Covert Mom: Good Vibrations

Photo provided by Mariah Mottley.

The ongoing stressors of witnessing my father’s last weeks and of dismantling his worldly possessions have turned me into the worst, laziest version of myself.
Burnout is real. My grief spirit animal, I have decided, is Anna Nicole Smith, the former stripper, reality television pioneer, and decadent underachiever. She won my heart forever in the early aughts, where each episode of her reality show seemed to conclude with her attorney rubbing her feet as she lay on her sofa, complaining about her interior decorator. Anna Nicole had some things figured out.

“I like Texas,” she said of her home state, “I like it in my rearview mirror.”

That’s how I feel about this part of my life. I want it in the rearview mirror. I want to stop dealing with death. And having to wear snowpants everywhere because it is two degrees. Fahrenheit.

“Are you really going out in those?” my daughter asked, hearing the swish-swish-swish as I walked by, car keys in hand.
“Yup,” I said. “And I’m wearing eyeliner. And a nice scarf.” That’s what Anna Nicole would have done. I was headed to my father’s house to take another load of books to the Friends of the Tompkins County Library Book Sale.

Once there, I worked my way along my father’s shelves, sorting into boxes: Donate, keep, and offer to friends. I kept William Shirer’s “Berlin Diary” and the “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” “Waiting for Godot.” A couple of Tony Hillermans. My grandmother’s Bible. I am saying goodbye to the complete works of Bernard Shaw. Biographies of Mahler, Shostakovich, Nureyev and Pasternak. So much Herman Wouk. Many outdated travel guides.

In the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” Billy Crystal’s character tells his newly-in-love friends to put their names in their books now so that when they break up they will know how to separate them again. It’s hard for me to get excited about keeping many of my father’s books because all I can think about is my children having to box them all up in a few years. Our time here is so temporary.

I paused at a Norton Anthology of Poetry, blue, yellow, and red flags along the edge. It looked familiar. Sure enough, it had my handwriting inside. I’d thrown it out already, probably eight years ago, put it in a box on my curb. My dad must have scavenged it. Been sitting on his shelf all this time. Couldn’t help himself.
I bristled. Flipped the pages, saw my notes in the margins. Yeats. Pound. Cummings. Eliot. William Carlos Williams. I’d blazed through that course, my mother’s quickly advancing dementia chasing me to finish college the quickest way possible, which meant ditching biology for literature. I came to Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse”: “They f–k you up, your mum and dad /They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had /And add some extra, just for you.”
“You can say that again,” I said into the silence of the empty house, dropping the book into the donate box. Again. The tape gun was heavy duty, and dated back to when I was 23 and emptying my mother’s apartment. I used it to close the box up nice and tight. That book wasn’t coming back to me again.

On the drive to Ithaca, I thought about how my father has said that he doesn’t want a Memorial Service, just wants us to keep his ashes in our spice cabinet. I’d been hoping for a more peaceful final resting place to visit.

At the book sale warehouse, I bid my boxes goodbye.

“Return,” I told them, “from whence you came.”

Volunteers busily processed books from boxes just like mine, dozens of bookcases visible behind them. I stood for a moment. I could come here to visit him. The cavernous space seemed as good a place as any to represent the hereafter.

Wegmans, my next stop, had tropical plants on sale. Big ones. Only $15. I put a four-foot-tall cat palm in my cart, and, inhaling the smell of warm soil, immediately felt better. On the way across the parking lot, the world looked less bleak through the fronds. I crammed the pot into the front seat, newly empty of books.
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Originally from Manhattan, Mariah was educated in Massachusetts, Montana and Texas, often by failure. She lives with her husband and three children in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Mariah can be reached at