It was halfway through 2018 when we moved my mom and dad into an independent living community, downsizing from their 4-bedroom home of 45 years where they reared five children, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and marked their milestone 85th birthday (Dad) and 80th birthday (Mom). We had an impromptu garage sale which made us feel like traitors, encouraging buyers to take away many of Dad and Mom’s personal belongings when deep down we didn’t want anybody to touch anything. (“Keep your grubby paws off, ” we wanted to say. “Yes, I’ll take two dollars for that,” we said with a forced smile instead.)
Strangers walked through our home, claiming items that had always been a part of my life. Some of them we’d used only the day before. We sold dressers, sofas, the hi-fi Dad built with Ted Meredith of Meredith Publishing 60 years ago, Dad’s record albums and the record player too.
During the sale on a sunny autumn day, Dad sat in his favorite chair—with a price tag on it—in the middle of the yard, watching his life’s accumulations disappear right before his very eyes. By day’s end, what didn’t sell got pulled into the garage, where our remaining treasures looked more like discards, stacked haphazardly on top of each other and spilling out of dented, dusty boxes.
We hauled a truckload of unwanted goods to the thrift store the next day and then went back to the house, which now felt as empty and hollow as our hearts. We moved through the deserted rooms and tried to remember the most significant moments that took place there but that was impossible, with grief echoing off the bare walls and tears running down our faces to drip from our chins. When we pulled the front door closed behind us, I felt like I was deserting my past.
My dad passed away five weeks later and six months after that we moved my mom into assisted living. This move, from a two-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom unit, meant another reduction in possessions. It was a little easier this time, but we still had to make tough decisions about what to keep and what to cast off.
A scant seven months later, we have taken the next step and moved my mom into memory care. Now she is down to just one room and nine pieces of furniture. As we packed her up this time we realized what is left is the best of the best—the keep-forever things we have not let go of so far and cannot yet relinquish. How can we get rid of photos of a young Dad in his Boy Scout uniform? A tomboy Mom with her knobby knees and long pigtails? Handsome Gramps standing proudly next to Gram in her nursing cap? We face the same dilemma as everyone else—what do we do with all these pictures? Surely somebody wants them.
Mom no longer needs her dishes—she will never cook again. After Dad died, Mom was lost in their double bed—she now sleeps alone in a twin. There is no need for playing cards, Sudoku books, the TV, or her favorite reads. Mom’s world is very small now and she needs the simplicity of an uncluttered living space.
We made more trips to the thrift store to donate several boxes full of Mom’s things. Then I discovered one box of keepers was missing. It must have inadvertently ended up at the thrift store when it was supposed to get transported to home. That box had several sentimental pieces in it that had made the cut each time.
I went to the thrift shop to buy back what I could. I wandered around the store, seeing familiar chairs, tables, lamps and kitchenwares with price tags on them. They were ours but they no longer belonged to us. I know their stories but once they have a new owner, those stories will be wiped away as if they never existed. I felt as if I’d bumped into someone I used to live with whose stories I knew intimately but whose life eventually diverged dramatically; once so very familiar yet now a mere acquaintance at most. I had to leave the store.
My grandma had a cast iron pot that hung from her family’s covered wagon as it bumped and lunged its way across Iowa to Colorado. My mom wanted to have that pot but after Gram died, it was lost. Mom never knew what happened to it. The current owner has no idea of the family history that heavy pot carried in its blackened belly. The pot is gone but the real loss is in the story that is no longer a part of that pot. To the new owner it is just a pot, bought at a bargain price at a secondhand store.
With each delivery to a thrift store, boxes full of stories are lost and keepsakes become hard, cold objects. I’ve been striving for several years to minimize my own belongings. But if I give away these last remaining pieces of Mom’s life, her stories will fade away. They are already gone from her memory yet I have them still. I want to hold onto as much of her as I can—her life, her history, her stories. The time willcome when I can let go (hopefully), but that time is not now.
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© 2020 Sarah Donohoe