One of the toughest challenges my husband and I faced last year was having been companions to his mother’s downsizing. At the age of 91, Harriet Hauser divested herself of the creature comforts of an upper middle class life. Anyone who has done this, or helped a loved-one do it, will know saying goodbye to lots and lots of stuff is painful and exhausting for all concerned.
Mark’s father didn’t have to do it, although he did have a decade or so to worry about having to do it. He died without warning, in the night. There were no boxes for him to pack, no arguments about what to keep and what to give away. (In the melee, Mark accidentally got rid of some Charles Dickens miniature face character jug mugs and he’s still begging forgiveness.)
“No matter how much you’ve had, you always want more.”
This is what Harriet said, one afternoon last spring, after she’d moved in with us. We were en route to the garden centre to buy some container flowers. You’ve heard of The War of the Roses; well, she and I very nearly had The War of the Begonias—the tense but nonviolent supersession of a Queen Bee about sums it up. Harriet had been much too prescriptive for my liking and I had voiced my displeasure. The flowers had to go in her pot—the plastic Grecian-esque urn I’d been forced to inherit—and that pot had to go in a particular spot on my deck, the variety of flower (Dragon Leaf Begonia, also called Dragon Wing) and colour (red) were non-negotiable. I wasn’t even allowed to decide which garden centre we’d go to.
It was in the quiet misery between us, en route to Canadian Tire, when Harriet whispered that phrase about “always wanting more.” The tiniest morsel of compassion crept in and I felt less like scrapping with her after that. Surrender really was the only option.
It occurred to me then, and has many times since, that there were/are reasons for her to want to manage seemingly small things with an iron fist. She reluctantly said goodbye to almost every worldly treasure and, even more than a year later, that pain hasn’t subsided. Controlling whatever outcomes she can is a salve for the open wound.
It has also become apparent that, for her, anyway, our shopping trips are more than mere chores; they seem to validate her—to prove she’s still in this game called life: “I shop, therefore I am.”
As a dreamer who wants to someday pack her belongings into a Gulf Stream trailer and hit the open road, I don’t find the idea of “always wanting more” all that comforting. They say appetite wanes as we age, and I’d be perfectly happy for that to apply to the consumer appetite as well.
Nowadays, I look to my mother-in-law’s experience as forewarning: be aware of material possessions and whether or not you are allowing them to define you—or, “Beware the Begonia,” which is the shorter, sweeter version. I’m 43 years old now, but if I live to be Harriet’s age, that gives me nearly four decades to forget some of these recent lessons and fall even more madly in love with my wool carpets and tufted ottomans…and terracotta pots with geraniums, which are my preference.
Personal history suggests this is precisely what I’ll do. Every stage of my life thus far bears the markings of one who has been all too easily shaped by the consumer culture in which she lives. And that’s worrisome. My chances of achieving some kind of post-consumer transcendence don’t look good. What if the wisdom of old age can’t find a place to settle down upon an unsettled woman who has nursed on the milk of fear and desire all her life?
These days, I’m beginning to see that keeping my wants and needs in check isn’t just a way to reduce carbon footprints, save the environment and avoid falling into debt. Maybe, just maybe, it’s also a way of holding space for the wisdom of age, to give it room to meet me on the path that lies ahead.
I have a prayer for my so-called “sunset years”: that they might be a time to, yes, occasionally watch the sun set, to find peace, to experience the fullest possible wisdom, and perhaps most of all, to cease acquisition of and fulfillment by the things of this world so I can at least try to prepare for life in the next.