silence deepened. It pulsed with all that was made available from the Source. Such luminous gifts, heaped upon Mabel through the spoken word and unspoken thought, created visions of Light and vibrations of love. They cascaded over her like wisteria blossoms. She gathered them up, pressed them to her bosom, and breathed in the sweetness. Her weak, faded eyes reflected each petal and sparkled with lavender dewdrops. And in this moment of timelessness, from that mystical place beyond the worn body, she understood her purpose.

At the next full moon when again Mabel sat in the circle, a gift was placed in her lap. ‘Twas a small, floppy turtle with soft, yielding stuffing, a cloth-covered promise to her wandering mind that she would never forget who she is.

Turtle presided over the Celebration for many moons before he took up his vigil at the high metal bed in the house of the daughter Mary. Then, when the timing was perfect, he retired to the peace of the sheltering closet, the spirit of Mabel entwined with his stuffing.

And so it was, on that memorable night in the space of forever, that Mabel found her purpose. It was then to come about that the eyes and ears of many would follow her all the way through her final transition, learning from her how to journey.

The end.

Which is always just the beginning.

Pen still in hand I sit in reverie, awash in the spirit of Mother. I watch while the Sun tucks itself in for the night, pulling a blanket of crimson over itself. I must finish the letter . . .

Samantha dear, Turtle has a story for you that will never grow old. As you sleep, hold him close to your heart. He will whisper into your dreams to tell you of your great-grandmother. In this way you will know her, and your children’s children will know her. This knowing includes great lessons of life and is a path to happiness.

Turtle is now yours. Ancient ones say he carries the world on his back even though we can’t see it. And so the world belongs to you also.

Love, which is the reason for being,
Your Great Aunt Mary

Carefully I fold Samantha’s letter inside the fairy tale and place them with Turtle in an empty box that once held granola. I then wrap this package with just enough brown paper bag to cover it, no more, and save the remainder for later. Mine are the movements of Mother. She lives on in the choices I make, the words I speak, the gestures that flow from my hands.

By now it’s late. Yet another day has slipped by and I have not emptied the closet. In the space of two years I’ve removed only one item. This is an embarrassment, a character flaw, a disregard for duty and order. How long will it take to accomplish my goal? I ask Mother, whose presence permeates my life. She answers with a question, "What is thy goal?"

I think about this.

Is it to empty the closet? Or is it to fill myself?

Mary Waddington

Mary Waddington, of Salem (N.J.) Meeting, is a holistic health practitioner and is called to pastoral care work among Friends. She has been involved in prison ministry for eight years and is currently writing a memoir about this experience.