Term papers from the 1950s. Her father’s Bible. And every card she ever got.
Those were the hidden treasures among my mother’s things.
After my mother passed, my father chose to move to a retirement community. What that meant was taking care of all of the things left behind.
Sure, there were beds, couches, chairs, lamps and the dining room table. Between my sisters and nieces and nephews, most all of it found a new home. A few things were posted online and sold quickly.
That was the easy part. For better than 25 years, my parents lived in a townhouse with three bedrooms, lots of closet space and a big double-car garage. My father had very few items that held sentimental value for him. And those things — the dark oak china cabinet, a painting, an antique white alabaster statue from his parents’ house, which we jokingly named Bertha years ago — went with my dad to his new place.
There were special items of my mother’s, like her wedding ring and a set of pearls, which my sisters and I decided to share.
And then there was the rest.
My mother wasn’t a pack rat. But she was very afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings. Perhaps that’s why she kept every silly gift we gave her. And that’s why she kept all the “artwork” the grandkids made for her.
Having been raised during the Depression, she seldom threw anything away. Take greeting cards. She had drawers filled with all the birthday cards, anniversary cards and holiday cards friends and family had sent her.
I knew she thought, “Oh, the kids can use these for art projects.” Likewise, she never threw away plastic containers. The pantry was filled with them — from the small round containers butter comes in to the many holiday cookie tins we’ve passed back and forth for years.
Among her things I found a box of cards that students at the school where she taught had made for her when she retired. Many of them had characteristic child handwriting and drawings. And they told her “thank you.” I’d never seen them before.
My mother also was very responsible, especially when it came to medicine. In the pantry was a shoe box of over-the-counter medications that had expired, and another shoebox of prescription medicines that were no longer needed. Neatly written on the boxes were “Discard appropriately,” as if she was speaking from the other side.
One of the most unusual things uncovered was a stack of college essays dated 1952, written on an old manuel typewriter, folded length-wise and rubber banded together. Each one had been marked by a professor in red with a grade of “A.” My mother was a good student.
I also discovered a spiral notebook where, in 2004, my mother had begun writing down all the family stories we’d heard time after time, but never put on paper.
She’d written that she wanted to put things down on paper so nothing would be forgotten. She wrote that first, she’d write about my dad’s family. Then she’d write about her family. And then she’d write about our family. She got through some stories about my Dad’s family. And there were letters to each of the grandchildren who were born before 2004. At the back of the book was a roughed-out list of things about me and each of my sisters that she planned to write about.
When my mother first became aware that she had terminal cancer, I pushed her to write down her memories, things she’d told me about, but things I was afraid I’d forget. I gave her a little Hallmark book for Mother’s Day that asked questions so she could answer about her childhood. She wrote on several pages, but never finished the book.
I kept reminding her to “write in that book.” She kept saying “Yes I need to do that.” But as time went on, I also knew she couldn’t do it because it made her pending death too real.
I cried at the fact that my mother’s journal never got finished. The stories that didn’t get written down. The memories that will be forgotten. If I could go back, I’d have asked her years before she got sick, to write things down. But it’s too late for that.
Going through my mother’s things wasn’t sad. To me it was a way of reviewing the wonderful life she’d had. At times, I felt she was looking over my shoulder, sometimes telling me what to keep and what to throw out, and apologizing that she didn’t take care of things before she died.
It was our responsibility as her children to sort and make decisions, to decide what needed to be passed on and what could be thrown out. It truth, none of us can take any of our things with us when we go. After all they are just “things.” It’s the memories associated with each item that gives them value. At this moment, however, they are the physical proof that I can hold on to, to know that my mother really was here. In time, I know it will get easier. But for now, I’m keeping the special things close.