To have and to hold on to

About 20 years ago, together with my siblings and various nephews, I helped my mom empty my grandma’s house after she died. Sad as we were to lose Gene, she was about 93, and she was one of those people about whom you said: she didn’t have an easy life, but she had a great life. She was a defining personality in my family: gracious, stylish, social and sympathetic to all the little girls who loved to come to grandma’s and dress up and go through the kitchen drawers looking for sweets. Even growing old, losing her memory and her hearing, and getting increasingly cranky with mom, she was always ready for company, in her little pink suits.

So after she died we gathered at her house to pack up and clean up. It was a long working weekend, punctuated by discoveries of well-remembered treasures that were so Gene: the mother of pearl clock that graced the bathroom. The green glass ballerina – you lifted the top half of her to reveal the powder puff, and the whiff you’d get when you kissed Gene’s soft face. Burt’s dice cup, and you could hear the familiar sound of Gene and Burt, mom and dad playing poker after the kids were in bed. And bagging up, maybe, 20 silk slips, drawers full of lingerie, closets full of beaded sweaters. I kept some of her dressy dresses from the 40’s, along with elbow-length gloves in every color and material, small suede open-toed shoes, and little pillbox hats with tassels and veils. I adore having these things because they conjure her when I look at them, making me smile. But I will say that the real takeaway from that weekend was that I’m not going to leave a huge house-full of stuff for my kids to clean up after me.

Why the memory trip? Because I have a recurring sense as I’m tearing through drawers and cupboards, deciding what to keep and get rid of, that I don’t really know what my kids are going to treasure. I look at our stuff, and there’s a lot of it (or there was a few months ago) that has little or no sentimental value for me. Except for most of the art, and the things that belonged to grandparents, my mom or Bruce’s family – it’s mostly just replaceable stuff with transient aesthetic and functional value. Even the possessions I quite like – dishes or chairs we picked out, books I’ve loved – does any of it have value or meaning?

For me, the only real value it has is what it represents: a life we’ve built together, our family, a home where we raised our kids until they were ready. So as I’m cleaning out closets, I’m not only thinking about the fact that I haven’t worn that thing in 10 years – I’m also wondering if it has any future value for someone. Mostly the answer is no – thus the many, many bags that have gone to the thrift shop. But my own experience says that some surprising things have great value for the smells, the sounds, the visual memories they evoke – and I’m just trying not to throw out my kids’ memories by accident.


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