Our lives are more than just our minds and bodies. They’re also our stuff. This truth hit home recently with the death of my mother, and subsequent frantic family parceling out of my parents’ possessions.
For the last two years of her life, my mother Kim suffered from dementia and required round-the-clock care. Her husband Sam was gone, and she often forgot that he’d died, or even his name. His absence was a vast presence in her condo apartment, an apartment that the two of them had filled with all kinds of things. Art hung on the wall, figurines and Buddha statuettes sat on shelves and inside cabinets, along with my dad’s tennis trophies and framed awards from various service organizations and government committees. Antique furniture (and, as we found out, imitation antique furniture) nestled in every room along walls and in corners, and they all contained multiple drawers filled to the brim with things. Both my parents had walk-in closets full of clothing as well as various other items. They also had two full storerooms in other parts of the building. In other words, their space was stuffed with stuff.
Even though her mobility was limited, Kim’s hearing remained sharp, and if she thought anyone was going through drawers or closets or bookshelves she would object loudly. This kept me and my other family members from getting a jumpstart on organizing things to toss out or give away, and during her final days we naturally focused on her, not the apartment. No matter; we thought we’d have plenty of time after her death to sort everything out.
We didn’t realize how quickly the condo would sell—at a price double what we expected, and paid fully in cash at that. Escrow closed in a week. The new owners were champing at the bit to send in remodelers, and we’d barely scratched the surface.
My sister Sarah flew in from the East Coast and managed to keep the new owners at bay while we divvied up artwork, antiques, and other goodies. Thanks to some help from an appraiser, that was the fun part.
The rest of it, though, was hard work and taxed all of us. That’s because none of us realized the extent to which my parents—and my mother in particular—purchased and collected things, sometimes obsessively. In one drawer, for example, I found NINE separate shoehorns and about two dozen partly used dental floss dispensers. Their filled bookcases were only marginally organized, with romance novels tucked in between books on Asian art and histories of the Civil War (to name just a few categories). While packing books I just happened to open one up and—voila!—pressed between the pages were four 50 dollar bills. My mom also put cash in envelopes and stuck in them in various drawers scattered their apartment; you couldn’t just throw stuff out willy-nilly or you might miss some serious cash.
My mother collected every card and letter—did she ever throw anything away?—and often tossed them into drawers along with new photos, old photos, jewelry, half-eaten cookies, pens, post-it pads, notepads, writing pads, scissors, CDs, and of course shoe horns. Sorting the wheat from the chaff took hours and hours. With a deadline to get everything done approaching, I realized we hadn’t even touched a cabinet crammed with at least a dozen huge travel photo albums. I threw them into cardboard boxes and moved on.
Our movers came in and starting wrapping furniture up like tasty morsels for giant spiders that feed on chairs and desks and chests. It was about this time that a metaphor for my parents’ condo emerged in my mind: it was like the carcass of a giant spider, and we were the spiderlings feeding off it.
After the movers took away the stuff we were keeping, my sister departed and left the next step to me and my wife Denise (who, by the way, worked like a beaver and never complained a whit). A professional estate salesman came in and cherry-picked what he thought he could sell; surprisingly he didn’t much care for the antique furniture and asked us if we had more military paraphernalia. But he hauled away a bunch of stuff, and now almost everything was out to be picked over by us.
We invited the housekeepers and other employees at the condo complex to come in and take from what remained. But because we only had one day left, they had to do this at the same time the hauler we hired came in to clear the place out. Fortunately he was a friendly and agreeable person, though he worked with such astonishing strength and speed I could barely think straight.
As a result I made one very foolish mistake. A few days earlier I’d filled a rented van with stuff—mostly boxes—to take up to our Berkeley storage unit. But one of the items was a cabinet I’d forgotten to point out to the movers, so I and a pair of strong young friends I’d hired managed to get it into the van. Except that after we’d taken out the drawers to lighten the load we’d forgotten to load them onto the van. And the hauler would be coming the next morning.
No matter, I thought. The hauler will surely see them and put them aside for me.
Except, no. He assumed the drawers were junk, and by the time I asked him about them he’d already taken them to the dump, where now they were compacted pieces of wood and tiny metal handle pieces.
I felt bad about that, but not as bad as my sister when she realized she’d lost track of an emerald ring. My advice to her was to just let it go. We’d already made off with a ton of booty (though what to DO with it all???) and it was time to return to our regularly scheduled lives. Meanwhile, boxes and boxes of stuff remain, waiting and beckoning us to go through them, flotsam and jetsam from the wreck of our parents’ lives.