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Saving It for Good
28 August 2002

About two years ago, my mother succumbed to Alzheimer's disease and had to be moved to a nursing home. As I went through her things over the months, I began to find objects I didn't know she had. An Irish lace tablecloth, handed down from generations on my maternal Grandmother's side. Clothing in sealed plastic bags, unworn. Three complete sets of bone china. A collection of cut glass that would break your heart. These things were never used. Like the living room that sat neat and empty all the years I lived at home, they were saved "for good." But "for good" never came.

When my grandmother died in 1994, she left her household Fiestaware to me. My cousins were furious, seeing the value of the dishes from an antique collectors' perspective. But Grandma had used the Fiestaware as everyday dishes since the 1940s. A few were chipped, but most were in excellent condition. I brought the dishes home and began using them every day. Every now and then one breaks or gets chipped. Some shards of broken saucers lie among the sea glass and crystals in my personal circle, as objects for contemplating the certainty of change. But when I serve dinner on those dishes, my grandmother is there at the table. I remember my mother excoriating her for planting a geranium in a huge, flawless Fiestaware bowl. I can almost taste her noodles in that big yellow bowl (although she always declined to give me a recipe - "just some egg yolk and flour and salt, until it feels right," she would say). I can't make the noodles, but the dishes feed my soul every day.

When I moved in to my sometimes apartment in Pasadena, I furnished the place with a borrowed table and futon and wicker furniture courtesy of Pier One. Except for a few photographs and my husband's beautifully rendered fractals, the decor lacked distinction. I didn't have a desk or chair, so my faculty friend Fred Fehlau offered me an old drafting table - and an Eames chair with original bright green upholstery. A real Designer's artifact to show my Art Center friends! And oh, it just matches the mail-order comforter on the bed.

One morning I was sitting in that chair with a cup of coffee. A dribble started to fall on the upholstery and I caught it with my nightgown before it made contact. What to do? I suddenly realized that I had to save that chair for good. Actually, I had to save it for Fred. Now I sit on a towel when I have coffee at the desk. If my blood still had enough Hoosier in it, the chair would have a neat plastic cover. But the temporary towel (always put away when coffee is done) is the biggest concession I can bring myself to make.

When my father was dying back in the 80s, we never had The Conversation about our lives together. By the time I realized we needed to have it, he was on a respirator and unable to speak. By the time my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, The Conversation was precluded by her illness. I guess we were all saving The Conversation "for good." Every day I reach back through the years to try to say "I love you" to them one more time. And every day I tell my kids, "I love you" - so often that they're sick of hearing it.

Today I visited an old friend at Stanford Hospital who is working her way through a rare and especially nasty strain of leukemia. She places part of the blame on the high-stress job she had and all the work she put into saving for retirement. The illness and loss of work ate up most of what she had been saving, and she noticed that she had been working toward the wrong thing. She was saving for the good life that would come after work was done. When she recovers from this illness - and I believe she will - she is going to manifest a very different attitude about what life is for and how to live it. No more scrambling for that dreamy retirement that most of us will never get. Both of us know people who have lived joyfully into old age with very little in the bank. We agreed that it is time to follow their example.
Fiestaware and tomatoes
The lesson here is that "for good" is "for now." Right now. The money isn't in the bank, the work is not finished, the daily complications never stop. But life is here, like ripe tomatoes falling into an outspread apron, every day, offering pleasure and amazing grace.