Monday, March 9, 2009

Memories & Stuff

I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff the past few days. Things. Possessions. The tangible items we surround ourselves with and that make up our physical environments.

My mother-in-law passed away in February, and of course all four of her surviving sons (one son predeceased her), along with their wives, children, and grandchildren, were there to wish her farewell. After the wrenching deathbed scene and the beautiful services held in her memory, however, we were faced with what to do with her stuff.

Never in my entire life have I been so aware of the paltry value of material belongings. The truth of the old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” was brought vividly to life – but in reverse: One man’s treasure is another man’s trash.

My heart ached as we sorted through drawers and closets packed full of this once vibrant woman’s life. Photographs. Old letters from down through the years – kept for what we could only assume were sentimental reasons, only to be tossed into the trash by her successors. We loved her, but had none of the same emotional attachments to the missives she had treasured for reasons unknown to us. Dishes, sorted through and picked over – a pretty bowl going home with one family, a platter with another, a set of tumblers with someone else. Clothes. Linens. The stuff a household is made up of.

Those items retrieved and saved from the Goodwill boxes by different loved ones were mostly chosen as “memory pieces,” rather than for any real monetary value. I remembered her head bent over the blocks of a lovely quilt as she made the tiny, painstaking stitches that held it so beautifully together; a granddaughter recalled Grandma often using a pretty but inexpensive serving dish; someone else knew she loved reading a certain author’s work and claimed a set of well-read books. And so it went. One…two…three items at a time, the stuff that made up her life was claimed or cast away until her home held nothing but scattered remnants worth nothing to anyone except the woman to whom we had so recently said good-bye.

I found myself wondering why we are so caught up in obtaining more and more stuff stuff we can’t take with us when we go. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there’s anything sinful about having pretty things around us. It’s not immoral to buy an item just because it goes well with a collection, or to treasure an object for it’s beauty alone.

It’s just so crucial to remember that they’re only things. Nothing – no stuff – is more important than leaving behind a legacy that matters: kind words, loving smiles, warm hugs, contagious laughter, unfeigned compassion, an unforgettable sense of humor…and so many other real pieces of ourselves. These are the things that will live on in the hearts and minds of our children – and theirs – so much longer and more memorably than any piece of lace or crystal or china, no matter how delicate or how expensive or whose label it bears.

Am I pleased to own the quilt Trudie made? Absolutely. I will treat it with great regard, protect it, and most likely leave it to be picked up and treasured by one of my own children … someday, when my own household stuff is being picked through and disposed of by mourning family members.

But what Trudie left that I treasure the most are memories. Like the time, very early in my relationship with her, when she took me shopping for shoes because I had none fit to wear to church – and she enjoyed the purchase as much or more than I did, though we both knew she couldn’t really afford to be buying those shoes. I remember her delighted smile when she held up my newborn baby girl – her first granddaughter – for everyone to see. As a nurse’s aide working in the maternity ward of our local hospital, Trudie had been there to clean the baby up and wrap her in a receiving blanket. I recall how she saved the life of my second daughter, who was born at home, by finding and tying off the persistent bleeder in her little umbilical cord – even though she herself had just been released from the hospital, and she tied that cord with hands that trembled violently. There were times when she showed up, unannounced, to take care of me after surgeries or illnesses. She possessed a wonderful, quirky sense of humor, and the ability to find something laughable in almost every situation.

I could go on, but I think the picture is clear, isn’t it?

When we depart this earthly life, we will leave something behind. Will it be lots of tangible stuff … which may or may not be considered worthy of keeping by those we leave behind?

Or will it be a real treasure: the unforgettable, undiscardable, untarnishable stuff that memories are made of?


Linda said...

I'm one of those sentimental people. I love to have at least one item from the person that passed away.

What pains me is the heartache and brokenness when siblings fight over what is left, leaving relationships broken.

Thank you for sharing your heart.

Shirley Kiger Connolly said...

How true your words were and are fresh in my mind even today, Delia. My mom went home to be with the Lord last year, and my sisters and I went through the same situation you did.

Even today, my oldest sister, who couldn't quite let go of the majority of mom's stuff, had decided to fill her garage with a lot of this n that (I mean a lot!) because, at the time, we all thought mom would get better and MAYBE someday need it again. No. She never saw that stuff again.

Now my sister is left with the task of trying to find a home for those treasures which are in reality, trash to the everyday looker.

It's hard losing a loved one, yes. But it's too bad we have to wonder for months on end whether or not it was right to let that one thing go...just in case mom might have wanted someone to have...someday.

It never works out that way after a person is gone.

Thanks for your article.
It hit home and I'll bet to more than just me.

Amy Deardon said...

Delia, I'm so sorry to hear about your mother in law. Trudie sounds like such a special lady! I'm glad you can see her quilt to think of her. Your thoughts on collecting *stuff* hit close -- closets full of old clothes and books and knick-knacks, things not looked at in 10 years but wrenching to think of getting rid of. It's as if the memory is attached to them, ready to open with a touch. But we also collect shiny objects that mean nothing, that ingest the life out of our time on Earth. Thank you for a thoughtful essay.

Bea said...

Beautifully written Delia. I think we have all gone through those times and it sure makes you realize just how fragile life really is.

Delia Latham said...

Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments, ladies. Trudie was indeed a special kind of lady...anyone who knew her will read that statement with a chuckle and a rueful shake of the head. She definitely had her moments! But I loved her, and she made a deep impression on my life. She'll be missed.

LuAnn said...

My mother is 86 years young and she's been trying to get me to take "stuff" whenever we go to visit. It's very difficult for me to think about her someday not being here and so I refuse. There are a couple items I want, but that can wait until she is no longer able to enjoy them herself.

Lisa Lickel said...

My sympathies, Delia. We lost one of our mother in laws (yes, I had two - both wonderful ladies), last spring and it about broke my heart. The one thing I recalled after losing the rest of my grandparents within a couple of years of each other and moving my parents is the stuff issue - and as a result, I stopped taking so many photographs (well, until I got my digital camera for Christmas).
Thanks for sharing,
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Healing Grace, a haunting story of love and sacrifice coming in May

Delia Latham said...

I lost my parents several years ago - Mom first, then Dad five years later. Doing the "sorting" thing definitely does make you think! LuAnn, let me just say one thing regarding your comment. I know where you're coming from, but... I have started giving a few of my things to my children. I'm not quite 52, but I've decided I'd like to actually see them enjoy these things, rather than wait until I'm gone. Maybe your mother is thinking the same thing. If so, be careful not to deny her the pleasure of watching you love her treasures. :)

Kathleen said...

I have been thinking about "MY STUFF" lately. I really would like to do away with a lot of it so that someday my kids won't have to sift through it but I have not been very successful as of yet. So many memories for me that are hard to part with but then memories are in our minds and hearts anyway. Something to think about. We have had to do away with many things over the years from our loved ones so I know how you feel, it is really hard but something that has to be done. But we still have those memories in our hearts.

LuAnn said...

I hadn't thought of it that way. That could very possibly be true for many of the items.
The one I definitely want to wait for, though, is a memory book she has. Although she's not been very faithful about writing things in it, there are a few entries that will mean a lot to me. She wanted me to take it and I told her I'd rather she kept writing in it when she thought of things she wanted to say!

Delia Latham said...

It is hard to let go sometime, Kathleen...but maybe if you look at it as a way to see your children, loved ones - whomever - enjoy your things...? And LuAnn, be sure to continue encouraging your mother to write in that memory book! What a wonderful treasure that will be someday!