All that glitters
October 21, 2016
I was in the guest room hunting for a gift bag and opened the drawer that contained my inheritance. The contents were shiny and noisy and demanded I stop and look at them. I told myself not to fall down that rabbit hole, but then spent hours touching the keepsakes and remembering stories about them.
Most everything is red, white and blue — in gold, metal, or silver — on ribbons or buttons. There is nary a donkey to be found, but there are more elephants than you would see on a month of safaris. My mother was a lifelong Republican organizer, delegate and collector of political memorabilia. It was the one place my half-sister and I struggled with in separating her things.
Mother was diagnosed with dementia just days after Barack Obama was elected president. We were certain the election of a black man, who was a Democrat ,was just too much for her 85- year-old Republican brain to process. Her break with reality took place at a Republican gathering two weeks after the election. Her friends called the ambulance and by nightfall my sister and I had arrived in the Bay Area to assess the situation. The doctors were very clear: This had been building for some time and the break was not reversible. We had 48 hours to find her a facility, which we did. It was a kinda Rolls Royce of "Memory Care" places since the warehouse facilities we saw were too horrible to consider. And we were in agreement: This was her money and we would spend it to make certain she was well cared for. We both lived states away.
We knew to make it work we would need to sell her home, a three story place on a quiet street in the Bay Area in a neighborhood where homes never changed hands unless something like this happened. As we walked a realtor through the place, a neighbor came over and asked if her friend could see it. In the end we sold the home to her. We had one long weekend to clear out 50 years of our mother's life.
There is nary a donkey to be found, but there are more elephants than you would see on a month of safaris.
As anyone who has traveled on this emotional journey knows, it is painful and amusing and bittersweet. And it takes a long time to unpack memories as you pack up debris. My sister and I did it quite well. We didn't argue about a vase or a book. Not about the furniture or the china. I was so proud of how we divided and discarded. When we tackled the collection of political buttons and jewelry and books, things slowed down. Though we had different fathers and radically different childhoods, the parts we shared revolved around our mother's involvement in Republican work. We took our time dividing those memories.
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We each ended up with two gallon-sized Ziploc bags of rhinestone elephant earrings and bracelets and necklaces. With red, white and blue ribbons with political buttons attached. I ended up with a gold-colored elephant pin with black horn-rimmed glasses from Barry Goldwater. And with all of her delegate stuff from the national convention in Dallas and from when she went to represent California in New Orleans. With letters signed from high ranking officials. My sister let me have the prize of those — a telegram from The White House signed from Dwight D Eisenhower — which I find curious since he was president at the time, but did not sign President Eisenhower. It was sent to thank my mother for her work in the party.
Mother had worked with Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California and then had been on all kinds of lists when he became president. We had endless buttons and costume jewelry to split from those years.
I have the oldest ribbon badge in the collection — It's from the McKinley Club in Livingston, Montana, dated 1896. There is a button of McKinley attached to the nearly five-inch embossed ribbon. I have no idea how she came into possession of that one. There is a "Haig for President" button which always makes me laugh, and a pin that is a piece of a heavy gold metal zipper — unzipped a bit — that simply says "Clinton."
I say these pieces are my inheritance because it took every dime of the sale from her home, $1 million, and most of her savings to care for her for the 5 1/2 years she lived in that lovely facility with the kind caregivers. My sister died in the middle of that time from a lifetime of smoking and not caring for herself, and from being seriously overweight. And even though she was a nurse, or maybe because of it, she was addicted to OxyContin.
There is one button — an "Elizabeth Dole for President"– that gives me pause right now. My mother was her own kind of feminist. Married five times, she loved a lot. She ran her own Merle Norman make-up business in the '60s. She dressed with great, um, flair. She would have hated Donald Trump, but she would not have forgiven Hillary for staying with Bill. But the one thing she would have done is vote. She would have been working hard for council members, Congress people and governor candidates. She would have been very crabby about the presidential choices.
And though I am fed up with the Presidential scene, I will vote for Hillary because I care about the planet and democracy and experience matters. Locally, I will carefully consider the school board, county commission, congressional and governor races. I don't vote any kind of straight party ticket because we just need the best folks who understand what needs to happen in our own backyards.
If you see me sporting "Ike and Dick are Sure to Click" it is worn with respect for a country that has survived centuries of good and less good elections. I may pin a different old badge each day from now to the election. Starting this very Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.