Last April we moved my 93-year-old Mom to a retirement community and put her house up for sale. We spent all of last September cleaning it out for the buyers, going through drawers and closets, giving things away to relatives and neighbors, donating to Good Will, selling some things, filling up a large refuse container, and claiming a few items for ourselves. Back home, when I reported on this experience, a Buddhist friend recommended this 2012 novel by Lynda Rutledge. “I learned a lot about attachment and detachment from reading this novel,” my friend said.
Faith Bass Darling is a wealthy widow in Bass, Texas, who is suffering early symptoms of Alzheimer’s. At midnight on December 31, 1999, she awakes to a what she thinks is the voice of God telling her to sell all the accumulated possessions in the mansion she has lived in all her life, the valuable antiques and art works, precious heirlooms, and family memorabilia. The next morning she begins pulling as much as she can out onto the lawn and selling her “goods” for whatever few dollars and cents anyone who stopped by would offer her.
The local antique dealer is appalled, tries to salvage what she can and calls Faith’s daughter to come immediately from where she lives a hundred miles away. The local sheriff’s deputy and the local Episcopal priest also get involved. All of these folks have a history with the Darling family, and just as Faith battles her memories, so do they.
My Mom has the usual garden-variety age-related memory issues, but no dementia. We spent hours going through her possessions, trying to be patient with her reminiscing as each newly discovered item triggered a chain of memories. She struggled with detachment, as she had limited room in her one-bedroom apartment. Children and grandchildren, likewise, had limited space. She had to learn how to let go, to detach.
Faith Bass Darling’s memories come and go. Sometimes she remembers her family’s past, her husband’s abuse, her son’s death, her daughter’s estrangement, and her husband’s death. Sometimes not. Sometimes she associates certain memories with her possessions, sometimes not. She seems to always know she is on a mission to cleanse her home, her past, her very self from the burdens they carry.
Similarly, the daughter, Claudia, who at one time considered herself a Buddhist, must cleanse herself of her unhappy family memories: the resentments, the grief, the pain and suffering of absence and loss, not to mention the burden of her own life failures and mistakes.
John Jasper, the deputy sheriff, had been the best friend of Claudia’s brother, Mike, and bears responsibility for his untimely death. Not only is John Jasper burdened by that guilty memory, but also by the memory of Mike’s father, Claude, verbally abusing both his son and John Jasper himself.
Bobbie, the antique dealer, Claudia’s best friend growing up, had admired the treasures in the Darling house from childhood. She knows the full material value of Faith’s possessions, but may not fully appreciate the emotional and psychological cost of those “goods,” the extent to which one can be “possessed” by possessions and the memories associated with them. Bobbie is focused on resale value, and, like the calls that come in on her lost cell phone, she misses Faith’s need to exorcise her painful memories.
Father George A. Fallow is struggling with his faith at a time when Faith most needs him. She needs him to affirm her mission from God and to actually perform an exorcism on her house. Like the rich young man who asks Jesus how he can get to heaven and is told to go and sell all he owns, Faith wants to know that she too is following a divine command that will save her soul.
At a crucial moment Father George finds the right words for Faith: “The problem isn’t ‘things.” It’s the thing. Everybody has one big, blinding thing that’s in the way.” For Faith it is the memory of her husband, Claude, and the role she had played in his death. When she returns to the scene of that memory, both in physical space and in her mind, she is able to free herself.
For Claudia it is the family heirloom ring, which her mother thinks she has stolen. When Claudia recovers the lost ring, she redeems herself. For John Jasper, of course it is the memory of his role in Mike’s death. When he finally brings himself to revisit the scene of that tragedy, he is finally able to unburden himself. For Bobbie it is her lifetime envy of the Darling wealth and the memory of having broken a valuable item while visiting in the home, all of which has contributed to her own career in antiques. Her role in salvaging some of the Darling “goods,” and especially the elephant clock, is her redemption. Father George has lost his faith, not only in religion, but also in the power of words, including the Word of God, by which he has made his living. When he finds the right words for Faith, his faith in himself and the power of words is restored.
Alzheimer’s could be considered a form of exorcism, a purging of all the memories we might want to erase, but it also purges the good memories, not to mention one’s identity. A quote by Milan Kundera serves as a headnote to the novel: “What is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember.”
As Faith loses her memory, her possessions, and herself, she seems to find a new freedom. At the same time, she becomes the catalyst by which the other characters transcend the past and renew themselves. Fittingly, the action of the novel takes place on December 31, 1999, the end of one century and the beginning of the next, Y2K, the new millennium. At the stroke of midnight, 2000, an explosion occurs, a destructive force that is also a cleansing. One life ends and others begin anew.
As my Mom struggled with the process of detachment, I found myself, not only reliving family memories with her, but also reflecting on my own accumulation of possessions. Back home at our house, we made a pact to throw away at least one item a week from the basement, the garage, a closet, or other storage area. This cleansing, this stripping away of that which weighs us down has become a weekly ritual. As these material traces of the past disappear, I am reminded of the need to revisit the past, especially the dark times that have been hidden away in the closets and drawers of the mind, to clear them out in order to make room for new life.
At another level, the novel speaks, not only to memory, but also to history. The American South, and the American nation, also have that “one big, blinding thing that’s in the way.” And that thing is race. John Jasper is an African American whose friendship with Mike Darling has been forged on the high school football field. They have transcended, at least on the personal level, the racist divide. Mike’s father, however, cannot even let John Jasper sit in the front seat of his truck, and when the abuse he inflicts on both boys boils over into racist epithets, an explosion occurs, an explosion that kills Mike and nearly cripples John Jasper, an explosion that destroys the budding attraction between John Jasper and Claudia, as well as the Darling family ties. The new millennium occurs as Claudia has reconciled with her mother and renewed her relationship with John Jasper, offering hope of healing, not only in their personal lives, but in the future of the South and the nation.
It is said that “elephants never forget”; thus it is fitting that an antique elephant clock dating back to the eighteenth century, one of the most valuable pieces of property in the Darling mansion plays its own role in the novel. That clock has marked time in Claudia’s bedroom as long as she can remember. The clock becomes a symbol of memory, as Faith loses hers, and the other characters revisit theirs. Bobbie salvages the clock before it is sold in the garage sale and sends it to an appraiser in Houston. As she and Claudia and John Jasper are finally released from the past, they travel together to reclaim that clock, a possession worth keeping for the memories it represents as much, perhaps more, than its material value.
And that is the other side of cleansing and detaching, for as we cleaned out my mother’s house, she and I had to decide what we could let go and what we could keep, not for any material value, but for the meaning and memories worth keeping.