Monday, May 13, 2013

Solid Memories

Of all the tasks that would need to be completed after my mother-in-law's death, this is the one I had dreaded the most.

We had moved her things into storage as she progressed from apartment to assisted living to nursing care, and even though Husband had rented the largest space available, every inch of it was packed. It comforted his mother to know that her normal life hadn't been completely scattered, and she told us often how glad she was that we hadn't gotten rid of her belongings. "There are some people out here who don't even know where their stuff is," she would say, "but I tell them 'Any time I want something I know just where it is.'"

Three weeks after we gathered for the memorial service, her children gathered again this weekend to go through the storage space. We reminded ourselves on Friday night that stuff is just stuff and family relations are way more important than furniture or Christmas decorations. 

But we know that stuff isn't just stuff--stuff is memory solidified. This is the table where my Husband and his two brothers ate all of their Sunday dinners. That is the cedar chest that holds dozens of love letters in a pink ribbon-wrapped bundle. Over there are the boxes of dishes the family collected in antique shop scavenger hunts.

Some of the stuff has monetary value and some is measured in joules of sentiment. Would we be able to get through this distribution without hurt feelings and resentment? I was afraid that would take a miracle.

Well, I'm here to tell you that Saturday we saw a miracle. Here's how to duplicate that miracle if you're ever in the same situation:
  1. Start with family members who love each other and want to do this well.
  2. Order up perfect weather, and kick off the morning with the world's best cinnamon rolls eaten off the tailgate of the pick-up.
  3. Do the easy stuff first--load the pre-bequeathed furniture into trailers and get it out of the way.
  4. Designate staging areas for things to keep (three brothers' worth) and another pile to go to Goodwill, and have several large trash cans for everything else. 
  5. Enlist Boy#1 and Lovely Girl to run the shuttle between the storage space and Goodwill throughout the day. You may think to yourself, "Oh, I'll just have a garage sale and get rid of that stuff," and then you will remember that the most you have ever made on a garage sale is about $100, and that you would gladly pay twice that to have a free Saturday, and you will heap more on the Goodwill pile.
  6. Have a table where your sister-in-law is unwrapping odds and ends of antique glassware. Every so often she will call everyone over to pick out any to put on their own piles, and the rest will be re-wrapped for Goodwill. 
  7. Remember that sentimental things are only sentimental to the person who knew the story, so be ruthless in discarding old newsletters, polyester baby sweaters, ticket stubs, old and unsafe Christmas lights, and anything else that makes your skin crawl (artificial flowers, anyone?). 
  8. Watch out for brown recluse spiders, because a bite from one of those could really put a damper on the day.
  9. Keep going and going and going until suddenly you realize there are no more boxes to unpack. 
  10. If in doubt, ignore numbers 2 through 9, and just concentrate on the first step. You'll find yourself at 9 p.m. having completed what you thought would take at least two, maybe three, days to get done, and you'll be exhausted but delighted. You'll part with hugs and smiles.
Then tell yourself this is the best Mother's Day gift this family ever had and your mother-in-law would have been so proud of her clan, because it was and she would have been.


  1. I'm so glad it went well!

    My mom said it was hard getting rid of my grandmother's many scrapbooks: all those years of memories: pressed flowers and ticket stubs and newspaper clippings and wedding programs. ...Actually, no, she just pitched them out, brushing her hands briskly with satisfaction. I was the one who suffered a bit, even though you and she are EXACTLY right about sentimental stuff being sentimental only to that person. It's harrrrrrrrrrrrd! And yet, time after time I end up with stuff in my basement, wondering WHY OH WHY I have it. Tossing is better.

  2. This is what I dread, because our family will never get #1. I've told my mom to give me the good stuff now, because when she's gone I'm letting everyone else fight over what's left. She laughed. I was serious.

    You are very lucky indeed to have a family that can work together during this emotional process. Maybe the secret is those cinnamon rolls?