September 10, 2009 by 8junebugs
A few times this weekend, I heard a combination of the following:
Column A: You / Someone
Column B: take / hold onto / keep
Column C: it’s nice / it’s engraved / you might use it / your children might like to have it.
I developed a mantra: Take it or toss it. It is not going home with me.
I’m not an unsentimental person. I have all my old prom photos (so did Mom) and all the newspaper clippings from the FHS Marching Band trip to London and France my senior year (so did Mom) and ticket stubs from Orioles games (Mom…well, how about two ticket stubs for her run at a national pageant title?). I have the cork from the champagne G and I drank last year, celebrating his California bar success and our reunion.
I brought home more than I wanted to, even with my mantra. I’d planned on the writing desk and my old highchair, but I’d forgotten about the rocking horse my uncle and godfather made for me. I’d planned on bringing home Mom’s china, but I hadn’t planned on bringing home even a handful of wineglasses…and I did. At the last minute, too, I found one of those old juice pitchers from the 70s — you know, the pear-shaped glass one with bright oranges and lime wedges on the outside? I brought that, too.
I refuse to take on inherited clutter. My mother had a home and lived in it for most of 30+ years — what she kept around her was her choice and undoubtedly a comfort to her, particularly in the moments when she knew at least one of us would always live far away.
But. As a person in my own right, and as an adult, I get to decide what things to keep around me, and what things are a comfort to me in my home. Mom had some nice furniture, sure, but I have no need of it and it’s not my style…not enough to make room for it in my home. I am also not in my “forever home” (to borrow a phrase from the animal shelters) — every non-consumable item that comes into my home is just one more decision I’ll have to make the next time I move.
If furniture or trinkets are not my style and don’t bring me the kind of joy they brought my mother, there is no balance to the stress of that delayed decision. And that decision is delayed mainly by guilt, isn’t it?
“It was important enough to her to keep, so it should be important to me. If it’s not, there is something wrong with me.”
Bullshit. I’m not Mom, I’m not going to be, I shouldn’t have to be, and there’s nothing wrong with just being me.
That’s bigger than ticket stubs and Christmas ornaments. I know. And guilt plays such a huge role in family dynamics all over the world. We’re taught to honor our mother and our father. For what it’s worth? That does not necessarily extend to their stuff.
Not even if it’s engraved with their initials.
Maybe it’s because I’ve moved more often than everyone in Mom’s family put together (and farther, certainly). I’ve had to pare down because I’ve had to pack and load and transport and unpack. I’ve had to get a little slicey-dicey about what’s important enough to deserve closet space, and I refuse to pay for extra storage.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve lived on my own, far from the family “compound,” for half my life, and I still harbor resentment toward the responsibility that my mother took for her parents’ livelihood and well-being. There’s something about that relationship that prevented her from growing past a certain expected point, and there were aspects of our relationship that might easily have had the same effect if I didn’t live at least 500 miles away. Deep down, I feel like taking on her stuff is taking on responsibility for a life not quite fulfilled.
And, you know, there goes the feng shui.
Memories take up minimal shelf space, and I have plenty of those. How could a knickknack be anywhere near as powerful as the remembered smell of perm solution? (“Smells like money,” she always said.) Can a porcelain bear have more of a hold on me than hearing Mom’s voice in my head, telling me how to peel eggs for egg salad sandwiches? Maybe it can for some. It just doesn’t for me.
Also? My apartment doesn’t have a basement, attic, or garage.
Here’s what I would say to you, if I were standing next to you in your mother’s kitchen and watching you wonder how to respectfully dismantle a home:
- You have no obligation to the things in the home. You do have an obligation to carry on the story of your family — even if it ends with you, it is an important story. If there are things in the house that are critical to the story, take those things with you.
- Your stuff is not the whole of who you are. Your mother’s stuff, likewise, was not the whole of who she was. Do not let her stuff define you…particularly if you have worked quite diligently to define yourself.
- Old photographs are priceless. Keep them, label them, organize them, back them up, share them, and store them safely. If you can’t label them on your own, enlist the help of your family. However, it is acceptable to throw away photos if you already have copies of them, or if no one knows who the hell that is in the photo.
- Give yourself time to consider the items that are hard to let go. Think about why you want to hold onto the items. If it is because the item is beautiful and makes you smile and think of your mother, keep it. If it is because you think you should, let it go. “Think you should” is driven by anticipated guilt.
- Find a local business that provides what I call Household Hospice. Once you have removed everything you and other family members wish to keep and once you have exorcised any remaining stuff demons, sell the remaining contents of the house to a local antiques-and-used-stuff dealer. You say your goodbyes, and they handle the final clean-up.
- Invest in a dumpster and give yourself permission to throw away broken stuff, useless stuff, and just about any scrap of paper you find. I found my parents’ tax returns from 1989 — these are now officially trash. Hell, they were trash 10 years ago.
- You’re allowed to have your own values — they reflect who you are and the times you live in. They are as valid as your parents’ and grandparents’ values. If your parents or grandparents held onto stuff because they never knew when they might need it, that’s fine. But if that’s not how you want to live, don’t start now.
- Your mother had her own memories and her own life experiences, and you are not responsible for them — they are not yours. It is okay to let them die with her.
You carry within you as much of your parents as you need. The rest is negotiable.