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The Old Brown Box

So here was this box.

It was old, and a little tattered, and had a plain brown covering. Very, very unusual for my Mother. When my Mother passed away in California in 2004, my life went from one thing to the complete opposite. I was in my forties at the time, and I was suddenly an orphan. And so I become something else.

I was wide awake. And felt half asleep.

And so there was this old, brown box tucked neatly under her TV in her cozy living room, her favorite room in her house. And along with taking care of the papers and clothes and the condo and phone calls and my own grief, I had to go through her stuff. All of her stuff. Fortunately, my mother was one of the most neurotically clean and obsessively compulsive people on the planet. She alphabetized the herbs, she labeled her colored paper, and her refrigerator was organized by food groups as well as by height and width. She tried for a while to get some help cleaning the house as it became difficult for her to lift and move things, and one afternoon as I was visiting her, I caught her vacuuming like there was an approaching dust storm.

"What are you doing, Mother?" I asked watching her frantically sweep through the dining room.

"Cleaning." she said running out of breath.

"But....isn't the cleaning woman coming today?"

"Well yes. But you don't want her to think I live like a pig, do you?"

And so I searched through the box, holding it in my hand thinking it belonged somewhere else. It was out of place, this old, beat up thing in a world of shiny, polished crystal and just-dusted antiques. But there it was. Living in plain sight and hidden so it had to be found again. And as I opened it, there, placed neatly in small piles, were old reviews of shows I had done, programs, ticket stubs, interviews, pictures, and assorted things from my life saved by my mother. This wasn't a shrine of some kind, it wasn't a big deal, it wasn't a collage on the wall or a painting in the hallway of me, it was a small token put in the place she spent the most time in, and seemed to be her own well kept secret.

And there it was in my hands, most likely never meant for me to see.

Then....under some letters I had written her when I was a teenager trying to explain why I was no longer her son, but now her daughter, and some assorted Mother's Day cards I sent, was an AIDS ribbon encased in gold and made into a small stick pin.

When I was diagnosed, we didn't speak for a while. Through everything my mother and I had been to each other, with every role we played, when the disease hit in the early eighties, and I was one of the first few to catch it, my mother retreated. She needed to figure this out. To be with it for a while. The only conversation we'd ever had that even remotely touched on the subject, was when I asked her if I could come and stay with her if the disease ever touched me.

"No, Alex. You couldn't. I wouldn't know what to do for you."

I was nineteen at the time.

Mother supported Ronald Reagan, and was a staunch Republican her entire life. I tried, during the beginning of the Plague to tell her what was happening to everyone around me, but it never really lived in her. It wasn't real. It wasn't true for her. If it wasn't happening in in the large suburban life she was in the middle of, then it simply wasn't happening. And it didn't help that her idol, and the Leader of the Free World was just as silent and just as invisible.

The day I came home and finally told her face to face why I'd had so many colds and so many fevers and so many coughs,I remember her in the kitchen, holding her stomach, and facing away from me toward the window looking out on our garden. The sun was beating down hard on her face, and she covered her eyes. She stood there in silence for almost two minutes and said only one word:


It wasn't a prayer, it was a plea. I can still feel that moment in my bones.

But we rarely spoke about it.

"How are you?" she would say on our weekly Sunday afternoon call.

"Fine, Mother."

"Good. Have you quit smoking?"

"Not yet. I'm working on it."

"And your health?"

"Everything's fine, Mother. Really."

And then we'd chat about what we were going to do that day.

And so here it was. In my hand. I pictured my mother in her fur wandering around some fancy shops on Santa Monica pier passing by a vendor selling assorted jewelry, and at the bottom of a collection of gold bracelets no one wanted and multi-colored necklaces, was this gold AIDS ribbon. I saw her handling it, checking it to make sure it wouldn't tear her blouses or ruin a good sweater. I could feel her mulling around in her brain the conversation at her bridge club, and the questions from her dry cleaner. And I saw her wearing it. Only on special occasions. Only when it was necessary. Only in times of great need. And whether any of that was true and whether any of that actually happened, it was there in my hand, and I knew she remembered me. At least one day out every year.

And now it lies on my own chest next to my heart, safe and secure so the conversations I have today if anyone asks me about it, can be about the people who've passed, the people who are still fighting and the people who cared. The people who stood up and were recognized as supporters of the sick and the disenfranchised. And one of those people was my mother. After this day is over, and I do my show tonight as I approach the end of a long journey here in graduate school, I'll put the pin back to sleep where it belongs, in the tattered brown box that now lives under the bed in the room my wife and I spend the most time in.

Nothing ever dies, and nothing ever really goes away. Not if we remember it. Not if we speak about it.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 1st, 2012 10:41 pm (UTC)
Your writing always touches me deeply. Thanks for sharing this story!
Dec. 1st, 2012 10:50 pm (UTC)
Beautiful. Thank you.
Dec. 1st, 2012 11:55 pm (UTC)
I love you and i haven't gone away, just on a little frolic and detour. xoxoxoxox Sonja
Abraham Benrubi
Dec. 2nd, 2012 12:02 am (UTC)
As always, your content floors me. Your delivery stuns me. Your honesty humbles me. Shattered. In the best possible way. Live long, and prosper.
Dec. 4th, 2012 07:29 pm (UTC)
Your Mom
So well written my darling Alex. What joy, and experience, you bring to the world with your wise way of communication. Not yelling, not screaming, not forcing it down anyone's throat. I only prey that somewhere, somehow, in time, these stories will be just that. Nice memories to think about after there is cure. If only..........
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )