jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

The Things We Give Away (The Things We Save)


Mom and Jennie, 5 weeks old
March 1971

My sister just texted me asking if I wanted the “birth vases.” There’s one of mine and one of Butchie’s and the jury’s still out as to whether my other sister will want hers. My sister suggested I take all three as a hat trick. She’s willing to throw hers in as an added bonus, I’ll wager. Because my sister is a neat-nick who will take an American Girl doll out of her daughter’s hands in order to pass it down to one of my kids and lessen her clutter, thank god. And my Mom is a hoarder, which would explain the flower vases from our births half a century ago. And me, I fall somewhere in-between.

I’m the middle ground in my family, the peacemaker, the clown. I’m a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. The fourth of five amidst a family of disability and illness, I knew my role early on. I’ve perfected living in the gray area, which exists somewhere between Hoarders and California Closets, apparently. It’s the thing that connected me to both my mother and my father, my ability to be daddy’s little girl, even as I helped care for him, and then later to laugh with my mother at her shortcomings, even as I worked to recover from my childhood. It’s all gray area in my book.


Because every house needs one of these.
(From my sister’s text.)
June 2014

These vases my mother has kept and treasured for a half century are the ones she received in the hospital filled with flowers when we were each born. I remember them as painted ceramic lambs and clowns sweetly smiling, hollow and empty on the inside where the long ago flowers once nestled.

They’ve risen to the surface because my mother is moving. My mother is moving out of my hometown. My mother is moving out of my hometown to live down south near my sister, the doctor.

It makes sense, this move. She’s one fall down the stairs away from a walker with tennis balls. And she moved out of our family home over fifteen years ago when my father died. Only my retarded brother Butchie tied her to my New Jersey hometown, that and an easy train-ride up through scenic New England to see me. And now he’s gone and the scenic train-ride from Philadelphia could theoretically originate in Washington, D.C. just as well.

So now she’s moving south. For the warm winters, to be near her doctor daughter, to watch my nieces grow up. My sister is settled in her job, unlikely to move. There is security there and every amenity she could want. I told my mother it was the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do.

But my mother is moving, and she is not moving up to me.

And this was such a surprising blow it left me breathless. For all the crazy my mom brings, she’s been my crazy. I’d envisioned her splitting her time between Virginia and Massachusetts with Philadelphia trips to the third sister to round out her end years. But not this.

I can’t help but think how rarely I’ve traveled down to see her since moving up to Massachusetts, how I only travel down for funerals now. How I only saw my brother Butchie once between moving north and his funeral four years later. What with the four young children and the this and the that, it’s hard for me to travel now.

I had envisioned something different. I saw my kids beginning elementary school and my new responsibilities shifting from taking my kids to therapies to taking my mom to therapies, one care-giving for another. As they needed me less, she could need me more. And I’d be there. I would be right there for her. We’d go out to Target, we’d go for doctor appointments, I’d help her decorate her apartment in the advanced care retirement community, we’d find a nearby restaurant for weekly sushi and sake.

But now she’s heading down south and my sister will lead the charge.

And so my mother has been emptying closets, packing her basement, sorting through the outdated food filling her cabinets and refrigerator. She sent Butchie’s old shoes and leg braces up to me last Christmas, handed off some love letters from the 60’s in the church parking lot after a funeral last fall, and now these tacky ceramic flowerpots, these broadly grinning clowns and fawning sheep.

I will take the flowerpots. I will take them and place them in a bin in my studio. And when I look for a piece of inspiration, something that speaks of the passing of time, of who we are and who we’ve become, of things we’ve lost for good, or misplaced in a mismarked cardboard box in the basement, I will look to these ridiculously useless dust-collecting vases. I will make a woodcut or a drawing, a painting or collage, and I will make sense of this loss, these losses, that are such tiny blips on our days’ radars, such subtle gasps in our days’ respiration, that we could almost mistake them for a car sweeping past outside or a petal falling to the countertop.


Jen and Mom
Fall 2013

[This post was inspired by a text from my sister this weekend, the vases my mother just found in her basement and the WordPress Weekly Challenge, Leftovers.]

22 comments on “The Things We Give Away (The Things We Save)

  1. Anna Spanos
    July 9, 2014

    My parents moved out of their house earlier this year, and it’s been a big adjustment – even though they moved CLOSER to me. They’re only about a mile away (which in LA, is basically downstairs), but it’s really been a shock to the system, trying to accept that they didn’t just move for a new job or for fun, but they moved because they’re getting older and want to downsize and want to be someplace safe for when they get REALLY older. It terrifies me, and all I want is to pretend it’s not happening.
    This last paragraph, though, is so beautiful. Maybe someday I’ll manage to get past my own fear and my own denial and manage to make something beautiful of the experience. For now I guess I’ll have to settle for reading more of you :).

    • jgroeber
      July 9, 2014

      Ah, we read each other’s timely posts at the same time. (Statistically, what are the chances? It’s the middle of the night here.) But yes, this sense that our parents are paring down, lightening the load. For what? And if they go, do we become the old ones? Oh, please no. And then is it we who carry the stories and the family history forward?
      Have a glass of wine with your parents this week for me.

  2. Burns the Fire
    July 9, 2014

    I daresay this blog, interwoven with the present, is your history. Beautiful, again and again. Reminds me why I’m lucky to be an artist.

    • jgroeber
      July 10, 2014

      Well what can I say to that except thank you, and we’re all lucky you’re an artist, too.

  3. Margie S
    July 10, 2014

    Soooo good! Unfortunately, I can relate to this post all too well. I am in the process of helping my mother clean out her cape summer home of 30 years! And just less than a year ago, my parents relinquished all of their life treasures to us kids when they moved into assisted living – and they are only 75. It is hard to see your parents position themselves for their last chapter in life. I am so sorry to hear she is moving further away from the children and you. Hoping your heart and mind will find peace in her decision to move in that direction. I have no doubt that some day you will create something beautiful and meaningful from those birthing vases.

    • jgroeber
      July 10, 2014

      It’s a timeless tale, right? They move us. We become them. We move them. I mean, it’s the right thing, the move, the time. It sneaks up on you though. And yes, the birth vases will certainly inspire, although what and when? Hard to say!
      Good luck sorting through your own parental boxes of memories.

  4. Meg
    July 10, 2014

    This is sad but so beautifully well written.

    • jgroeber
      July 11, 2014

      Thank you. It’s sort of sad and funny and just true. How many moments does everyone have in their days like this, right? Letting go? Holding on. So glad you stopped by.

  5. bethteliho
    July 11, 2014

    First, this was poignant and sweet and lovely. I even got chills at the end, which doesn’t happen often. You’re such a talented writer.

    This is so timely a read for me because when I visited my dad last November, he was offering me things his mother had made. She passed away a very long time ago and I didn’t know her, but I’ve heard stories (mostly awful actually) about her for years….and she’s part of my dad, you know? But then again, I’m going to inherit so much UTTER SHIT from him….do I really need something his mother made? She is my grandmother, even though I didn’t know her. It is my history whether I like it or not.

    So I took a few items that seemed special to him AND that I could actually use. I turned down everything else.

    I have no idea why I just told you all that. *sigh* But I did.

    • jgroeber
      July 11, 2014

      Thank you for stopping by and for the kind words.
      And I’m so with you about the grandparent stuff. My grandfather was a bit of a stinker. I mean, I enjoyed the porn books of his I found when I was ten after he passed, but the rest? Who needs another ashtray? Am I right?
      But it is our history. That’s what’s so amazing. And we inherit from them, whether through actual DNA (I shudder to think) or just the behaviors they pass down. Good for you that you took only what you needed, only the things that fit in this life you’ve built for yourself, and passed on the rest. There must be a metaphor in there somewhere. *scratches head* 😉

  6. donofalltrades
    July 11, 2014

    Awesome post. I get sentimental about seemingly silly crap too. Lol. My mom is a hoarder of kitche stuff. Is that a word? Anyway, my wife loathes such things, so the battle to get my mom to quit giving us my things from 30 years ago is pretty hilarious. Still, I enjoy seeing things I made or wore or whatever as a kid, so I side with mom normally. Shhhhh.

    • jgroeber
      July 11, 2014

      I knew you’d be the sentimental type. I could tell by the inordinate amount of beer you seem to drink. 😉 And yes, the kitschy (sp?) stuff is a battle. But really, who could resist your macaroni necklaces and clay owls? I mean, that’s hoarding, sure. But that’s also mother-love, am I right? Give it to your kids until they wreck it, that’s what I say. It’s what I did with my grandfather’s ashtrays and the kids haven’t started smoking… yet. (I told them they were “special treasure dishes.”)
      Thanks for dropping by.

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  8. Megan L.
    July 14, 2014

    I had one of those vases, mine was a yellow flowered baby bootie…I wonder if my mother still has it or even remembers. I should call her 🙂

    • jgroeber
      July 23, 2014

      These vases!! What a moment in time they represent. And they had such a singular, momentary use and then after that… useless. You can’t even throw a betta fish in one with any success. But they definitely harken back to a specific time. Definitely call your Mom and ask… (And thanks for reading.)

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  10. litadoolan
    July 24, 2014

    Beautiful and sad post, sending my best wishes for the transition. Your writing is achingly honest. Thanks for sharing.

    • jgroeber
      July 30, 2014

      How did I miss this lovely comment? Thank you for these beautiful words. Really.

  11. Jan
    August 11, 2014

    I was just catching up on some of your blogs. The pic of your Mom is stunning.

    • jgroeber
      August 12, 2014

      Wasn’t she gorgeous? (And thank you for reading when I know you’re a busy Mama in your own neck of the woods.)

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