My one day road trip to Santa Ynez this week had me facing an all too familiar task: dealing with stuff left by my mother when she died. It's been almost nine years now, and many of her keepsakes and photos are still waiting to be addressed... what to save, what to toss, what to preserve for our kids as remembrances of her, their grandmother they never met.
There we were, my younger sister and I, standing in front of a dusty storage unit, feeling hot in the humid, 90 degree weather and totally perplexed by the fact that we had to, yet again, decide the fate of more of our mother's things. As my sister had moved and was ridding herself of this unit for good, those items of mom's for which she had been the custodian all these years needed to be relocated. Just how much of it was going to land in the trash bin this time? Which items had time rendered less vital and easier to part with? Which items were going to move on to a new home where dust and cobwebs would rest upon them once again?
And for God's sake, HOW, after all these years, are we still doing this?
When the accident happened back in 2006, there were things my three siblings and I had to face immediately. The need to go through our mom's daily belongings - clothes, paperwork, personal effects - was unavoidable and painful, but necessary. Her home and the large storage space she rented were filled with antique furniture, film/tv memorabilia, press kits, VHS tapes with recorded "Entertainment Tonight" segments and Academy Awards ceremonies, and an extensive lineup of framed, celebrity autographed pictures and movie posters... all vestiges of her former lives as an entertainer's wife, an event planner, a celebrity personal assistant, and a Hollywood publicist. The boxes upon boxes the four of us had to go through, jam packed with keepsakes, photos, mementos and random clutter, all reflected and symbolized her passions, her obsessions, her professional successes and personal accomplishments. She held on to A LOT, which made everything even more stressful and time consuming... I mean, we found stacks of unused personalized notepads from public relation firms she worked at twenty years prior. The firms were gone, the clients gone, but those notepads sure survived!
We knew we didn't need or want to keep most of this stuff to remember her by, yet all of it still had to be sorted through, passed on to friends, donated, sold, or thrown out. We soon discovered that disseminating sixty years of a person's life in one fell swoop was incredibly overwhelming, especially a life as unique and interesting as hers; and that doing so while grieving was even more so. I was also pregnant when she was killed in that car, and so was my brother's wife. Our two sisters tirelessly helped with our newborns when they arrived shortly after the accident; and although these babies brought such joy to a time of darkness, we were all still hanging by a thin emotional thread. Nursing my daughter post partum with crippling grief, I found the reality of sorting through the remnants of my mother's life in the past tense totally surreal in the worst possible way. WHY did she have to die with so much stuff stored away and so many things unresolved? It was all just too much.
And as such, her most treasured memories and valued earthly possessions were simply put aside. Those things that, right when she died, we just could not imagine parting with, yet still didn't know what the hell we were going to do with either. So we each took a portion of these "invaluable" valuables, agreeing to deal with them later when it wasn't all so fresh... when the pain had somehow lessened, and when time had put some distance between us and tragedy. Call it avoidance or procrastination – none of us were ready or in any shape to decide who was going to keep the family photo albums or inherit the heirloom china and silver.
So these put aside things were put aside, stored and untouched, for years. Most of them are still in "put aside" mode, as our lives of having more babies, parenting toddlers, and changing careers have been stretched so thin that making time to revisit the burden and the pain hasn't been a top priority.
This past Tuesday in Santa Ynez changed that. My sister could no longer put aside her lot of mom's indispensable treasures and together we were forced to finally deal with it. And as luck would have it, she seemed to have gotten the most priceless commodities of all - only a small portion of what we found was disposable. Damn. There I was, the chump who agreed to drive up there and give what needed to be saved a new home. After all, I still had my own portion of mom's priceless bounty to unearth and deal with at some point, and now I was agreeing to take on more... big chump.
We packed five cumbersome and dusty plastic storage containers into my car and went to toast a chapter being closed with a glass of wine from one of Santa Ynez's finest. It was still 80 degrees outside at 8:00pm when I stopped to take a breath and enjoy the sunset before continuing my long journey home. Although I knew what we did that day needed to be done, I was now weary of the work ahead to figure out what to do with it all.
The question pondered on the drive home? Where do you draw the line between holding on to material things to honor a life and preserve a legacy, and letting those things weigh you down, trap you in the past, and hinder your ability to thrive in the present or move forward in the future?
Here I had spent another day of my life sorting through her possessions. THINGS. Things that weren't even mine. Heavy things. High school and college yearbook heavy. Sorority scrapbooks, multiple 3-ring binders full of slide film, endless envelopes of photo negatives, stacks and stacks of unsorted 4x6 prints, loads of photo albums, a framed newspaper article from when she was crowned homecoming queen in college, and a myriad of old film reels and cartridges with home movies that were made before I was even born.
Stuff. Not people. Memories of people. Memories of times and places. Of loves and experiences that, for the most part, weren't mine. Of a life that wasn't mine. A life that was now gone, but that supposedly lives on because of the mere existence and proof of these "things"? These things that are now occupying my time and taking me away from living my life, being with my people, experiencing my loves.
All I could think was, IF she had just lived to meet her grandchildren, maybe she would have hugged, kissed, and loved them so much that she would have no longer needed so many reminders of her past to comfort her. And IF she had just lived to find peace and happiness in this life, maybe she would have discovered that all the material things she held on to so tightly were not that important after all. And IF she had lived past sixty years old, maybe she would have grown into a wise old lady who would declare that none of it amounted to a hill of beans in this crazy world, or some other nugget of wisdom a wise old lady would spout out, and would have resolved to purge her life of the clutter, downsize her most precious mementos to a manageable collection, and pass it on to us before dying a peaceful, natural, non-tragic death.
If anything, at least she would still be here and we wouldn't be saddled with all of this.
Yet, it is less the gaining of her stuff and more the loss of her herself that troubles me. She was my mom... a daughter, a sister, a friend... a woman who created, enhanced, and affected lives. Five dusty old containers full of sentimental pieces of film and paper does not a legacy make. It may seem like the essential elements of her life are encapsulated in those old bins, but the truth of her life, of HER, lives inside of every person she touched.
My children could comb through all of that stuff when they are older and they still won't know her. They still won't see her smile up close, hear her laugh in person, feel her arms around them. None of her kept things can replace what those kids have lost - what we all have lost.
So where does that leave the line?
Maybe it exists somewhere between holding on and letting go... between honoring a loved one's memory while not allowing their memories to suffocate us... between preserving their legacy by sharing their stories not recorded on film or paper while still saving the tangible items that best represent them and their life.
As for us? We exist somewhere between the sadness of losing them, the peace of acceptance, and the healing passage of time.