The Elder Hat Lady Cometh
Two Elder Movies

Dead Relatives' Junk

It's been more than 21 years since I cleared out my mother's home after she died. There wasn't much. She had known she was dying and had, apparently, got rid of all but bare essentials before she was too sick to handle the chore.

There was little I needed to do. Some of the furniture, other big items, the TV and the car went to friends along with the dollhouses she liked to build from scratch. Almost everything else went to a charity group or into a dumpster.

For myself, I set aside the family photo albums, some modest jewelry she owned and – inexplicably - a small footstool covered in a needlepoint scene of Versailles that my mother had made and a cheap, dime-store jewelry box.

I say “inexplicably” about those last two items because they are awful.

Since my mother has now been dead for more than two decades, today I am giving myself permission to say out loud that she had terrible taste. In pretty much everything.

That footstool wasn't the only needlepoint in her home – dozens of needlepoint pictures were framed on the walls. Scenic vistas, dogs, cats and I have forgotten which president of the U.S. but given her politics, I'm guessing it was Ronald Reagan.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the style of the furniture in her home but the brassy colors and mismatched patterns could make you dizzy.

In clothing too, she had no sense of either style or color. Zero. One of the things she did better than anyone else I've ever known is knit and over the years I received dozens of sweaters.

The basic styles were good – pullovers, cardigans, turtlenecks, etc. - all of them beautifully and perfectly constructed in various weights of wool so that they were (or, would have been) useful for different seasons of the year.

But every one was made in colors so garish they could have lighted up Times Square at night.

Unless the sweater was made of black wool (which I begged for now and then), it was unwearable.

Having said all that, maybe I should redeem my mother's taste a bit.

When I was going through the unpredictable hot flashes of menopause, I complained to her in a phone call that I was pained to have had to give up silk blouses, skirts, pants and dresses.

A few weeks later, a big box arrived from Mom. Inside were ten sweatshirts each a different color – nice colors, not wild and weird as the sweaters usually were. And sewn to the front of each sweatshirt was lace dyed to exactly match the color of the sweatshirt.

They were subtle and beautiful and fantastically useful in the circumstance of menopausal hot flashes. Worn under suit and other jackets, the shirts were perfectly acceptable for travel and business meetings and no one knew when I was drowning in sweat.

Anyway, back to that footstool and jewelry box.

Ever since my mother died those many years ago, I have been using that ugly jewelry box for my own earrings, pins and necklaces. And every time I open the drawer to choose something from that box, I tell myself it is time to let it go and buy my own.

That dreadful footstool – also shorter than what I prefer – still sits in front of a certain chair. I use it every other day when I do bicep curls during my morning exercise routine.

I tell myself I have other footstools I can use but then I picture myself tossing it into a dumpster. That doesn't feel so good. It feels no better when I think about trashing that tatty jewelry box.

This is just stupid. Do other people do this with parents' or other relatives' ordinary items after they die?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Deb: A Steady Job at $1.25 a Day


Of course they do.

When my son (now twenty), was a toddler, he was addicted to pacifiers.

One day, his day-care person, "Aunt Peg," decided the time had come to put away childish things.

She extracted the pacifier (which he called his "Bobber") from his mouth, and handed it to me.

Today, the "Bobber," sits in state, pacifying the other momentos in the bottom of my jewelry box, including with the tiny gold ring monogrammed with an "M," which my father gave to me when I was flour years old.

Hilarious -- but all it shows is that you are human!

Certainly I do. It gives me inordinate pleasure to fish my nail file out of the tacky plastic box that once held my mother's bobby pins and hair clips. (In her defense, though, I have to say her taste in general was pretty good and she had more style than I'll ever have!)

I still have a pencil from a craft thing my Mom did putting little wigs and wiggly eyeballs on pencils for toppers. It has sat in my pen jar since she died in 1993. But I also have her dolly and dolly carriage she had when she was four. And some of my kids' baby teeth. Tiny treasures stashed here and there.

I bet we all do it, when we are able.

I was an only child. When my mother died, I was left with the accumulation of a three story house in which my parents had lived 50 years and in which they had squirreled away a goodly collection of their parents' stuff. It took a month to sort through it and dispose.

Some of it was quite nice -- I am writing today on my father's desk, an impractical but lovely antique. (Here's a picture from "Where elders blog.")

Much of it was awful. Some of it I liked because it was so awful, in particular an overstuffed chair, the quality of whose upholstery most would call exquisite -- except that Mother had had it done in hideous blue naugahyde.

When my partner's mother died, we ended up with her mother's favorite chair, a wing back in lovely, patterned, cloth upholstery. In life they hated each other (really). We were amused to sit their chairs across from each for about a decade.

Just in the last year our current destructive cat has done in the cloth of the wing back, so we've finally had to undo the tableau. The chair is beyond saving. Cats!

By the way, my mother too had terrible taste. Unlike Ronni, I haven't improved things much. :-)

I live in a neighbourhood full of seniors and for some reason when relatives clear out the house I am the person of choice that they think they should hand stuff over to, not sure why. I don't have the heart to say I don't want things and I now have an entire china owl collection, huge piles of Tupperware and cake tins and pans going back more than 90 years. Last month I was given 10 year old bottles of honey and many ancient bags of frozen pecans. I will make bird food out of those offerings for the winter I guess.

Remember what our friend Duck said, "You don't have to caretake dead peoples stuff." My mother wasn't really likable, and I gave or lent out much of her stuff. What ever happened to it, completely ruined clothes for instance, I had to let go. Now Duck stuff. LOL I kept most of his stunning five and six foot tall needlepoint. His sunflowers fill my main stairs and bring a smile of joy to my face every time I see them.

I didn't need the Lemoges or Spode, but I needed the joy. Give the jewlery box and footstool to a charity thrift store.

I am a collector and I am from a family of collectors! I am currently moving after 11 years in my house. My Dad and I bought this house together in 2002 and combined our two households. My mother died in 1985. She was an antique collector and had wonderful taste - somewhat East coast and formal for my taste. But to this day I admire the workmanship and the beauty of the pieces I remember from my childhood that have survived my numerous downsizings.

I think we all have a complex relationship with our STUFF. I have always had a small family, and now at 63 I have almost no family except some cousins who do not live near me. But I sure have a lot of pictures, memorabilia etc. My relationship with my mother was not great, it is interesting that I am holding on to her "stuff".

Well, back to cleaning out drawers and shelves, packing and preparing to lose 600 square feet and go from a jam packed two car garage to a one car garage!

I would hope that everyone keeps something of their parents forever and forever. I, myself, have a favorite Vera t--shirt that my mother wore, and a favorite knit golf shirt that my father wore; and they have been gone almost 25 years.

I keep the family album, although I have only looked through it twice, but I will leave it to my heirs to do what they will with it..... they have never seen it, so they won't even know who the relatives are.... but I know, and so I keep it.

I have a pair of my father's glasses..... just have it in the back of a drawer, so that when I am looking for something, and see it, it brings a smile to my face.

It was their life; but it is ours, too!

Owls. I see from a comment above. And I pity my descendants. I had the misfortune to mention about a decade ago that my totem, my power animal, given to me by a shaman, was an owl.

Foolish me. I have since been inundated with owls. Every kind. Wood. China, feathered, plated, even rug-hooked, necklaced, earringed and painted and photographed.

I live in a nightmare. And everyone checks my walls and my bits to see the placement of theirs. Delighted with themselves. "I know you have enough but I couldn't resist this one.....".

Kill me now.


Oh yes. I have some of my father's more hilariously garish ties; a box of his favourite felt-tip pens that he wrote with his whole life, unopened; my mother's hair combs and ostrich leather handbag. I know with absolute certainty that I could never throw them out - but having had to clear out 40 years of accumulated junk out of my parents' house when they died, I also realise that no matter how much you love somebody, the stuff that THEY are obsessed with is not the stuff YOU are obsessed with - and my relatives will think the same of my stuff when I am gone.

"but given her politics, I'm guessing it was Ronald Reagan."

The only thing worse than a needlepoint Ronald Reagan is one painted on black velvet. :-)

My mother has been dead for 12 years. I have some of her not-very-special costume jewelry, a few necklaces, etc. in a tightly closed plastic bag. I'll never wear the stuff, it's not my style -- but her smell, fragrance, whatever rubbed off from her, is still discernible when I open the bag. I don't think I can ever give it away.

I was really proud of the job I did cleaning out my parents' house when I lived 1,000 miles away. I made lists, flew up for four-day clean-a-thons, and shipped back a carefully curated stash of mementos. I even "staged" the house a little, being true to my mother's formal East Coast taste, not mine, for when the antiques were all sold at auction.

Now, 12 years later, I wish I had tossed both less--and more. I threw out my mother's cookbook in a fit of exhaustion; what was I *thinking*? Kept the four guilt-inducing needlework projects, which I have absolutely no way to use, and too much costume jewelry I'll never wear--oh, for dumb!

I still use her "best" skillet and lots of her kitchen utensils, her last favorite couch throw, and the sewing box I gave her for Christmas when I was 10. It still has a faint fragrance of their last home, which is comforting in a strange way.

I found dealing with my dead parents' belongings one of my life's most poignant tasks, and I felt--at the time--that I was doing a respectful and practical job.

That is still mostly true, but 12 years on, I've concluded that there's no way to do this job so that it feels "perfect" for all time. Like so many things in life, we do our best and move on.

My parents have been dead for 35 years. I have very little of their possessions. My mother's sewing machine which I still use and my grandmother's treadle sewing machine and her family Bible.
What concerns me is the ordeal our daughter will have to go through cleaning out our house when we are gone. I am a cleaner-out person, but my DH keeps stuff "just in case." I tell him that on the off chance we ever need that little whatsit, we can buy one then. For all the good that does...Our poor daughter!

About all my Mom had left when she died at 94 was her clothing and a few utilitarian personal items. She'd been living with me and my brother, alternately, for three years. As a memento, I gave some of her blouses to my quilting enthusiast daughter who made them into a small wall hanging for me. That and a small china saucer I use by the stove for a spoon rest is all I have left of her things, but they serve as a daily reminder of her.

Nothing wrong with holding onto even an ugly item, if it makes you remember your loved one when you see it.

And to Barbara: Please, please, please write the names of the people in your photos on the back. Lightly in pencil. There will be someone in the future who will really, really want to know.

Somehow it is the ordinary bits that are so special to me. All I have of my father's things is the cloth handkerchiefs he had and a wool scarf. He died at age 56 back in 1971. I still smile when I see them in the drawer. And from my mother, a sweater that I wear, scissors that I use and a needlepoint that she made. They feel very special. I wouldn't have known and it even surprises me a little, but it helps to hold on to memories.

Surely we all keep something however insignificant. I can't imagine willingly letting go of every last thing ...

What I do have are things from my dear grandparents - a fantastic cast iron skillet which I use to make cornbread, a beautiful Chinese cinnabar bracelet, an old quilt, a couple of Victorian hat pins and a small moonstone ring, a necklace of real pearls. I live in a small place and prefer to keep my possessions to the minimum so there isn't much room and I never cared to keep anything from my parents.

One man's junk is another man's treasure.
I hung onto bits of precious from my mom after she died almost 40 years ago (she died early in life) and I wish I had hung onto more. What I hung onto were the little things. I love to just touch them. One day long after she was gone, I was sobbing and crying about my wrecked marriage and my overwhelming responsibilities for four little children. Rummaging through "her things" I found a little soft-back book of poems she had sent me and she had signed it: If I could be there with you right now, I would be.

I have my grandfather's WWI journal. I will hang onto it (he was a journalist) until I donate it to our home town historical society for safe keeping. In the meantime, I have a few xeroxed copies out there.
And my great grandfather's passport showing his travels in WWI, plus his scrapbook from that time.

We found some wall sized paintings and photographs in the attic when we cleaned before we sold. Showed them to Mom. "Who's that?" we wondered. The frames were awful, the people unknown, but throwing them in the dumpster was among the hardest things I've ever done.

Riverwatch--That brought tears to my eyes. "If I could be there with you right now, I would be."

I stash my nail polish and assorted manicure tools in a wooden pullout cutlery box.

It has a handle and once was inside my late grandmother's dining room cabinet.

And it reminds me of one cool woman from the greatest generation.

I endorse Joe's plea, Barbara. Annotate those photos. There will be someone, maybe as yet unborn, who will thank you for identifying their great great grandparent.

I get your post via email, and read them all if possible in my busy schedule. I marked this one as unread so that I could comment on this. I totally understand what you are talking about and going through. Wrote a poem on this so many years ago, that I think explains so much of what you were relaying. Thanks for such a wonderful post that touched my heart. Throwing Out The Trash
By Addie Williams & Katie Fairchild

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Wrote this while trying to collect and hold on to memories of family memories, as well as myself. Apparent, that we cannot keep everything, as much as we want to, but still try and cry, when we cannot.

Throwing Out The Trash

Nov 10, 2005

I organized my room today,
My space, my books, my collections.
And while I did, I threw a lot away,
It broke my heart while I did.

But, I had to, as a growing up process,
As I cannot keep everything, and
All for everyone, but I wanted to.
I had to do this, to find room concerning myself.
In search of myself.

It broke my heart, as I felt other hearts breaking.
And each time I threw it to my right,
I wondered if I would remember that I
Kept it in my sight, and years to come. And theirs.

But, I did it, it meant something to me
In life, and others with memories I keep in store.
I got on the floor, on hands and knees,
And cried while I picked up the trash.

I cried while I picked up the memories
Even though they were not mine,
They were someone's important memories,
And I guess I cried, as I wanted to
Hold on for them, and me.

Katie Fairchild

Very touching and so true for many of us, Katie. The reason why doing this is often avoided, I think.
And yet, for me, letting go opens up to "Be Here Now." (Book by Ram Dass)

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