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Wednesday, May 16, 2018


She tentatively let me into her home. While she had called me to come over, there was a fearfulness about letting a stranger into her space. I looked around – it was a lovely home. It really was. That said, it felt like it should be nestled in the Berkshires with other saltbox houses. It felt somehow out of place situated in a neighborhood of post-WWII colonials.

She had accumulated hundreds of things. They were everywhere: brass candlesticks; gorgeous earthenware; ceramic figurines, antique trivets, lovely watercolors, chairs and more chairs, quilts and woven cloths not to mention an attic full of dust-covered, unopened boxes.

She pronounced that she wanted to downsize to less than half of much space. She was considering continuing care facilities and was trying to figure out what to do before she moved. We talked about taking down wallpaper, updating fixtures, and all the other things sellers can do to prepare their house for the market.  

When I asked which things, she was going to bring with her, she became flustered and overwhelmed. I’m not sure she realized that things from a four-bedroom house rarely fit comfortably into a two-bedroom apartment. 

I had touched a nerve. As much as I tried to reassure her, I think she was genuinely surprised, that she was going to have to make choices. But how does one choose from a lifetime of accumulated items?   It was like her things were a part of her being and letting go of a chair would be like amputating an arm.

Sadly, in my work, I have seen many families fight over things as the house gets dismantled. It's almost as if, things are what binds them to the person who is gone -- or worse, the person made the possession of these things somehow equivalent to their love.

I had an epiphany about things, when my mother died.  

One moment she was with us – the next moment she was gone. In her wake were so many things. And not one of her things could even begin to fill the void created by her death.  Mother was such a loving, powerful presence in our lives, that her things seemed so insignificant and meaningless.  They were such a poor substitute for the loss in our lives. 

Mother wasn’t protective of her things. I can remember the casualness of how we might rummage in her bedroom dresser for a hair clip or piece of jewelry to wear.  She never complained or made an issue out of it.   She wasn’t much of a collector or even anywhere close to being a hoarder.   Sometimes she would generously gift an admired item to the admirer.  

But Mother was sentimental and had a great eye for beautiful things. She had carefully saved all the baby shoes and handmade dresses my grandmother had stitched for me as a child. Her jewelry box contained bracelets and charms with mysterious initials on them. We reached into the back of her closet and pulled out a shoebox wrapped in string. With some fearful hesitation, we opened the box and were shocked to find a porcelain doll, we’d never seen before. 

In a basement closet, stored carefully in hanging bags were four outfits: her going away suit
Mom in her Girl Scout uniform at 
annual Kenilworth Pancake Breakfast
from her wedding; the bright green dress she had worn at my brother’s wedding, the soft pink dress she had worn at my sister’s wedding and her Girl Scout uniform from when she led the village Girl Scouts. 

I wanted to ask Mom so many questions. Why this doll? Why these dresses? All the things that were left behind meant something to her – but she was gone and took with her the code of what they all meant. What memory or place or person was intertwined with that thing? Were we supposed to get rid of these things -- things she had felt were important enough to keep?

the basement
My basement is now filled with things.  It's ironic, when I moved into this house I vowed I would put nothing in the basement.  That vow lasted about ten years...

Then my sister asked if she could store some furniture in the basement.  And thus the creeping began.  With my parents passing, I became the storage locker for the family “things.” It all crept up on me until now my basement is filled with the old photo albums, historic family pictures and scrapbooks, boxes of Dad's treasured genealogy research, generations of Christmas decorations, reels of home movies, Great-Grandmother Mean’s butterchurn and Great-Grandfather Woodbury’s handmade furniture, Mother and Dad's Sheraton chairs... 

I know some of the code – but not all of it. I know enough, that I feel responsible. These things -- they meant something to someone at some moment in time. Am I going to be the one who drops the ball?

My nieces and nephews don’t want these things. They want to live in a sustainable manner. I laugh. Don't they realize that sustainability would be "shopping" in my basement? 

I want less and yet I find it hard to part with my own things… a little key chain reminds me of the friend that gave it to me; the pottery statue of the Lady of Bath reminds me of my exploring Rye, while living as an expat in the UK; every little trinket box in my box collection has a story or a place or a person or a time in my life … Even as write this, in front of me on my desk are four paperweights. I use none of them, but parting with even one of them is a painful thought. I know the moment. I know the people. I know the place. I know the code. 

We spend our youth in acquisition and then as we approach the last few chapters of our life,  we have to think about divestiture.   
How do we end up with so much stuff – so many things? 

It’s a question that I have been asking myself lately.  I have no good answers. 

I realize this is an existential crisis that many of us are facing right now.


1 comment:

  1. So difficult -- thanks for giving me your mom's Stanford pillow . . .love