"The Bustle in the House"


Shortly before her 96th birthday, my mother, Dee Gurley commented, “I think 96 is long enough.” Obviously, she wasn’t kidding. She passed away on September 7, 2016, two days after her birthday.

In the month since that day, have been navigating a new terrain…one without my mother. Perhaps because I am her only daughter, I have had both the privilege and responsibility to see that she was comfortable, safe and had opportunities to live her life to the fullest over the course of many years. That task was not always easy and often stressful. Much of what I initially felt when she died was relief from the stress of caregiving that had become the background music to everything I did for many years. So most of the time now, my life feels simpler, easier. But grief does not come with a roadmap and I am finding my way without any expectations. Sometimes I am blindsided by a small thing that reminds me she is not here..her lipstick left in a pocketbook, the postcard reminder for her dental appointment.

But ultimately I found that the physical act of sorting through her things and clearing out her apartment has been therapeutic. There were letters, photographs, a treasure chest of costume jewelry, army insignias, her collection of dragonfly pins, Mass cards from relatives long gone, a huge stack of birthday and St. Patrick Day cards..all funny and many quite raucous. And then there are all the photographs of grandchildren, her parents and family, friends and lots of Mom, dressed in some costume: a Santa’s elf, a Halloween witch or Miss Pittypat from Gone with the Wind, a Mardi gras celebrant in feather boa and a jeweled crown.

 All the while I sorted and moved and delivered little tokens to friends and family, the lines from Emily Dickinson echoed in my head:

The bustle in the house, 

the morning after death, 

is the solemnest of industries enacted upon earth.

The sweeping up the heart,

and putting love away

we shall not want to use again 

until eternity.

The first time I heard this poem, my mother recited it from heart as we were preparing to attend a funeral. I don’t remember who it was that had passed away. I was just a girl. But the lines were touching and evoked a sense of sacredness in the performance of mundane acts and I remembered them.

I had a friend in Atlanta who took a full year to close her mother’s New York apartment where she had lived more than 50 years. She would go up for a week at a time and sort and read and discard. It was an act of devotion to her mother’s memory. And I feel the same way about handling the things that had meant something to my mother, meant enough for her to save for years in spite of her own attempts to clear out possessions over the last decade or so.

I realized that I am perhaps the only person alive who knows the provenance of some of Mom's things. There is the red felt arm band with the words, “Bring our troops home” which she wore to an anti-Vietnam War rally in Fayetteville in the early seventies. There is the tiny china tea cup that was a wedding present to her mother and the browned paper diploma that held her mother’s name (also Dolores) on the front and my mother’s notation on the back that said my Grandmother had graduated from elementary school the same year my diploma mother did. And there too, surprisingly was my Grandmother’s penciled notation, barely visible, “I was slow but sure.”  Grandma Parrish, an Irish immigrant, went to night school as a adult to reach this life goal. I never really knew her, but her diploma gave me some insight into her life and the strong lineage of determination among the women in my family.

 Perhaps one of the hardest things to let go of is the absentee ballot that arrived several days after mom died. Mom had been born in the year that women got the vote, had served in the military in WWII, and she wanted so much to elect a woman president. The ballot still sits on my desk, perhaps the most poignant reminder that mom’s physical life on this plane ceased before she accomplished this dream.                                                                                              . 

Engaging in the move of mom’s “things”  also helped me face the parts of her life that have really ended. I took bags of clothing to a thrift store one rainy afternoon. It was painful to imagine that the clothing she had so recently worn would be anonymously touched and purchased by strangers who would never know who she was. And I knew the day was coming that I would close and lock her apartment door for the last time.  I believe that my mother’s spirit lives on and that she is often near. I believe I will see her again. But it is these moments of physical reality that are the most challenging part of my journey.

As I re-read Dickinson's poem now, I find I disagree with the last lines. I don’t believe that love need ever be put away. It is held and nurtured and carried to be passed along. As I pick out a special pin that belonged to Mom for a niece, or a book for a friend or wear Mom’s crystal bead necklace I am passing along that love for my mother and that which she loved in life.














  1. Emily's avatar
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    Love this, Kay! My 86-year old mother lives with us. That cohabitation is all the things you said, every day filled with every emotion. It is difficult to think of closing that door for the last time. Thinking of you!
  2. Martina's avatar
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    So poignant, Kay! My mother died when I was 40, and as my children grew, every special moment in their lives had to be watched by her thru my eyes. BLessedly, I had a month's (internal) notice before her passing, heard her call my name on the breeze at the moment of her death 800 miles away, and saw the world through the joy of her unconditional love in a golden glow upon her passing. Her life paralleled your mother's in many ways. She would've loved the Obamas and been thrilled to vote for Hillary.
    In our loss is our finding, and the way thru is a new and different adventure with the person who brought us and taught us to love Earth.

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