What you discover when you start to clean out the home of a loved one who has died is that there is no good place to start.
None of it is easy, most of it is fraught, and the process is drenched with doubt. What to discard? What to save? Was that decision the right one?
Our family is going through that now. My mother-in-law, Uldine, died in June, just short of 93 glorious years, and so far we’ve had a couple sessions of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. You learn a lot along the way.
You know going in that things are less important than memories. But you know that some things provoke memories. And however hard it’s been to throw out the stuff that clutters your home, it’s harder still when it’s the stuff of someone else’s life, when you’re making decisions about things that will serve as touchstones for someone who’s gone.
And there’s a special poignancy to the process during the holiday season, when we’re already overwhelmed with the memories of those no longer with us.
So you keep some of the jigsaw puzzles for the grandson who likes to do them. And you throw out the one labeled as missing a piece. But you wonder, why did she keep it if a piece was missing? What did that puzzle mean to her? Is there something we’re not understanding as we discard it?
What to do with the clothes, the ones that lead you to remember what she did as she wore them? What about the unfinished crafts she labored over? The old Christmas decorations she loved? The Humpty Dumpty cookie jar no one wants in their house but no one wants to toss because that’s where she kept the cookies when my wife and her sisters were kids? And it’s painful because there’s meaning in almost everything, but you have to draw the line somewhere, and then redraw it in an endless series of adjustments. And you tell yourself to make sure you don’t leave your own children with the same tortured decisions. Like with the Humpty Dumpty cookie jar that’s going to end up in our house.
A few weeks ago, we returned to her home in the Bronx to resume the campaign. Boxes were filled, some bound for family members’ houses, some for the trash. Late in the day, we found a little photo album, the size of a 5-by-7, the kind you might get with a few prints from the local drugstore, with a cardboard cover and 10 or so plastic sleeves inside.
Printed on the cover, in block letters, were two words:
Inside, a handwritten heading: I Remember. And tucked in those sleeves, penned in blue ink, numbered 1 to 90, were my mother-in-law’s recollections of growing up on a farm in rural Canada.
That was a keeper.
The first entry was a vision of her father reading by the light of a kerosene lamp. Another pictured him riding off to the milk factory on his horse and rig.
She wrote of helping her mother churn their own butter and shaping it into 1-pound “prints.” And of paying for her piano lessons with “dairy foods.” And of the neighbor with the glass eye who gave her apples on her way to school.
She remembered the barn swallows dive-bombing the cats. And reciting the rosary during severe storms, praying that lightning wouldn’t hit the farm buildings and set them on fire. And the car they had to start with a crank.
The final entry was the most haunting. It was No. 91. And there was nothing else written. Which meant she had more to say. More she wanted to recall and preserve. But she ran out of time, or energy or forgot where she had put her makeshift journal.
I look at that empty space as an invitation to the rest of us to keep filling in our own memories, to keep our own stories alive.
I Remember . . .
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.