We found fifteen bottles of ketchup in my grandmother’s cabinet. Four in her fridge, all partially empty and their openings rimmed with the crusted dried ring that showed they hadn’t been used in a while. She’d only been in assisted living for two months when the stroke landed and finally silenced the raw neurons that were on their last little legs. A short coma later and she had passed on. Now, my mother, sister, and I were in charge of cleaning out her house.
A strange accumulation of collections; obsessive-compulsive and desperate clinging to objects that were hard to understand reasons for. Like nineteen bottles of ketchup. Or the way we found four hundred dollars, in ones, tucked into odd little places, like her lingerie drawer, an empty flour canister, an old shoebox, and in grandpa’s fishing gear, dusty in the top of the closet.
Wading through the piles of boxes, the stacks of magazines, and the odd smells of dust and decay that seemed to be a part of the in-situ site of her past, felt like trying to swim the English Channel if it were made of molasses instead of seawater. My mother was the anchor tied in thick chains around our ankles, my sister and I exchanged looks every time she would stop, sit down with a box, and gasp and coo over the strange contents, scraps of paper, old dried-out corsages, newspaper articles about her uncles or brothers. There were never any of her. It was history repeating. The power of these things to pull her, as it had her mother, from the present and beneath the waves of a past they could not change.
“Oh momma, why did you save all of this,” she would whisper, and Heather and I would look at one another with a knowing glance. In twenty years, we would be asking ourselves the same things about her. Why do you still have our fifth-grade report cards? Why do you keep every mail order catalog when you don’t order things from them? Why do you have four bottles of relish in your fridge? Why are there random hundred-dollar bills tucked into your rattiest pair of socks?
The answer is always the same. Because she forgot. She forgot she bought one already. She forgot she still had enough. She forgot she didn’t have to hide money for later. She forgot where she hid it. She forgot and these things would help her remember. Day by day, and in small and great ways, she also would forget our names, that dad didn’t pass away, he left. That she’d bought relish last week. And we would be there to remind her. In the same ways she was there for her mother. Until the end.
We sifted through the mass wreckage of a life trying to remember who they were by the things they owned. Defined by the boxes of pictures and the report cards that told them what their children’s names were and what their birthdays were. When my eyes turn sad, watching my mom, my sister saw it and pinched the back of my arm, where the skin is most tender. It hurts. In a raw, tangible physical way and it shocks me back into my own body, in this time.
“What are we going to do?” I say, tears shaking my voice. My sister looks at the rows of unopened ketchup bottles tucked into the haphazardly stacked shelves of unused food. She looks at my mother, who has opened another box, shaking her head.
“Order a shit ton of fries, I guess.”
My mother looks up. I look at my sister. And the laughter bubbles up from somewhere under my mother’s heart, somewhere deep in the core of her body, where she created us and carried us. And when it bursts out, it’s like a flight of butterflies escaping the cold of winter, breaking into the sunlight, bright and in hues of yellow and gold and flashes of purple. And it goes on, a river of joy flowing, a release of the years of hurt and worry; a letting go.
It’s the most contagious thing I’ve ever been hit by and I can’t stop my own laugh from breaking out between lips that were only moments before shaking with tears. And we can’t stop, because every time anyone of us looks at the others, it surges forward again, until we are breathless, lying on the floor in a tangle of arms and giggles and tears.
Life is stupid and unpredictable. And hard. And beautiful. And we only have each other, and we only have ourselves. And we only have our tears, and we only have our laughter. And we only have moments to make memories. And only enough boxes to hold so many of them. And the container is faulty, and it leaks out memories like a colander. We only have one short go around.
And nineteen bottles of ketchup.