Photo by Vikesh Kapoor
After my mother died, it fell to my older brother and me to handle her affairs, make the arrangements, and empty her house of her belongings. My brother and I live on opposite ends of the country—he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts; I live in Portland, Oregon. Our mother passed away in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he and I were born. We had taken leave from work and flown in to be with her during her final weeks, and now that she was gone, we were faced not only with grieving her loss and with thinking about how life was going to be different without her but also with the immensity of the work that lay ahead.
My mother, Sue Finley, lived alone in a two-story three-bedroom townhouse on the east side of Ann Arbor. She hadn’t remarried since her divorce from my father, nearly 30 years earlier, but she’d had many boyfriends and lovers over the years. Some she had kept around long enough for me to form minor connections to, whereas others she’d gotten rid of before I’d even learned their names. I never thought anything of it. My mother struck me not as lonely but as restless.
GROWING UP, I HAD CONSIDERED MY MOTHER’S ART HER HOBBY, OR AS A VESTIGE OF HER PREVIOUS LIFE, BEFORE NAT AND I CAME ALONG.
When she was a teenager, she had hitchhiked throughout the United States and Canada, graduated from the University of Michigan with an art degree, and lived with her boyfriend on an island near Greece, where she painted and watched the waves. She gave birth to Nat, my brother, in Ann Arbor, and to me eight years later in the same city but with a different father. After divorcing my father, she returned to school and earned a master’s degree in social work. She moved from Ann Arbor to Colorado and then from Colorado to Maine, where she lived a couple of months before moving to Massachusetts. But she stayed there only a short time before finally returning for good to Ann Arbor, although she continued to travel the world—providing art therapy to orphaned rebel girls in Sri Lanka or riding in rickshaws in Vietnam.
Somehow, during all this moving and relocating, my mother held onto all her things—not only her furniture and clothes, but all her old papers, bills, long-expired coupons, childhood doodles, yearbooks, report cards, journals from when she was a girl, notebooks, loose change, and hundreds of photographs.
My mother wasn’t a hoarder, not in the way one usually imagines hoarders. Her house, at least on the surface, was neat and orderly. The living room and bedrooms were uncluttered. Inside the garage, the dozen or so cardboard boxes, though worn from age and travel, were neatly stacked—ready, perhaps, for the next move.
The day after she died, while Nat made phone calls, I entered the garage and began going through the boxes. They held over 50 years’ worth of memorabilia, much of which I’d never seen or hadn’t seen since I was young. I put a few things aside that I wanted to keep or that Nat might want to hold on to, but we could not sensibly bring everything home with us. Our mother had carried her history with her all her life, reluctant to throw anything away—from love letters from each of our respective fathers, to 10-year-old receipts for kitchen appliances—and we could not continue to carry these things with us the rest of our lives. I lingered long on each yellowed artifact before filling garbage bag after garbage bag with bits and scraps of her life, mundane pieces of her existence.
Her artwork was a different story. My mother paid the bills as a social worker, but she never stopped working on her art. Her paintings had been a constant presence in my childhood, hanging on or leaning against our walls. Dirty paintbrushes soaked in plastic cups of water. Newspapers were spread across the kitchen floor. Oil paintings and acrylic portraits followed us from house to house, from town to town. She was commissioned to paint a mural for a restaurant in Cortez, Colorado, and for the next three months, our house smelled like solvent. Growing up, I had considered my mother’s art her hobby, or as a vestige of her previous life, before Nat and I came along.
HE BEGAN BY CONFESSING THAT HE HAD ONCE BEEN “SWEET ON SUE,” WHILE OTHER MEN NODDED THEIR HEADS IN FRATERNAL CAMARADERIE.
Although she occasionally showed in galleries and won small ribbons and once in a while sold something, I never believed her art to be anything more than what she dabbled in when she wasn’t busy with her real job.
In 2003, my mother moved back to Ann Arbor, after an ill-fated attempt to live on the East Coast. I moved to Portland with my girlfriend a year later. After my mother’s diagnosis, in 2011, of ovarian cancer, my mom began to immerse herself more actively in her art. She took up photography, created mixed media illustrations, saw her work often grace the cover of the Ann Arbor Observer, joined a collective of women artists, and was the co-owner of an art gallery, Dancing Dog Gallery. So many guests came to the opening reception for her solo show that people had to be turned away. After all these years, Sue Finley was finally getting recognition for her art.
But it was bittersweet. She never forgot that, even during periods of remission, her time to enjoy these accomplishments was limited. It may be what had inspired her to work that much more fervently and to create so much more.
The month before she died, she told her family and friends to hold on to her paintings and photographs—to bring what we wanted home with us. She made us promise that her art would not end up on the side of the road, to be picked up by the trash collectors.
Nat and I held a memorial gathering in her house before we began the long and arduous process of emptying drawers and cupboards and hauling things off to Salvation Army or donating what we could to Purple Heart. Her house filled with people, similar to her opening reception. My father was there; he and my mother had become close friends over the last few years. Also at the memorial were at least three ex-boyfriends. One man—a writer and founding editor of a respected literary magazine—read two poems. He began by confessing that he had once been “sweet on Sue,” while other men nodded their heads in fraternal camaraderie.
MY MOTHER STRUCK ME NOT AS LONELYBUT AS RESTLESS.
It was embarrassing. I thought I was about to be subjected to intimacies about my mother I had no business hearing. But after he had finished his poems—one was about the curly hair my mother never made peace with, and the other was about her beloved dog who had died of cancer five years earlier—I found myself weeping openly. I stood up, put my jacket on, and went outside to the street, where I found my dad alone in his car, smoking a cigarette. I opened the passenger door, sat down, and pulled a cigarette from my jacket pocket.
“You smoke?” he said.
“Sometimes,” I said.
He didn’t say anything else. We sat silently together in his parked car, smoking cigarettes and staring ahead though the windshield as though we were driving, moving toward some unknown destination.
Not long after moving to Portland, my girlfriend and I separated. I wrote short stories, played in bands, drank, did drugs, slept around, and passed through a revolving door of menial jobs while trying to become a legitimate writer. I dated a lot. Some relationships made it at least two years; others could be measured in months or weeks. My brother, Nat, had married, had had two beautiful daughters, had advanced his architectural career, and had bought a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He might as well have been raised by a different mother. Somehow, I was elected to be the one to follow in our mother’s restless footsteps.
THE DAY BEFORE SHE DIED, MY MOTHER TOLD ME THAT ONE OF HER PIECES WAS HANGING IN A WING OF THE HOSPITAL WHERE WE WERE.
I considered all this during her memorial gathering as these men took turns standing and sharing how much my mother meant to each of them.
I thought about what my memorial would look like. Would my ex-girlfriends and former lovers crowd together in my living room and relate how much I had affected their lives? Would they compare stories and nod their heads in either acknowledgment or disgust? Will people remember me for the work I’ve done on this earth, for what I’ve contributed, or for how many strange beds I’ve awakened in?
At the close of the memorial, Nat and I invited everyone to take our mother’s art home, as much as each could carry. He and I had pulled aside the pieces we wanted to keep for ourselves, but there was still a substantial number to choose from—large portraits, small portraits, framed prints, unframed prints, charcoal drawings, sketches. Even after her friends had taken all they could, there were still dozens of pieces remaining. To keep our promise to our mother, we would need to find a home for the art that was left. Before living in this house, she’d lived in one-half of her ex-boyfriend’s duplex, and it had remained uninhabited since she had moved out. Her ex-boyfriend, John, agreed to keep the art with him. John and I hauled everything across town to his house, into her old bedroom, and stacked it all against the walls, where they remain for the foreseeable future—the posthumous collection of the work of Sue Finley.
The day before she died, my mother told me that one of her pieces was hanging in a wing of the hospital where we were. A tumor had grown inside her intestines, making it impossible for her to hold any food down. She hadn’t eaten in weeks. Her skin now clung to her bones as though trying to suck the bones for any last drops of nourishment. She could no longer walk on her own, but her mind remained as strong as it had always been. I asked whether she remembered where her piece was displayed. She told me to go find her a wheelchair.
I wheeled her down the hall to the elevator. “Fourth floor,” she said. I pressed the button. When the doors opened on the fourth floor, she said, “Make a left.” We went down one hall and then around two more turns.
“Here,” she said.
We stopped in front of a framed close-up photograph of rocks in a stream. The rocks were of varying sizes and colors, and they were worn smooth from the water. The reflection of the sun gave the water the appearance of stained glass.
“Nice, huh?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a good one.”
“I took that in Colorado,” she said.
My mother and I looked at her work—an image of movement, of journey, forever suspended in time and memory. She nodded her head.
“OK,” she said. “We can go now.”