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'Love and Stuff' is a moving memoir about motherhood

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Judith Helfand's mother was being treated for cancer, her family gathered around.

JUDITH HELFAND: My two older brothers, myself and my sister-in-law - we took turns reading the side effects of this experimental drug. And with each side effect, my mother would chortle and laugh more until we were all laughing so hard there were tears running down our faces. And my mother said, at 83, I'm going to have acne, and I'm going to have diarrhea, and it's going to be the last six weeks of my life? And we were all laughing so hard. We're like, please don't do this. Let's just have a nice hospice. So that's what we did.

SIMON: That's Judith Helfand talking about her new film, "Love And Stuff," documentary now on PBS. It traces a mother-daughter relationship from old family photos when Judith was a child and then her own radical hysterectomy, a procedure Judith had because her mother was prescribed DES, a drug to prevent miscarriage that turned out to make some people prone to cancer. It then follows her mother's own battle with cancer and Judith Helfand's adoption of Theo, a baby girl. Theo was not her first chance to adopt. She had to call off one adoption during her mother's illness.

There's a moment where your mother says to you, Judy, I'm the baby now.

HELFAND: She said that because I was trying to fast-track an adoption. I was actually even matched with a couple who wanted to put their baby up for adoption. And I want to do it fast because I want my mom to see me with a baby in my arms so I could feel like, OK, she did not die still feeling guilty about my radical hysterectomy and her DES exposure, my DES exposure and the fact that she thinks that she ruins my life, and it always comes back to that. And then my mother was overhearing these conversations, and they weren't exactly good conversations. They were really painful. And there's a lot of uncertainty on both sides of these phone calls, as I was trying to get to know the birth parents better and better. And my mother was getting sicker and sicker, and there was less compassion. So my mother basically said, I'm overhearing this from the other room. I don't like the way it sounds. You need to focus on me. And so I want you to say goodbye to those birth parents. I want you to put that potential baby down, and I want you to baby me. And she was right. That is exactly what hospice is like. So she was my baby.

SIMON: There is so much stuff in this movie.

HELFAND: Yes.

SIMON: Mirrors, takeout menus, glasses, makeup brushes, toothbrushes, gloves, shoes, teapots, little pottery elephants. How did you decide what to keep and what - and what could I get today at the Salvation Army?

HELFAND: It's called "Love And Stuff," because stuff means lots of things. In this case, this is the literal stuff. By the time my mom was living in West Chester - and so that house had accumulated a lot of stuff. And then they downsized, and they moved. Then my dad died, like, within five months, six months of their moving there. And my mother had barely unpacked. Now it's five years later, and she's diagnosed with this cancer. And she says, you know, wouldn't it be great, like, if you just came home on the weekends, and then we could go through stuff together, and it'll be fun? But that was on the heels of a diagnosis that was absolutely going to be a death sentence. So it was very hard for me to parse this is the end of your life from this is the silverware that you got from your wedding that you never used.

I think what I have learned in retrospect - the way to parse through it is take your mother's advice and do it while she's alive. You know, your mother could say that pot - you like that pot? I love this pot. Isn't this the pot that you've always made brisket in? Yes. Whose recipe do you use? Do you want to make some? Yes. OK. Put the pot down. We're going to the butcher. You know, 10 hours later, I mean, aside from the fact that you probably have an amazing brisket, you might have just learned so many things if you're not afraid of spending time with someone who knows how precious time is and who values it right now more than anything.

SIMON: Seven months to the day after your mother departed, you're on your way to the first Seder you would have without her, and then you get a call.

HELFAND: I get this call while I'm, like, on the back of the seat. And then it says unknown number. It's like, there's only one unknown number in my entire phone. Like, it's got to be the agency. They're going to call me at 5 o'clock on the way to a Seder? And so I answer it. She says, Judy, and I say, I need three months. My house is filled with my dead mother's stuff. She said just let me tell you about this. And by the way, you can't have three months. Like, maybe you can have three hours. There's a baby, and it's going to be born tomorrow. And the birth mother walked into the hospital today on Passover, nine months pregnant. And she needs to find a home. And she had looked at a few of these dear birthmother books, and she chose mine. And she chose me. But I had to choose me. I had to say yes, which I did. It was just the added message - let's just call it that - that this baby was Jewish. And it was Passover, and this baby needed a home. So I did. I said yes, and now I have an 8-year-old, and I'm 58.

SIMON: Theo never knew your mother.

HELFAND: Not exactly.

SIMON: Well, and that's my question. Do you sometimes look at Theo and see traces of your mother?

HELFAND: All the time. I feel like my mother is talking to me through Theo. The other day, when we were watching the film, there's my mother saying, so do you go to the gym? And there's Theo. She's like, did you - you lied to your mother. You sort of said, OK, but you weren't going to the gym then, and you don't go to the gym now. And you don't even belong to a gym. And you don't sleep enough. My mom talks to me through the stuff to communicate things to Theo, which are very - have become great parenting things. And that is where - that's the surefire notion that it is good to keep stuff when it becomes a portal between you, your loved one that you wish were there and your loved one who you're responsible for now.

SIMON: Judith Helfand - her documentary, "Love And Stuff," can be seen on PBS. Thank you so much for being with us.

HELFAND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.