My mother had lived in the one-bedroom apartment for 17 years, and when she died in October, my brother and I assumed that emptying it for the next tenant would be relatively easy — after all, there was no basement or attic to empty, and she had always been a hardcore balleboste, Yiddish for “mistress of the house.”
To call her “house-proud” doesn’t begin to describe her relationship to her home and belongings: from costume jewelry to décor, it was all “the best,” and regardless of age, “like new.” It was beyond pride; it was a matter of self-esteem.
Her grandchildren took some of the furniture — mostly mid-century modern, fashionable again. A friend took her beloved, cast-iron Singer sewing machine, which is as old as I am. The clothes went to Women’s Lunch Place, a local organization that helps homeless women. The books went to More Than Words, a non-profit that benefits youth. A food pantry was happy to take unopened cans of chili and boxes of corn flakes. We carted boxes of pots, pans, baking dishes, throw pillows and rugs, space heaters, fans, tools, clocks and more to Savers, which supports the Epilepsy Foundation. A "pantry" of art and sewing supplies and fabrics for Framingham State Art and Fashion Design Majors, was the perfect place for her scraps and sewing notions. I was happy to see her goods do good.
It was all pretty straightforward, until we got to the owls.
My brother says her collection started when I was in high school and brought home a glued-together amalgam of stones painted with a cartoonish beak, eyes and wings. She liked it more than I did and picked up a few other owl tchotchkes. But at some point, people notice you have a few pigs or teacups or owls in your house, and like it or not, you become a collector.
The owls allowed us to be creative and almost always made her smile.
My family embraced the idea. It was never easy to shop for my mother, whose tastes were unyielding and who never sugarcoated her opinions. It was impossible to buy her clothes or throw pillows or even scarves. We knew her preferred fragrances and brand of chocolate, so we could give her boxes of Baci, flagons of Poeme, and lily-of-the-valley-scented toiletries. The owls allowed us to be creative and almost always made her smile.
Of course, there were rules. They had to be small — three or four inches tops. The other criteria were ingenuity, craftsmanship, and cuteness — in that order.
Over the years, my brother and I, our children and spouses, friends and acquaintances, gave her owls carved out of wood, bone, soapstone, and hollowed-out gourds. Some were cast in silver, copper, and bronze, gold-plated, and inlaid with tiles. She had owls that were feathered, stuffed, formed out of clay, plastic, glass, paper, and porcelain. Her favorites were the Swarovski crystal owls she’d bought herself, and liked to tell us, “Those are worth a lot of money.”
There were owl candy dishes, mugs, dishtowels, bowls, a reusable shopping bag, candleholders, ashtrays, and a vase. Also, owl note cards, notebooks, pens, change purses, a salt and pepper set, several refrigerator magnets and a wind chime.
Although my mother was 92, her death was unexpected.
Just eight weeks prior, at a regular check-up, the doctor had been pleased with her blood pressure, labs, and physical exam and told us to make an appointment for six months hence. She was felled — probably by her heart condition — in her kitchen, the refrigerator open, making herself lunch. It was the kind of death she had hoped for: no suffering, no loss of independence or dignity. It was the kind of death most people hope for.
Still, it came as a shock.
I wish we’d counted all her owls or taken pictures of the glass-front cabinet that housed several dozen of them. But we were rushed for time; my brother came here for only a few days and he wanted to help as much as he could. Also, we had barely begun to process the fact that she was gone.
Her owls, however, were very much with us.
My daughter and I each chose one owl as remembrances, and I set aside several to give to her neighbors and friends. My brother took others to keep and to share with his kids, and a few other others who knew our mother. Even so, the cabinet was almost full. Finally, after several emails back and forth, my niece, a veterinarian with a passion for birds, said she’d take the rest. This was a huge relief. Our mother would have been furious to see how many of her cherished possessions we had given away. Finding a home for the best and bulk of her collection felt like a way to atone and to pay respect. So my brother wrapped them, one by one, in my mother’s washcloths and towels, filled an extra suitcase, and checked that mighty flock for his flight home.
I never knew why my mother collected owls.
Owls — in all their variety — are beautiful birds and easy to anthropomorphize. With their relatively large, forward-facing eyes and small beaks, Hallmark and Disney and hundreds of crafts folk have made them cuddly and friendly, or composed and mellow. Hootie’s reputation as the smartest creature in the forest comes from the species’ ancient association with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.
In the wild, owls are anything but cuddly; they are silent, nocturnal predators that have been seen as evil omens and harbingers of death by cultures around the world and throughout history.
None of this has anything to do with my mother’s relationship to owls. She didn’t identify with the owl. It was not her “spirit creature.”
When asked, “Why owls?” she would shrug and say, “I just like them.”