Monday, July 11, 2016

What We Keep

For most of my life I have been carrying around the things that other people have left behind.

I was eleven when my dad died.  The only thing he owned outright was a 1973 Ford Pinto hatchback and a house filled with an eclectic assortment of antiques with little value.  My mother borrowed a friend's truck to gather his things only to be told that they would be sold to pay for his funeral.  All I have are the few items we were able to load in the car before my mother and I drove away.

I wouldn’t go back to the house for another ten years.  When my grandmother died I went to pay my respects. I was told that all of my dad’s things had been in storage all those years.  Once again, with a borrowed truck, I loaded his belongings.  Most of it was musty and moldy after spending 10 years in a shed with a leaky roof.  But it was still interesting to see what he chose to keep.  There was an entire trunk filled with my childhood art, notes I had written, and school pictures.  There was the original divorce agreement my mother typed up, including an itemized list of what she planned to keep; I was number one.  There was evidence of who he was before he was a parent or a spouse: a stack of Playboy magazines from the 60’s and a few items brought back from Vietnam.  What was conspicuously missing were photographs of his family and mementos from his childhood.  It's as if his childhood didn't exist.  Probably for good reason.

Very little could be salvaged.  I built a bonfire in my mom’s backyard and for days I sat by it, sorting and watching what was left of my dad’s life go up in flames.  

My mother planned for her death more methodically, not because she was a very organized person, but because she didn’t want what she left behind to be a burden. She moved most of the family things into an 8x10 storage unit and paid the rent for a year.  She wanted to give me that time to grieve before being tasked with going through her things.

She also left birthday gifts and Christmas gifts, wrapped and in the care of a family friend.  Her hope was that they would make me feel less alone.


Much has been written about what immigrants and refugees choose to take when they leave their homeland.  The galleries of Ellis Island are filled with displays of photos, family silver, Bibles, and jewelry.  They took what they could carry, what would remind them of their home, and items they perceived to have value: things that carried memories and represented who they were and where they came from.  

Most of the things my parents left behind have little value, except for the memories attached to them.  There is a sign from my dad’s old shop, and the kaleidoscope my mom made by hand.  I carry her old key chain, a rigging pulley won in a sailboat race, which I love for its familiarity.  

I’ve let go of so much:  furniture I have no connection to, photographs of people I don’t know.  

But I’ve had to let it go.  I needed to make room for my own memories, for things that represent my life and who I am.  There are still boxes carefully sorted, labeled and stacked in my closet.  They are filled with things that tell the story of our family:  a Christening bowl carried by a circuit preacher in the 1800's, family Bibles, and letters from the War.  One day my own daughter will enjoy looking at them, but I don’t want her to grow up feeling beholden to her ghosts.

I’m careful about what I hold onto.  I think about what I’ll leave behind one day and what my daughter will choose to keep.  I try to spoil her with experiences rather than possessions.  One day she’ll have to decide what to keep and what to let go of, and the items she wants in her life that are a reflection of who she was and who she hopes to become. 

Want to know more about the grieving process, but don't want anyone to tell you that your loved one is "in a better place"?   Visit What's Your Grief? 

1 comment:

  1. I love that conclusion. I come from parents who kept everything and now I'm the opposite. We all have to form our own relationships to "stuff."