Monday, March 14, 2005


A dear friend of our family passed away a couple of years ago. He lived next door to my parents, and a friendship developed between him and our family. We came to "adopt" him as we called it, as he had no immediate family and his closest relatives lived in Oregon. He came to Christmases, Easters, birthday parties, and weddings. While we always thought to invite him to things, he was regarded fondly by my sister and me as an older uncle, one who repeats his stories a lot, and whom you listened to rather indulgently. But, a nice and thoughtful man all the way around.

About 3 years ago he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as his condition deteriorated, my mother and father took it upon themselves to care for him in his last months. It was a rough time, especially for my father, who has yet to go through the deaths of his own parents. My father was at his bedside when he passed, telling him that it was ok for him to go, that everything was being taken care of, and that his parents were waiting for him.

Much to their surprise, our neighbor had willed them his entire estate, including his car, house, and bank accounts. The house was in a state of neglect, with nothing really changed since his parents' deaths in the 1970's.

My parents have been reluctant to deal with the house and the rest of the estate. My sister has been the one who has gone through the house, throwing away items like old gas bills and disintegrating bars of soap. She had spent many hours in the house, with its windows painted shut, cleaning it and feeling somewhat like an intruder. She felt horrible throwing some of the things out, but apparently he was a man that never threw anything away. In that house was at least fifty years of possessions that belonged to our neighbor and his parents.

When she told me of her distress in sorting through what was the remainder of three people's lives, I understood, but only on a certain level. Last week, she asked me to help her with labeling and sorting items for a garage sale. Suddenly, I understood on a very uncomfortable and intimate level what she was feeling. In some ways, you feel as if you are being dismissive of the importance of their lives if you throw something out. You say to yourself, what was the significance of this vase in their lives, and why do I feel horrible when I label it as worth $10.00 for the garage sale?

I was somehow nominated to be in charge of dealing with a large amount of mid-century costume jewelry, some antique linens, and some vintage clothing. At first when going through the jewelry, I was only looking for pieces that were in good condition and the like. But then it hit me that this was someone else's life I was going through. Probably some of the jewelry had some very important associations for her, and here I was just thinking of their monetary worth. And what would our neighbor think of us for selling it, as he had kept the jewelry intact for over thirty years?

Now I know why my parents have done little or nothing with the estate, it is just too hard, especially since they were closer to our neighbor than my sister and me. But, it is impossible to keep all of the things that were in the house, there is just too much stuff. Even between our three different families, there is too much. It doesn't stop me from feeling like an interloper, like someone who shouldn't be entrusted with the care of these things. How do you value someone's life after they are gone? I am finding it difficlut to reconcile what must be done with how I feel about actually doing it.


WordsRock said...

Very nice post.

It dredges up memories of cleaning out my grandparent's house. I ended up keeping so many things just because the items belonged to them. I had no idea what level of importance they may or may not have held, a fact that still doesn't seem important to me. I'm not ready to let them go.

It also made me think of my friend who lost her mom recently. She had one hell of a time cleaning out her mom's house and really struggled to get rid of anything! I just helped her pack it up and stash it in her own attic.

Half of the stuff we packed away had me thinking, "Why would anyone want to keep this crap?" The person's identity was hardly defined exclusively by their possessions. The important parts of her still lives in our memories.

Stepping up to help folks through the hard stuff is always challenging. Your family, including you, is very kind.


Cuppa said...

Oh, I can so relate to this post.

Because of geographical location, my sisters cleaned out my mom's house after she died. I couldn't be there to help, but they sent a few of her "treasures" to me. I still have her jewell box full of cheap costume jewellery and a bag of old greeting cards that I just can't get rid of. Oh such treasures she had!

When my mother-in-law died it was totally up to me and my husband to clean out her house and deal with each scrap of material in her sewing box and each piece of jewellery in her dresser.

I took the easy way out at first and just packed everything in boxes and brought it all back to our small house. Big mistake. I was drowning in stuff and had to deal with it.

Wordsrock is right. The person's identity is not defined by their possessions. They live on in the faces of their children and the memories of friends.

Thank you for this wonderful post this morning.