Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Sifting through life's pieces
Let’s just say it wasn’t the happiest weekend I’ve spent with my family. On the weekend before Thanksgiving, my sister, Susan, and I, along with our families, finished the very difficult task of emptying our parents’ house. It’s the house we grew up in. The house where we took our first steps, had our birthday parties and sleepovers. The house where we opened presents around the Christmas tree, where we brought home boyfriends to meet our parents, where we carried our children to be loved on by their grandparents, where we took loving care of our aging mama and daddy, who both had Alzheimer’s.
It was difficult physically as we hauled things out of the house those last weeks and difficult emotionally as we cried at every turn and realized our days at our childhood home were numbered. The oddest thing would strike a chord with one of us, and the tears would flow: a birthday card to Mommy signed in a pre-schoolers’ wobbly print; an entry in Mama’s journal announcing I was pregnant with my first child; a photograph hidden in a picture frame of our handsome daddy in his Army uniform.
Mama and Daddy kept too much, I’m sure some would say. They kept greeting cards from family, friends and politicians; church bulletins that listed one of our names; newspaper clippings; and magazines with historic significance.
Want to know how much it snowed in January 1974 or how many pints of corn my parents froze in 1983? I could have told you because it was all recorded in the stack of calendars we found in a drawer in their room. I can’t tell you anymore, however, because we threw away those calendars.
We threw away a lot of things since Mama died in February of 2010, less than a year after Daddy passed away. We started slowly. Four months after Daddy died, we went through his clothes. It was hard, very hard to get rid of suits he wore to church, colorful plaid shirts he wore around the house and the lightweight jackets he wore daily as he aged and needed something on his arms to fight off a constant chill. But we did it. It was part of the grieving process. Daddy wasn’t coming back to wear those clothes, and it gave us a good feeling knowing the people we donated them to could put them to good use.
We were slower on everything else. The house was on the market, but we had no offers, so we kept the house as-is so we could enjoy it when Susan and her family visited. That was our excuse anyway. Truth be told, we wanted to preserve that house, those memories. We didn’t want to let go, and it was keeping us from moving on.
It wasn’t until this summer, more than a year since Mama’s death, that we cleaned out the attic. Not only did it hold the keepsakes from our years at the house, but it also held boxes full of “treasures” from my own grandparents’ house. It seems my parents were unable to toss the utility bills, Christmas cards and even some items of clothing from their own parents’ house more than 40 years ago. So we went through those items of our grandparents’ as well, shared some with our Aunt Margaret and purged accordingly. But we kept my cousin Eddie’s letters from Vietnam written to our shared grandmother, Papa’s pocket knives and my preacher Granddaddy’s Bible.
I decided from the start that I wouldn’t keep too much, and I think I was good at sticking to this. I bought a 30-gallon storage bin and an accordion file folder. In the storage bin I put assorted items including a party dress or two my mother wore in the 1950s, the wooden Playskool mailbox I had as a child, a stack of letters written between my parents around the time they got married and my framed wedding portrait that Mama displayed over the sofa in the living room.
The file folder holds other special items. On a piece of fading white paper from a legal pad, Mama jotted down a timeline of what she did Monday, Oct. 8, 1979, my senior year of high school. I couldn’t toss it. On that day, she washed nine loads of clothes, fed my sister’s dog, made two beds, went to the bank and Carolina Office Equipment Company and paid a bill at Churchwell’s. She mopped up the water when the dishwasher ran over and called the pediatrician’s office about my polio shot. ”She will be suspended from school if she doesn’t get it by Thursday,” she wrote. Priceless (to me at least).
I saved a utility bill sent in error for $9,379.41 from the family’s farm house, where no one lived, and a listing of costs associated with building the very house we were cleaning out for its new occupants: Porch tile cost $74, cypress paneling was $85.40, the mailbox was $2.86 and the kitchen appliances were $615. That was 1958, the year they were married.
And also tucked into the folder is a piece of pink paper from a note pad. Daddy had written “Wheel of Fortune” Channel 7 at 7 o’clock. “Millionaire” at 7:30 on Channel 13. No clue why I saved this, but when I look through this folder years from now, I can remember how much my parents enjoyed watching those two shows each night, and it will make me happy.
I kept some other things, of course, including a few small pieces of furniture, half of Mama’s beautiful fine china trimmed in silver, a few dessert cups Susan and I both adored, a coffee cup I can use for tea, the turkey pepper shaker that is the mate to my salt shaker and a number of Christmas ornaments from the family collection. They are all things that have special meaning for me.
While we were going through things and deciding what to keep and what to toss, Susan and I decided early on to throw away or give away things they didn’t have any special meaning to us. We didn’t want our children to have to deal with items we were too sentimental or cowardly to toss, such as newspaper clippings about people we didn’t know or photos of people we didn’t recognize or the maternity clothes our mother wore in the 1960s. I’m not kidding.
But we did keep what we wanted to keep even if it sounds foolish to others. Susan and I, as well as our girls, each have a box of face powder still holding a dusting of the fragrant powder that Mama wore each day before she got too sick. All I have to do is open that box of Coty honey beige and take a whiff, and I can pretend that I’m hugging Mama and smelling the powder that colored her beautiful face.
Thank God for my memories and for my parents.
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