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Momento Mori

Pia Sieroty Spector is a 3rd generation Californian. At age 18, she abandoned the smoggy Los Angeles sprawl for Northern California where she studied architectural history at UC Santa Cruz. She then ventured to the humid and mysterious south where she studied, traveled abroad and received a Masters in Art History from Emory University. She headed back to L.A. for a three year visit which enabled her to work in her field, marry in her faith and, upon mutual agreement, head back north to make a home, two stellar daughters and a full life in the River City.

Twenty-seven years later, Pia is the executive director of Bread of Life Center, a facilitator at Writing as Transformative Art and a published poet who is now focused on the art of creative nonfiction. She is also a lover of all things delicious: language, food, wine, art, people and travel.

My mom has a lot of treasures. This wasn’t so obvious to me when I was growing up. Maybe because the treasures all had a place in the basement. Maybe because I was only concerned with my own universe. Maybe because we used everything we had, even the basement items that our maid carried up the creaking wooden stairs for holidays, school projects or one of the elaborate craft-themed birthday parties my mom expertly planned and executed for me.

The author with her brother and both parents at a home birthday party when she was young

Mom’s basement treasures saw the light of day when she moved, after she and my father divorced. She had become the family historian. She kept papers, jewelry, furniture, knick-knacks, photos — everything that told the story of my father’s family. It was everything he didn’t want. Sadly, this was a theme for him as he moved from marriage two to three to four. Any item of meaning, he’d leave at the home of the woman he’d lived with, always extracting himself from the mess, leaving behind money and bits of his family history that my mother or the other wives hadn’t claimed. She also, like most moms, kept all of my childhood treasures, our family slides, photos and photo albums. My mother could have been a librarian, a historian or a successful business owner — she kept, collected and treasured with zeal and expertise.

A black and white photo of the author's parents on their honeymoon on the California coast in 1961

As the years went by, mom became more attached to her treasures — the valuable ones and the ones she’d purchased at various “junk shops”, as she called them. I witnessed her acute attachment four years ago when she moved from Auburn to Gold River. She almost had a nervous breakdown parting with a garage full of the purchased treasures that she’d grown so attached to. These items had a value to her. The value, she told us during the pre-garage sale sort, was that she thought of her treasures as the inventory in her unrealized antique store. She felt that dream dying as she prepared to part with her inventory. Every item had a story — where it was purchased, its original cost, what it was worth now — thank you, Google! That sad April day, with one daughter and two granddaughters ready to sell her treasures, we sold no more than $20 worth. Mom didn’t want to negotiate, she didn’t want to sell, she didn’t want to talk to anyone and she certainly didn’t want to go inside for sandwich and a nap, as we suggested over and over.

So, the majority of those unrealized antique store treasures went to Goodwill. Those that made it down the hill to her garage in Gold River have been thinned out as Mom realized the new, smaller house didn’t have the built-in bookshelves or living space to display her lifetime of collectibles.

Of particular note is her elephant collection which she started because her mother had called her an elephant when she was growing up. My grandmother was being derogatory, criticizing her daughter who was tall and gentle, had big hands and feet and often slow to move forward. Mom said she wanted to make something good out of the hurt she felt so she started studying elephants. She came to the conclusion that they are intelligent, gentle giants so she decided to surround herself with replicas of them. Her collection is utterly charming, and she once showed it at the Auburn Library.

Lately, when I’m at her house, I find myself making mental notes of the things I want when she dies. The two masks from Bali that hang in her living room; she bought them when she came to visit me in Santa Cruz in the early 1980s. I remember her asking the store owner if she could use the phone to call my Dad to ask permission to buy the stunning male and female, one black and one white. He agreed.

Edel Himpel, painting of the author's mother as a young girl in Germany

I also want the two watercolors of nude women by a stream; they hung in my parents’ bathroom in the 1970s, and they hang in my mom’s bathroom today. I want the lamp from my grandmother’s San Francisco house, the one with the nude black woman using her hand to hold up the lampshade. And lastly, I want the small lamp with the cluster of green glass balls and white shade that was in my father’s childhood bedroom in San Francisco.

Each time her granddaughters visit, Mom takes a Sharpie and asks them to point out what treasures they want. Then she puts an ‘A’ or ‘T’ on the bottom of each item and assures them it will be waiting for them when she is gone. The girls have shared that they find this exciting, sad and odd.

I took my mom to Auburn a few weeks ago to close her safe deposit box and bring the contents down to Sacramento closer to her house. We stood close in the tiny room the bank provides box holders to assess their box’s contents. The first thing mom did was open the small brown box that has the clamps from both of her C-sections in it — one from 1962 and one from 1965. She showed me her mother’s yellow diamond that will be mine and a delicate short string of pearls she wants to give Arielle (immediately I pictured them around Ari’s neck as she walks down the aisle and felt a sense of calm that mom would be with her eldest granddaughter in those pearls). Mom then gave me a stick pin with a peridot and diamond after I told her that peridot is my birthstone. Stick pins are reminiscent of another time and place, and I love that she handed me that memory on that day.

The author and her mother; Pia's grandmother's ashtray and the stick pin from my German grandmother.

Mom puts a lot of energy into momentos and treasures, so much more than my generation or my kid’s generation. Items have less meaning now; they’re disposable and don’t last. Instead, we collect treasured experiences and photos.

What this is really about is not so much my mom’s treasures as the observation that it is an odd feeling to mourn your mom before she’s dead. Recently, I learned this is called anticipatory grief. I have it, and so does my brother.

My mom has been preparing to leave for a long time. She’s planning to leave herself behind in each treasure, in the journals she’s been writing and sharing. My mom will leave a lot behind. Some days I wrangle with what it will be like to be with her treasures and without her. I struggle with the mom I’ve known and will lovingly remember and the momentos she’ll leave behind that will tell the story of who she really was.

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