50 Little Washcloths

(An abbreviated version of an essay I wrote two years before my father died, three days after his 89th birthday, on Sept 4, 2010.)

Three hours after my mother’s funeral, my father began going through the closets.  I had driven him from the cemetery, back to the house (his house, no longer their house) and we both lay down to take naps.  I awoke to the sound of his rummaging through the bathroom closet.  

I had looked in that closet a few weeks earlier, when my mother was in the hospital with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a pre-leukemia auto-immune cancer.  While searching for some of her medication, I had discovered a cardboard box filled with prescription bottles dating back thirty years. 

“Dad!  There is a bottle of Valium here from 1972!   Can I toss it?”


I don’t know when this phrase of the slacker generation became a part of my father’s lingo, but it suited him now. “What do you want for dinner?” “Whatever.” “What time do you want to eat?” “Whenever.” “Do you want to put your shoes on or are you going out like that?” Etcetera.

After more than a year of my mother’s daily medical appointments, experimental treatments, hospital stays and progressive deterioration in the “Rehab Center” (a.k.a. nursing home), my eighty-four year-old father was defeated, depressed and disillusioned. He could make no more decisions. He hadn’t slept in a year. He had lost thirty pounds.

After sixty-two years of marriage, my father, already the embodiment of constant worry and anxiety, had finally faced the one thing in life he could not control: his lifelong companion was going to die before he did.

It was supposed to have gone the other way. My father, though in relatively fine health, has spent the past thirty years of his life obsessively planning for the disbursement of his estate.

Mom, a product of the Betty Crocker/Bird’s Eye frozen food/pre-1960s women lib generation, was clueless when it came to finances. Balancing the household budget was my father’s job. He had been an electrical engineer. He was good at math. He liked math. The day could only be considered complete if all numbers were in order, if all figures were balanced, if everything added up.

My mother, though no good at numbers and money, was in charge of everything else. She was wife, mother to three boys, cook, maid, caretaker of her own mother who lived with us in the house, graduate Psychology student and, eventually, workplace professional.

At one point, my father’s brother also lived with us, along with my Bubbi (my mother’s mother), and a cat named Taffy. One Sunday afternoon, when I was around thirteen, my mother, who was in the kitchen listening to opera on the radio, turned the volume up to LOUDEST and proceeded to smash every plate in the cupboard. The circuitry in her multi-tasking Motherboard overloaded.

I assume that’s where the Valium circa1972 entered the picture.

*  *  *  *​

After my mother’s death, my father needed order. He needed activity. And so began the cleaning of the closets, the dispersal of the heirlooms, the organization of sixty years of household items – things saved by my mother, “just in case”.

In addition to thirty years worth of useless prescriptions, there were, in the same bathroom closet, fifty little washcloths, four inches by three inches – red, yellow, green, blue, white, all neatly piled on top of one another.

There were also sundry colored and sized bath towels, beach towels, sheets (fitted and regular, twin and single), miniature soaps in the shapes of seahorses and seashells, topical ointments, bottles of Bactine, and band-aids so old that the adhesive was missing.

In a kitchen cabinet, there were hundreds of plastic containers, of every shape and size. On the chance that the Israeli army should stop by for a meal (you never know), the troops could take a little something home with them – some leftovers from Passover, perhaps.

In addition to a kitchen refrigerator freezer packed with meat, chicken and ice cream, there was an additional freezer in the basement filled with birthday cake from two years prior, cookies labeled and color-coded, even meals my mother had cooked before being admitted to the hospital, so that my father wouldn’t starve.

Next to the freezer in the basement, there was another cabinet filled with enough canned peas, carrots and corn to last a good half-year, in case of nuclear fallout.

In other areas of the house, there were rubber bands, plastic bags, kitchen gadgets from the 1950s, notes from classes she took throughout her life.  Of course, there was also the good stuff: the pictures, the books, the letters.

My mother collected; my father removed what she collected. Now there are five bath towels, five hand towels, five washcloths. There are just enough plates, bowls and pans to cook what is needed for a small family meal.

My father is throwing everything out.

“Dad, you still live here.” “I don’t want you to go through the trouble, so I’m doing it now.” He does not want to be reminded that he might live to be a hundred.

About a year after my mother’s death, I came to the house and saw that dad had moved mom’s bed out of their bedroom.

Ever since I was born (and conceived, I imagine), my parents shared twin beds – not the kind from ‘60s sitcoms where there was a night table separating them, but two conjoined separate beds, with two sets of twin sheets and two separate blankets. I suppose the cuddling is one of the first things to go after the initial forty years.

My parents were, however, connected by a single headboard, which was wide enough for both beds. Dad had moved her entire bed – mattress, box spring, metal frame – into the basement, by himself. And then he moved the headboard.

There is now a very respectable guest bed next to the furnace. When I asked why he had done this, without calling me or my brothers to help, he replied, “Gimme a break. It was easy. I just pushed it along, and then I shoved it down the cellar stairs.”

He had placed his own twin bed towards the center of the bedroom wall, and there was now a dingy, grey outline of the headboard that had lived in that position for the past twenty years, the period that my parents had lived in this house. Now, with the headboard gone, the outline looked eerily like a headstone looming forebodingly over the sleeping figure of my father.

My father and I are friends now, something I never thought possible when I was a thirteen year old boy, frustrated because he didn’t understand me, had no capacity to understand me.

Every night during my junior high school years, we would sit around the dining room table, collaborating on my math homework, and every night, it ended the same way: I would become discouraged and impatient, and he would get agitated and depressed.

I now spend as much time as I can with him.  I live in New York City, and he is still in suburban Boston, but there have been periods, because of my work, when I have stayed with him in his house – for a month, two months.  I enjoy cooking for him (something I never do on my own), and keeping him company.  Unlike my mother, my father only occasionally watches television or listens to music.  I am always keenly aware of how quiet the house is.  But when I am there, I often look in at him at night, in that bedroom with the solo bed and the grimy headboard/ headstone outline.  At night, he does watch the T.V. in the bedroom, and he invariably falls asleep with it on.  His glasses are at the tip of his nose, and he is snoring softly. He is wearing his powder blue pajamas, and a hint of one pale, thin, hairless, ankle will be exposed slightly above a crumpled white sock.  I will creep into his room, take off his glasses and turn the television off.   It is at those times I can see the young man at twenty – madly, insensibly in love with a beautiful young bride, so full of hope and dreams and a future wide open to him, the son of poor Russian immigrants.  In his wedding pictures, he is handsome and lean in his crisp khaki Lieutenant’s uniform, and he is smiling, standing next to the stunningly vibrant woman with whom he would share the next sixty-two years.

It is the routine that keeps him going.  Every night he makes the same salad.  He refuses to buy the store-bought, ready-to-go concoctions.  He needs to create the same salad his wife made him for all those years.  He chops the lettuce (he has recently taken the bold leap from iceberg to romaine), tomatoes, onions, green peppers.  He does not like celery.  When I am there to join him for dinner, we will set the dining room table.  He very purposely (though it’s never been stated) now sits at the place at the table where my mother used to sit, and I occupy his spot.  I suppose he does not want to look across the table, to the place where he directed his eyes during so many dinners, and look at the place where my mother once was.   So he sits in her seat, instead, and faces his old chair, which I now occupy.  It takes a death in the family to realize the intricacies of ritual table settings.  

He will always put out at least five different types of salad dressing.  I will always include a vegetable and starch.  We will have dessert later – usually a bowl of ice cream – as a late(r) night snack.  This is what he is used to.  The consistency is comfort to him and, for me, it is the consistency that I wish I had, that I once had, that I grew bored with, that I long for once again.

When I was there recently, he confided that he was having “trouble making the bed in the morning”.  When I asked him if by “trouble” he meant physical or emotional, he confessed that it was emotional.  He wasn’t sure what the point was anymore.  I certainly understood this, having experienced the same sense of depressed fatalism during much of my life.  Why make the damn bed when no one sees it?  This feeling passed easily for him, though, as it invariably does for me.  We each understand that although others may not see the unmade bed, we see it ourselves.  And that is enough to propel us to make the bed, one day at a time.

Sholom Aleichem, the 19th century Yiddish storyteller, wrote, “No matter how bad things get, you’ve got to go on living, even if it kills you.” There is a time to collect things and a time to let them go, and there is benefit to both.   Like Aleichem’s ever-suffering character, Teyve the Milkman, we try to find the balance, to live in the thin fissure between hope and despair, between regret and fulfillment.  We hopefully live long enough and wise enough to learn the difference between “letting go” and “giving up.”  And this is what I’ve learned by observing my father.  Whether pushing a bed downstairs, giving away washcloths or simply maintaining his daily routine, my father, at age eighty-six, is trying, in his own quiet way and in his own time, to locate the balance.

About bdwardbos

Writer (plays, essays, memoir, blogs), actor (theater, film, TV), teacher, HIV/AIDS educator, cat whisperer
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23 Responses to 50 Little Washcloths

  1. CotuitGal says:

    What a marvelous tribute to both of your parents!


  2. Sam says:

    This resonates so much Cuz! Other than their politics our parents had a lot in common in life and then again in death as the women who kept the house died first. Unlike your Dad, mine could not throw anything of Mom’s away although he kept a very tidy house. I felt so guilty not being there often enough when Mom was ill (pregnant with the second and too sick) but I made damn sure I was there when Dad was alone and every weekend when his heart was giving out. And what was nice is that he would come and visit me and family every 3rd week ( he did not want to stay in the house alone and would visit his kids and stay a week at a time. Have to assume he did not want to look at memories). What was so nice is that I felt like I was getting to know my dad again.
    But back to basics and cleaning out the house. Not too long after Mom died, I came and cleaned out all her clothes. Dad was aghast that I did not want any of her suits 😉 Not my type and they did not fit. He had a hard time letting go.


  3. karynbeth says:


    You are a beautiful and gifted writer. Your voice reminds me of Neal Simon. A perfect blend of humor, memories, emotion, and present day. Your imagery, so vivid and well tended, instantly took me to your Dad’s house where I could clearly see the closets, the bandaids that had lost their adhesive, the expired prescription bottles, the rubberbands, and the headboard outline on the bedroom wall. I heard the quiet of a life that is fading and felt the stillness of a vacated chair. Truly beautiful writing.


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  4. Harry says:

    Very fine stuff, Bruce. I wasn’t around when my father died, but was when my mother passed. Much less stuff to deal with, though. Did find an old copy of a complete Shakespeare and my childhood Teddy Bear. There’s sadness at the loss of your mother, but so glad you had her for so long and now you get to share with your dad. Keep it up, my friend. Your still is pure, simple and clear and touches the heart.


    • bdwardbos says:

      Thank you, Harry.
      My dad died 12 years ago, as I mention at the top. I wrote this 2 years before his death.
      Thank you for reading, and for your kind words.


      • Harry says:

        Of course, I remember you saying that he had passed. So great you got to have that one on one time with him. Memories are so important to our writing.


  5. Bill says:

    Love this Bruce. Thanks for sharing this wonderful, touching story.



  6. mvillane says:

    This is beautiful. Sounds so much like my parents process right now.



  7. Nancy Mooslin says:

    This is really wonderful Bruce!!


  8. Carole Fowler says:

    You truly are a gifted writer. There were many levels of healing throughout your Dad’s and your grief process. You were given the gift of helping each other through your tremendous loss. Thank you for creating a window for others to understand a grieving most will live through. I love your description of a “thin fissure between hope and despair and regret and fulfillment.”


  9. hanktrout says:

    Just beautiful, Bruce, and very moving. H.T. Writing is easy. You just sit at the typewriter and bleed. – Ernest HemingwayWHTrout@yahoo.com415-505-2161


  10. bdwardbos says:

    Thank you, Hank Monster. 💕😎


  11. Kathy St. George says:

    Dear Bruce, thank you, thank you for sharing your Dad with us. You are a wonderful writer! With admiration, Kathy


  12. tevye74 says:

    A lovely piece, Bruce, and very timely for me, as I’m about to start rehearsals on a slow with some of these same themes. Looking forward to more.


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