When Everything is Gone

I had envisioned my mother’s house ransacked, but standing in the two-story entryway, I am surprised by how normal everything appears, as if no drug addicts had been in and out of her house over the last week, taking what they wanted and rifling through everything she owns.

Memoir by Yasmin Tong


Panic strikes the moment I see hip-high brown weeds covering the front yard where grass used to grow. My tires crunch the white quartz in the circular driveway, and before I can turn off the engine, my mother is standing by my car, smiling. She has greeted me this way countless times: when I came home from college for Christmas and Thanksgiving, when I invited twenty friends to spend the weekend attending the local rodeo and eating her barbecue.  When I needed to be taken care of, she was my sanctuary; I had always felt comforted by her embrace, but now our roles have reversed.  

Stepping into the furnace blast of Fresno’s August heat, I melt in my mother’s sticky arms, and ask, “How are you?” 

“I’m all right,” she says. I want to believe her, even though her answer is only a half-truth. “The sheriff was here for three hours yesterday, dusting for fingerprints.” 

Last night on the phone, my mother sounded remarkably calm, but that was just like her, indifferent to crisis and determined to keep up appearances. After a week in San Francisco for her sorority’s reunion, my mother opened the front door to find two guys going through every drawer in search of valuables. The burglars got away with her silver and a television, but left their fingerprints in every room and their crank pipe on her desk in the mahogany-paneled library. 


I had envisioned my mother’s house ransacked, but standing in the two-story entryway, I am surprised by how normal everything appears, as if no drug addicts had been in and out of her house over the last week, taking what they wanted and rifling through everything she owns.  The silver candelabras are missing from the dining room table, but everything else looks the same as ever:  the glossy black grand piano is still in the living room, and the framed college diplomas conferred to my brothers and me are prominent on the living room wall, a silent reminder to all who enter:  my kids attended Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth. The lives of her children are her crowning achievement. We all took flight from her well-decorated nest. Yet my mother seems trapped, unable and, perhaps most important, unwilling to leave. 


I march up the circular stairs, following her to her bedroom. “It’s the last room that I have to clean up,” she says. “They made such a mess.” 

Standing in the doorway I tell myself that when she is dead, I will miss the smell of her, but I am uneasy inhaling the lingering scent of Estée Lauder Youth-Dew perfume and sweat that permeates everything in her forest-green bedroom with wall-to-wall leopard-print carpet. Two paces from the doorway is her enormous bed, a California King, with two mounds of pillows, piles of paper, and a staggering collection of belts wound in concentric circles. Stacks of VHS videotapes, her late-night companions since she and my father divorced fifteen years earlier, cover every windowsill, and nook and cranny of the armoire immediately to my left. 

For years I have been prodding her to purge her belongings, to cull out only what she needs, but with everything in her room out in plain sight, I realize that the scale of the house, with all its built-in, cedar-lined closets, disguises her hoarding and the enormity of the dilemma that will face us soon enough. A row of two dozen worn-out shoes in varying shades of red at the foot of the bed, including some that I doubt have been worn since the early 1980s, makes me want to give up even before I start to clean up. 

“So what do you want me to do?” I ask.  “Where do I start?” 

“Just go in the dressing room and try to straighten that up.” 

A knee-high pile of clothes is on the floor of the dressing room—a walk-in closet with a built-in vanity, drawers, shelves, and cedar-lined cabinets that connects her bathroom to the bedroom. Most of the clothes she will never wear again, but she hangs on to them, like everything else in this house, because “they’re too good to throw away.”  

I find a bright yellow sweater with tassels that my mother wore in college, sweaters I wore in college, and rugby jerseys my brother wore in college. Holding a cashmere sweater lacy with moth holes that had its heyday before any of us were in college, I say, “Let’s throw this away.” 

“OK, but let’s keep the button,” she says. 

I do not ask why she wants to save the button; it is beautiful, but it will never be reused because she no longer has the necessary focus for the intricate crafts projects she used to execute in a weekend. Instead, I obey, as I always have, and find a pair of scissors to remove the rhinestone clasp. 

“Will you check the hall closet to make sure they didn’t take my dolls?” she asks.

I hate those dolls and don’t want to touch them because they smell of mildew, but instead of objecting, I do as I am told.  Standing on my grandmother’s shower stool, which has not been touched since she died a decade ago, I take out each one of my mother’s Madame Alexander Little Women storybook dolls. 

“Little Jo and Meg are still here,” I say, batting the dust off their hoopskirts and aprons.  They all have wooden stands so that they can be stored upright, in someplace like a curio cabinet. 

“Oh, good,” she says. She finds plastic bags to cover them and I return them to the closet’s top shelf. I find a disintegrating teddy bear with no arms and the stitching on the mouth and eyes worn away, which is nearly seventy years old, same age as my mother. 

“We can throw this away, right?” I ask, holding the bear with my fingertips. 

“No,” she says and puts it back on the shelf. 

“I don’t think there’s anything else I can do to help you,” I say, patting the dust and cobwebs from my clothes before closing the closet door. “I want to clean up, make things look neat, and throw away a bunch of stuff, but you don’t want to let go.” 

“This is very helpful,” she says. “It’s just that I have a lot of ongoing projects and papers and you can’t just throw things out because I still need to sort through them.” 


About three years ago, my mother started calling to ask to borrow money. Sometimes she needed a few hundred dollars, sometimes she asked for a thousand dollars, and at some point she called asking for help with her mortgage. I clued into the severity of her financial problems when my youngest brother told me that to help her he had agreed to make monthly payments on a second mortgage he had convinced our father to take out. Soon after, I asked for, and she had cooperated in giving me, enough of her financial information to prepare financial statements. I presented her with a plan for restructuring her assets and liabilities, which included filing for bankruptcy and moving into an apartment building that she had owned. 

Instead of taking action, she did nothing. Now she is upside down on her mortgage and cannot afford to make mortgage payments.  She liquidated all of her assets to pay for spa treatments at five-star hotels in South Africa, chartered yachts in Brazil, cruises in Dubai, and clothes, the kinds of luxuries she could hardly afford when her parents and my father paid her bills. All the rental properties she had owned, the million dollars in cash and securities that she had received from my father in their divorce settlement, absolutely everything is gone, and I am counting the days until the sheriff locks her out of her house. 

She went from being the daughter of a doctor to being wife of a doctor and never really had to take financial responsibility for herself, despite her apparent ability to do so:  she has a BA, an MS, and a JD; yet she lives on Social Security.  Her law practice, started after I had graduated from college, was a vanity project subsidized my father, and much like the house, is part of the highly burnished image of a sophisticated and successful person she has cultivated throughout her life. 

My relationship with my mother makes me feel like my compass is broken and I can’t find my true north. I resent her for putting our family in this position and leaving my brothers and me to deal with the fall out from her lack of maturity and self-discipline, and yet my heart breaks every time I don’t pick up the phone when she calls for fear that she needs to ask for money. All the years we confided in one another, I felt like I knew her so well, but now that I see her as she really is, I feel as if I have been deceived.  Never again will she be the person I wanted her to be.  

When I take her to dinner at the local Szechuan Kitchen near her house, I realize how she sees herself. 

“What’s your plan?” I ask. “What does your future look like?” 

“I want to move in three or four years to a senior community,” she says. “I know I need to make more money.” 

“Any ideas about that?”  I ask, eating my chow fun with a fork. 

“I want to teach a class at the university about women in business.” 


Sometimes I think I barely recognize my mother, with this house falling down around her and her finances a level-four train wreck. But I have to remind myself that her powers of self- sabotage and delusion are highly developed, and I have been both spectator and participant in her version of Kabuki theater my entire life. About thirty years earlier I glimpsed her truth, which forever shaped me. We were in the library at her house and she held an application to Stanford Medical School in her hands. 

“I can’t go through with it,” she said. “It will tear our family apart.” 

“You should do it anyway,” I said, fearful of what my life would be like with my parents divorced, but convinced it would ultimately improve if she were financially independent from my father. Then she told me a story about taking a college course with my father. The professor had told my father, instead of my mother, that she needed to re-take the final exam or flunk.  My father never told my mother to see the professor, and she flunked the class, despite being in the honors society Phi Beta Kappa, at the time. As a result my father attended medical school and she never was admitted. 

“What did you do?” I asked her, feeling nauseated. 

“I decided then that if that was how things were going to be, he was going to have to take care of me,” she said. 

I knew more than any thirteen-year-old girl should about her parents’ marriage, and although I liked it when my parents’ friends called me mature, I felt burdened by keeping my mother’s confidences. That story of sabotage was as much a turning point for the balance of power in my parents’ marriage as it was for me personally, hearing it for the first time. I decided then, at the tender cusp of womanhood, to never get married and always make my own money. More than anything I wanted to be independent, unlike my mother.  At fourteen I initiated that quest, and I left my parents’ house to attend boarding school. After college I was always financially self-sufficient and also very distrustful of intimate relationships.  In my late thirties I divorced after only two years of marriage. 


Waking up the next morning, the bedroom looks the same as when I had first arrived—disheveled in faded luxury. I start throwing out perfume, makeup samples, and travel soaps in my mother’s bathroom, and when she leaves the house on an errand, I start to fill large green plastic garbage bags full of junk that she cannot stand to part with but, at the same time, won’t miss if I take it to the trash.  After three hours I notice a slight improvement. Sweaty and frustrated in the summer heat, I say, “I don’t feel like there’s anything more I can do to help you.” 

“I really appreciate you being here,” she says. “It’s a huge help to me.” 

“You really have to start throwing out some of this stuff,” I say. “You may not have the option of being in this house for as long as you want. You need to prepare yourself to have an orderly transition into some other living arrangement.” 

She nods in acknowledgement. She hears me but she is trapped in a psychological fortress of her own design. 

“I’m going to go over to Dad’s to say hi,” I say. “Then I will come back here and it will be time for me to go.” 

“Are you sure you don’t want to spend another night?” she asks. “You could leave early Monday morning.” 

The oppression of her isolation and loneliness, the disorder in her house and her life, and her stubborn denial surround me. Although I have tried all my life to make her happy and proud, her financial and emotional needs will pull me under if I allow them.  “No, I have to go home.” I will leave this house because there is nothing more I can do for her. 



Yasmin Tong is a finance and development consultant based in Los Angeles.  She writes frequently about affordable housing and foster care.   Her work has appeared in the Blue Lake Review, Superstition Review, Mary:  A Journal of New Writing, Los Angeles Times, and was anthologized in the New Asian Immigration.

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