One of my favorite pieces of furniture has nothing to do with décor.
It’s a Victorian-era table with ornately carved wood legs and a marble top that belonged to my Great Aunt Josie and Uncle Harrison. It doesn’t fit in with the rest of our furniture (brown upholstery with matching dog hair), but it sits next to my chair where I read and reflect every morning. It’s special because it reminds me of my beloved aunt and uncle.
For years, the table sat in their house between two chairs where they rested at the end of the day. When we visited, my parents and I sat opposite on the couch. The marble top was usually the setting place for crystal glasses filled with mixed drinks, usually an old-fashioned. Oh, we had such wonderful talks in that room with the table elegantly serving as a convenient but inconspicuous centerpiece.
When Josie moved at the age of 92, she gave the table to me.
But as sentimental as I am, I’m also a realist. No one else in the family has an interest in the piece. What will happen to it when I’m gone?
This thought came to mind recently after a melancholy afternoon with my childhood friend Muriel Ann Glitzengelder. Sadly, her mother recently passed away. In addition to mourning, Muriel Ann faced the difficult duty of sorting through her mother’s things. She was dreading the visit to the apartment and asked if I would come along.
I was reminded of my own mother helping a friend clean out her parents’ storage unit in Florida. They found all kinds of unusual things packed in crates, like a papier mache unicorn made by the friend’s brother in grade school. When Mom picked up the 40-year-old, crumbling paper object, the horn came off.
I hoped there would be no decaying arts and crafts projects during this expedition.
We came equipped with boxes, markers and lots of Kleenex, but Muriel Ann was hesitant. Still reeling from grief, it was easier to shut the door and think about it later. But I nudged her. Let's just start with one closet and see how it goes.
For many families, cleaning a house before a move or after a death can be overwhelming. There's just too much to deal with. Three sisters I know are still emptying out their deceased parents’ house after two years. Going through kitchen drawers took days, they said, since their mom saved everything, including hundreds of rubber bands and twisty-ties from bread wrappers.
When my husband’s mother passed away eight years ago, each of her five children wrote down a single item they wanted from the family homestead. Just one. That way, everyone would receive at least one cherished memento.
My husband wrote, “Nothing.” He’s not emotionally attached to material objects the way I am. (I picked a statue of the Madonna because it was a favorite of my mother-in-law.)
It can become difficult if people argue over things. Everyone wants Mom’s diamond ring or Uncle Harry’s baseball card collection. That’s when grace and compromise have to come in, and it’s not always easy. Sometimes, it’s best to just let material goods go and keep the relationships.
When you do have the opportunity to bring mementoes into your home, it shouldn’t be about mourning the past, but being happy in the present. Seeing Aunt Josie’s table makes me smile. Having my mother-in-law’s Madonna nearby gives me a good feeling. They loved these things and I loved them.
Will our daughter hang on to all this stuff when I’m gone? She may, but she will have things of her own as well. She’ll have to decide for herself what “treasures” to keep, and yes, that will include the box on the shelf in the closet filled with her grade school art.