(This was originally written in the fall of 2015. I found it in my drafts and decided it was time to post. Much has changed since I originally penned it, but the sentiment remains the same.)
Our family has been going through stuff for almost a year. And by “stuff” I mean that literally–physical objects, material things, the trappings of life.
Shirley, one of my husband’s grandmothers, who lived up the street, passed away three months ago. There is a large dumpster outside her house. She did not own the house. Her son and daughter-in-law lived with her. They are moving out. The owners of the property have been doing major work on the property. Clearing trees and brush and removing an old in-ground pool. Everything inside the house must go. And there is a deadline of one month. Shirley’s four children have been going through the things in the house, each taking their own treasures. These are mainly photo albums and handwritten recipes, but there are also ceramic tigers (Shirley’s trademark!), record albums, and odds and ends.
Nan, my husband’s other grandmother, lived next door to us and had a personal library behind her house. She passed away eleven months ago. Since then the family has been slowly going through her things, disposing of obvious trash, and trying to figure out what to do with everything else. As with Shirley’s house, some things we know we want to keep. Photos, scrapbooks, genealogy, a few special items. Then there are the things that seem like they would be worth some money. Like old books. So we research those. We find that they are not worth as much as we had hoped and perhaps even less because they are not in mint condition. According to dealers, the books are not worth much, but if we had some ephemera–journals, pamphlets, letters, diaries, photograph collections–to offer, they might be interested. But those are not for sale. They are the very things with which we won’t part.
I can see both houses from where I sit. Shirley’s with the dumpster and Nan’s with the liquidator’s truck. I’ve seen how difficult it can be to sift and sort, to save and to discard. But to everything there is a season. . .
There’s a third house where I’ve been going through stuff. A friend of mine is eighty. She lives alone. Her husband passed away three years ago. She asked if I’d help her purge. Three things specifically–clothes, books, and files. We started with the clothes. I helped her sort through her husband’s clothes and pack them for the thrift store. She pointed me in the right direction and then went off to do another chore in another room. She didn’t want to watch me pack up her husband’s things. She wanted me to do it; she knew it was time. She just didn’t want to watch.
This left an impression on me. I care about my friend, and her husband was a lovely man, but I am still somewhat removed from the situation. I am not family and therefore not as emotionally attached to the material things that belonged to him. I can be objective while, at the same time, respecting his things and her space.
That’s why we go through so much when we go through physical stuff. It’s not just cookie jars and dress shirts and tea pots. It’s memories–some happy, some sad, some downright difficult. We each come to the place where we can let go of the stuff and still hold onto the memories, in our own way, in our own time.