As a child I spent a lot of time in the passenger seat of my mother’s car as she ran one errand or another. These excursions were usually within a mile or two of our suburban home: the dry cleaner, the grocery store, the drug store or, on Fridays, the farmers market in the next town. They offered the comfort, as well as the tedium, of familiar settings.
One day when I was five or six, we set out on a more exciting expedition. We crossed the wide river separating the suburbs from the city and drove through the city streets and up a winding road on a steep hill that I was amazed to see had just one building at the top. But what a building!
It was a huge white structure with a broad front porch whose roof was supported by a row of columns so tall and so big around that I thought we must be at the home of a giant. Before I had a chance to marvel aloud, my mother stopped the car in the driveway in front of the building, picked up a bag from the back seat and said she would be right back.
I watched as she walked quickly up the short flight of steps leading from the driveway to the front porch, crossed the porch and knocked on the front door. When she returned moments later, she brought an explanation with her: This building was an orphanage, and she had donated some clothes to the children who lived there.
I’m not sure I had ever heard the word “orphanage” before; if not, my mother must have explained what it was, because I remember that, as we drove away down the steep hill, I wondered briefly about the parentless children who inhabited that mysterious, stately building.
If I asked my mother about the children that day, I don’t remember her answer. Nor do I remember making another trip there with her or hearing her speak about the orphanage again. I grew up, moved away for 30 years, and never gave the orphanage another thought until one December several years ago, after I had moved back to the area to help care for my now elderly and ill mother.
At the urging of a friend at work, I had begun making occasional contributions to the city’s YWCA, which ran vigorous outreach programs for inner-city women, girls and families. A few days before Christmas, I decided to drop off my holiday check in person, and I called the Y for directions. As I turned off one of the city’s main thoroughfares and began to climb a winding road up a steep hill, I had the eerie feeling I had been there before. Seconds later, the road ended in a parking lot in front of an enormous white building with huge columns that I instantly recognized as the orphanage my mother and I had visited in my youth.
I parked the car, crossed the driveway and climbed the front porch steps as my mother had once done, only to find that the door my mother had knocked on years ago was now closed. A sign directed me to an entrance at the side of the building. After I walked the length of the porch, turned the corner to the side entrance and was buzzed through the security door, I found myself in a crowded lobby filled with mothers, fathers and small children who, on this cold December day, seemed to have sought it out as a refuge of last resort. Embarrassed by my obvious prosperity in the face of so much need, I gave my envelope to the receptionist, wished her a happy holiday and quietly left.
In the fall of 2009, my mother died—six days short of her 90th birthday and overwhelmed, finally, by the Parkinson’s disease and other ailments she had borne with such dignity and courage in her last years. Among the treasures she left behind was a vast wardrobe of skirts, sweaters, blouses, jackets and coats that it had been my job, as her only daughter, to regularly wash or dry clean and occasionally mend so she could remain as elegant in her wheelchair at the nursing home as she had been when she was healthy and independent.
In the fog of grief in the weeks after her death, I gave armloads of her skirts, sweaters and blouses to her church, which gratefully accepted them. As bitter cold settled in the following January, I dropped off her heavy winter coat at a women’s shelter. And then, as the months passed, I found it more and more difficult to part with the clothing of hers I still had that I would never wear myself—several jackets, a stack of cotton sweaters, two wool berets, some winter scarves, and five summer skirts in fabrics or floral prints she had particularly loved.
Instead of armfuls of clothing, I was now donating an item or two at a time, and only then when I assured myself I would not experience a keen sense of regret after I did so. The cotton sweaters went out the door one day. Months later, I said farewell to two more items—a brown-and-beige reversible jacket and a corduroy car coat. Last winter I donated the berets: one a royal blue, the other a jaunty gold.
Earlier this month I confronted one of my greatest challenges: A celadon green unlined wool jacket from Talbots. My mother had loved this jacket; she wore it on cool days in the fall and spring when we would go for walks outside or to doctor’s appointments. It was warm yet easy to wear while in a wheelchair or riding in the passenger seat of my car—where it was now my mother’s turn to sit while I drove. As her Parkinson’s disease worsened, however, it became more and more difficult for my mother to get into her beloved jacket. While she sat in her wheelchair in her nursing home room before our outings, we would struggle together to get first one arm and then the other through the unlined sleeves.
After my mother died, I wore this jacket myself a couple of times, until I had to admit that the comfort I drew from wearing it was outweighed by the knowledge that it was really not my style. And then for four years it just hung in my coat closet, a quiet reminder of both the brave woman who had worn it and of my inability to completely say farewell to her.
But now it was time. After taking a few photos of it, I covered the jacket with a dry cleaning bag, and I put a flame-orange mohair scarf and a practically unworn pair of sheepskin gloves I had overlooked in previous donations in a separate bag. My mother’s church had long since stopped accepting clothing, and the church I sporadically attend has a room already crammed with donated clothing that no one ever seems to take. And that is why, one day last week, I found myself driving up the steep hill to the YWCA.
I parked the car in the lot in front of the old entrance to the orphanage, opened the rear door and carefully removed the jacket and the bag with the scarf and gloves from the back seat. I crossed the driveway and walked up the steps to the front porch, feeling a little panicky but carrying my light burden with reverence. After I reached the side entrance and was buzzed in through the security door, I waited in the lobby for a few minutes until Liz, a staff member I had met at Christmastime, came out to take my donation.
Before I surrendered my mother’s things, I summoned up the courage to verify what I suspected. “Was this building ever an orphanage?” I asked. Liz smiled, and said yes; during the years of my childhood, it had been an orphanage run by the Catholic Church. I told Liz my story of coming there as a child with my mother with clothing to donate, and I finished by saying, as I gripped the hanger with my mother’s jacket on it, “She died four years ago. These are some of her things”—and then I quickly added, “I’m sorry,” as I realized with embarrassment that my voice was breaking and my eyes were filling with tears.
With a kind phrase, Liz swiftly set me at ease; she said, with great sympathy, “It’s come full circle.” As I handed my mother’s things to her, I smiled in agreement, grateful for her understanding. When I drove away down the winding road a few minutes later, I sensed my mother’s presence in the car. But the panicky feeling and the sorrow had gone, and I had no regret that I had left her scarf, gloves and beloved celadon green jacket behind in the mysterious, stately building at the top of the hill.
Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper
Painting: The Amazon (Woman in Yellow Jacket) By Amadeo Modigliani (1909) Via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph: YWCA Greater Harrisburg By Butz Enterprises, Allentown, Pennsylvania