Saturday, December 8, 2007




Among the papers that filled the boxes stacked to ceiling height in the upstairs bedroom closet of my mother’s house were a number of letters, written in her hand, often in a few middle pages of an otherwise blank college-ruled spiral notebook, and always with an addressee unnamed but not wholly occluded from the guesswork of her elder son based on the facts available.
While the recipient was never hard to figure out, even if it was an acquaintance spoken of to me only in passing, it was impossible to know whether the contents of these letters had ever been sent forth from the airless purgatory of the closet to meet their addresses face to face. Or were they drafts? Or private diaristic exercises? Each one was completed in full, without discernible interruptions or rewriting. Maybe they were only another collection worthy of donation to one of the universe’s great imaginary archives: Letters Never Sent. To me they were a symbol of what happens to all of what the dead leave behind to the living: in the place of final accounts, settled scores, notarized summary testaments, there is only this small gallery of riddles never meant to become so.

To be honest, I don’t remember now which stack these letters found their way into. Or if an effort was made at all to keep them classified together. I might have stuck one or two among the tattered pages of a volume of Bach piano music. Because these letters were precisely the sort of thing there was no category for. In my efforts to clean out her closet in the days following her passing I had made a pile for those items invaluable to the family legacy, those useful for my father in the settling of her estate, those well-suited for thrift store donation, those attractive for my immediate personal use, and those that would best serve mankind by disappearing from the earth altogether, or being thrown away, which everyone knows are effectively the same thing.
I was upstairs alone in the closet because I desperately needed something to do. Because when she left without saying a word, we rushed in to fill the sudden void. Right after her neighbor had found her there, in her garage, behind the wheel of her parked car, bent down to put on her shoes, on the way to some company retreat or something I think, right after that the three of us blew into her house fuelled by an oppressive, inexplicable sense of emergency. We were running out of time. We had to clean out all her possessions that afternoon. The house needed to be sold. Everything cried out to be taken care of. Our necks bowed under such urgent weight.
Slowly it had come to us that the release of this sense of panic into our bloodstreams was an aftershock. Our psyches trying to reach out retroactively, to prepare for and avert the coming disaster. The problem was not that we were out of time, but that there was too much of it, hanging around us, everywhere, so much time to be left on the earth without her. Like her letters, we could be counted among the estate items of uncertain destiny.

I read and read and looked and read. It was exhausting. Boxes and boxes. Each one with a predictably similar assortment of Irish music brochures, pamphlets or business cards from hotels she stayed at while on tour with her choir, a low-res print-out jpg of novelty men’s thongs from Australia, snapshots I wish I hadn’t seen, old travel guides, tons of sheet music for songs the world has swept behind its mind, info on some leisure-time endeavor she probably got real enthusiastic about and then cast aside, and material on Zaner, the older landscape painter next door, a hippie-motorcyclist type, whom she had become fast friends with and on whom she as of late had been planning some kind of documentary.
For some reason I kept going through all of mom’s stuff and I was wondering what I was looking for, and I knew suddenly that I was looking for that key that would bring it all together, that would tell me my mom’s secret. And I knew as well that along the way, in this vain, compulsive search, what I would find instead were all these shining fragments of her, seen all scattered across one another in a kind of constellation that never was formed when she was alive.
Once I had reached this conclusion, I found, really in the last box, and I say really so you know you can believe me it was really the last box and not a literary contrivance, a somewhat thick manila envelope, whose glued seal had dried free. On the front had been written: Private Property of Shirley Rauscher / destroy unopened upon my death, followed by her signature.
In other words, just as I had believed myself to have reached a little enlightened plateau among all the tireless works of mourning and gathering to be done, once I had so wisely given up the thought of finding some last great object, it or something like it was there in my hand. This, the only letter among her things which I could now say I knew had in fact reached its destination.
I showed it to my brother, and my father. We deliberated. I left it with dad and resumed my work upstairs, and I believed him both when he said he had some idea as to its contents, and when he said he had thrown it away. Although I told myself I wouldn’t have begrudged him a bit if it turned out he had peeked, maybe out of simple curiosity, or maybe out of a sense of fatherly duty, to turn and face those things which are better off kept from his offspring.
My own fantasy about the envelope is to have opened it and discovered: Irish music brochures. That is, something that would have been unreadable or incomprehensible to anyone but her, that would have seemed just like some other piece of material flotsam taking up space in a two-story house, but to her would have meant everything – and thus to be face to face with a key that only made everything more perplexing.

One day you will die and your children will rush into your home to find you because they have been told you are dead and instead they will find your things, that wait there silently, with eternal patience, waiting for their moment of redemption, and your children will never give them this moment, not out of spite simply because these old clothes and knick-knacks and Carl Sagan DVDs are poor substitutes for their mother but because no matter how hard they sort through all of this they will never reach the end. I never did.

I've included the Autopoieses record here because it's entirely made of deconstructed and rebuilt jazz samples, and there is something about this process that recalls that of sifting through a loved one's things. In each case, there's a need for the past to be carried into the present. But the only way for the living to survive this carriage is to tear into the past, to rip it open, to free it from how it once was, there on the record shelf, there in a parent's closet.

Harold Budd is an ambient piano player who has often worked with Eno. My own piano playing is not wholly dissimilar from Budd's style, and my ability to play at all is one the greatest gifts my mother instilled in me. This track is from a comp called A Brief History of Ambient, which is really awesome and which I hope to post in its entirety in the near future.


wade said...

Beautiful and touching story Billy. Its so strange to think of how you will be defined and remembered when you leave.

Anonymous said...

I can't remember reading anything with such haste. I wanted to devour the writing. It's not that I wanted to get to the end or finish. In fact, the opposite. I was absorbed in a very touching and poignant place and I wanted to stay. Thank you for this thoughtful memory about a most difficult time. Very good piece.