I’ve written before in my blog about going through a parent’s things, deciding what to keep and what to part with. Much of the process is tedious. My folks grew up during the Great Depression. They kept stuff. Just in case. A lot of that stuff was still there, decades later, for me to toss in the dumpster. The time had long passed since there would’ve been a time for “in case”. Stuff just became stuff.
But I’ve learned that there is a second process, one that is much deeper. You see, I first cleaned house of my dads things in order for my mother to move off the home place. That process was really mostly a moving process more than a reconciling one and a lot of dad’s stuff moved with my mom. Then, a few years ago, I cleaned my mother’s house and went through all her things. Again, the main point was to empty the house so it could be sold. Mom had gone into assisted living and was not going to return. I was in the midst of family dementia scramble — that state of mental exhaustion that happens when family members get overwhelmed trying to keep up with a parent’s decline. Again, there wasn’t a lot of reconciliation to be had.
So I’ve found there really is a two step process in going through a parent’s things and making the final, lasting connection with them that I will carry with me to my grave. Sure, I paused at many things the first time I cleaned house and, when in doubt, saved those things. But that’s mostly all I did. I saved them physically. Now I’m trying to reclaim a bit of my own physical space in my pole shed while trying to make the truly hard and final choices in the game of keep and toss.
But a final choices for what? Am I the family preserver of stuff for the sake of preserving stuff? I’m no longer willing to trip over excess clutter so I don’t think that concept is workable. Am I to be a historian? If so, for whom? Myself? My kids? Society?
My parent’s were staunch republicans but they kept the old newspapers reporting President Kennedy’s assassination and funeral. The iconic photo of John Jr., saluting his father’s casket, is in my hands in the form of a tattered 1963 newspaper. Do I save it? Why or why not?
On a more personal level, I found the last letter my maternal grandmother wrote to my mother before grandma’s stroke. Then I found the letter my mom wrote back to her but never mailed because of the news of grandma’s hospitalization. Both letters talked about me in some detail with both of my matronly angels worrying about me as I was finishing law school and not sleeping much. I’m close to my mother’s age at that time and my oldest son isn’t much younger than I was. The juxtaposition of roles froze me for a moment as I held those hand written letters.
Then there are the letters my father wrote to his folks as a young GI in World War II. Again, in a juxtaposition of roles, he was a teenager. Thinking of my dad like I think of my sons froze me again. Even more interesting were the letters my grandfather wrote back to my dad. I never met my grandfather. He died well before I was born. But the letters had warmth. They had authority and they had thought. And they told stories, all without the benefit of text, Snapchat, FaceTime or any other means of communication to clarify. The words of the teenaged boy and his father, a carpenter, had to convey complete meaning and thought in one small envelope.
So unlike the first cleaning process, I’m no longer facing whether to toss a broken handled cooking pot or receipts for fuel purchases for the Henriette service station my grandfather built and owned, with the heading of the receipt booklet saying “Blake’s Lubridome — Home of Friendly Service!”
Now I’m trying to decide what is part of me. My folks and my grandparents are gone. I’m still here. I know my folks live on through me. But is their stuff a part of the living me or is it just…stuff?
The things is, I don’t think there is a perfect answer to what to toss and what to keep. Life is full of clumsy decisions. I don’t get to live this life perfectly and if I came with a manual, I didn’t find it among the folks’ things. So I make the best decisions I can while the sense of finality haunts me. It didn’t seem like I’d completely said goodbye to my folks as long as I had the newspapers, the Lubridome receipts and the letters.
But as to stuff, moth and rust doth, indeed, corrupt. Or in my case, the cats had failed at their proper killing job and the mice corrupted my dad’s old army uniforms and my mom’s old Bibles. I couldn’t save them. But I couldn’t save dad or mom in physical form either. And none of that’s necessary because they still live on. An old photo of my dad on the high school track team looks like my 20 year old son, except for the hair color. Facial expressions, posture, and the way he grabbed his elbow behind his back. My dad died long before my kids were ever born. But, in a way, he didn’t.
So I’ve come to the conclusion that what I’m really reconciling is not my parent’s’ stuff or my links to family history. What I’m really seeing are letters and photos of my folks when they were my age. Or younger. What I’m reconciling now is my own mortality and I’m letting stuff tether me to the inevitable aging that we all experience. Yet, as with the continuance of my parent’s through me and my children, I will leave part of myself behind. And it really won’t be in the form of stuff.
Copyright September 9, 2019 by Daniel Blake