What we leave behind

My parents’ stuff. Those three words have caused more non-movement on my part than I ever thought possible. Mostly because I don’t know what to do or where to start, and my motivation is hanging out in the zero place. Not because I don’t want to do the work, I do - I crave organization and having everything in its place. It’s because it seems so final and so cruel to reduce my mom’s belongings to the ones that are left in her small apartment.

My mom loved her furniture; she treasured every piece she picked out. She has an antique wash stand that she found in Big Spring, Texas sometime around 1966 - we had moved there when I was around one year old. She told me how she found it in an antique shop and since she couldn’t afford it outright, she put it on layaway for six months and went to the store once a week to oil and polish the wood. She found someone to cut a marble top for it and from the day it came home with her it had a prominent spot in the formal dining room in all the homes we lived in.

She also loved artwork. During the three years we lived in Germany, she brought home a print or an original drawing from every place we visited and we visited a lot. It was the one thing she was not going to go home without. The only place she couldn’t find one she liked was Amsterdam; I don’t remember the hunt too much but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t my dad’s favorite part. The hotel we were staying at had paper placemats that were made from a photograph of three windmills - I remember dad telling her that she should just take the placemat home and frame it. She did him one better; she brought the placemat home and hired an artist to do an oil painting of it and then purchased a lovely frame for it to sit in. Dad never made a suggestion like that again.

She adored collecting china, porcelain, figurines, and silver serving sets. She and my dad did a lot of entertaining in our homes so she had to be sure to have all the things, necessary and unnecessary.  We have at least three sets of individual crystal salt cellars with little crystal spoons. Cute and fancy but we had salt shakers so we didn’t really need them, right? Wrong.

Crystal and china were less expensive in Germany so she stocked up like a champ. The Officer’s Wives Club planned all kinds of trips and she was usually on them. One of the excursions was to what was then communist Czechoslovakia and she happened upon a porcelain factory that made beautiful pieces - white hand painted porcelain inlaid with emerald green glass. Come hell or high water she was bringing several home - I’m talking large fruit bowls and vases, not small trinkets. I remember how not thrilled dad was when he found out how much she had spent - but she loved them like they had tiny little breakable souls.  It wasn’t just the acquisition of these things that made her happy, it was the use of them and the care that she took with them that gave her so much pleasure.

I could tell a hundred stories about her things and when I go to the storage unit I can’t help but get a little lost in all the memories. There’s a passage from the book, Hourglass by Dani Shapiro, that brought tears to my eyes because it’s exactly how I feel about the finality of getting rid of what’s left:

It was easy to part with the contents of closets and drawers - the old sweaters, jeans, dresses, boots. The gold satin dress by the Italian designer, worn to a friend’s black-tie wedding ( they now have twins in the first grade), the scraped-to-shit pans, broken thermometers, stained dish towels. But to get rid of my mother’s sister’s china, for instance, is to cut loose the hopeful young woman who chose the pattern decorated with cheerful bursts of gold and silver confetti. To tape up that box and cart it off to Goodwill kills her all over again. Or perhaps this is sentimental and foolish. She’s dead…

One of my best friends sent me an article last year when I was lamenting the existence of the storage unit (it’s been a process, a really long one). It’s one of those things you read and remark, “well, hell”. The article is called, Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents' Stuff. Pretty straightforward, isn’t it? It's a good one and it includes some helpful links and great tips. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re in the same pickle I’m in.

I’ve already brought home the things that mean the most to me and now that my daughter has taken the leap into home-ownership there are a few things I know she would like. Most of the furniture has been donated or given to someone dear to me who needed it but there is still a lot. In addition to the “things” there are the photographs, probably thousands. I can’t throw those away, not yet.

I don’t need stuff to remind me; all the important things are in my memory, right where they belong. But I know what these things meant to my mom so it’s one more big leap that’s going to need an extra gathering of strength from me.