In 1979, Mom packed me and my two little sisters in her old Datsun and we hit the road. With pit stops, it took us two days to drive from Woody Creek to Denver, and we camped for the night on Independence Pass.

We were a unit. We were secure in the nest. We knew that our mom was there for us no matter what. She created a home base in Denver where we could be ourselves and we never had to worry about falling through the false floor we witnessed in other families. Clean laundry on the dining table, dirty dishes in the sink, kids, dogs and hamsters running wild… this was home.

And clutter. Oh, my gods, the clutter. The kitchen table was in constant flux: pens, coins, sunglasses, bandana, gloves, chap stick, nail file, binoculars, cassette tapes, etc. Waterfalls of books and magazines and scraps of paper with her distinctive handwriting on them spilled off counters and tabletops in every room; a small forest’s worth of National Geographics covered the coffee table, always.

Mom loved to travel. We couldn’t afford new clothes or the latest toys, and she drove to another neighborhood to shop for groceries with food stamps, (in case she ran into one of her deceased mother’s old friends from the country club) yet somehow she always found the money to take us on a trip. We took road trips every summer: the Pacific Northwest, Yellowstone, Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, New England.

We saw beaches, mountains, deserts go whirring by while Jim Croce, Helen Reddy, or Carole King crooned in the background. Mom drove her three young (bickering or giggling — or both) daughters all around the country, towing a crank-up camper and a permeating smell of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that have been left in a warm car. A smell that brings back the best memories, like comfort food for the soul.

As we got older, we traveled to places farther from home. We flew to Niger to visit my sister in the Peace Corps and spent weeks traveling together in bush taxis, marveling at the local markets and eating raw garlic that Mom passed around like candy. We went to Belize in search of warm beaches, cold daiquiris, and room-temperature-water-dwelling manatees.

On a trip to China we called in sick one day, skipping the pre-arranged tour to stay in bed and read. And when Mom traveled, the clutter came too. We would arrive at our hotel and after I hung my dresses in the closet and unpacked my toothbrush, I would look over to see her bed covered in random shit: maps, brochures, receipts, bandana, sunscreen, dental floss, cookies, passport, etc.

Almost three years ago Mom went to live in Heritage Park. Never say never, right? As in, don’t kid yourself that the only affordable/possible option will be the one you swore you would never consider. Mom had been diagnosed with Atypical Parkinsonism and while her body didn’t shake, her mobility was limited. She could not walk or stand unassisted, so she required 24/7 care. Her handwriting changed and so
did she.

The best description I can come up with is that her mind orbited. Some days she’d be close and familiar, I could even make her laugh with the memory of a trip, but then she would take off again for the dark side and I was left with blank stares, conversations that trailed off, lost memories and made up history. It was terrifyingly subtle. Of course, the clutter was still a constant. My eyes inevitably went to the mobile tray next to her bed: magazines, nuts, piggy bank, bandana, tweezers, lotion, Tums, TV remote, etc.

I am grateful for all the trips we took, all the times we spent together. And when I look at old pictures, I can still see my real mom; the woman who fearlessly followed her life’s journey with three little planets in tow. And a comet’s tail of clutter.

Mom died Nov. 18. Thank you to the staff at Heritage Park for your unending patience, attention and care.