It was cancer, and it all happened faster than we expected. Not 24 hours after my mother-in-law’s ashes were scattered at sea, I found myself sitting on her bed, staring blankly into her bedroom closet, with a trash bin beside me.
Nancy was a generous woman who spent her whole life giving. It wasn’t until we peeked into her long-shut cabinets and wrestled open her overstuffed drawers that we realized how much receiving she had done. And collecting. And clipping. And buying. And generally, alarmingly, amassing.
She just had way too much stuff. More than she could have fully enjoyed in any lifetime, even one that hadn’t been cut short at age 70. And it fell to us — her grieving sons and daughters-in-law — to “go through her things,” sorting and sifting the souvenirs of her seven decades.
Knitting needles and antique hats. Greeting cards and hotel soaps. Place mats and curling irons.
We trudged through as many emotions as we did half-empty bottles of nail polish: The shame of poking around in someone’s private stashes. The frustration of not knowing what this key opens, or what to do with Great Aunt Catherine’s geodes. The guilt from allowing practical considerations to squelch sentiment — from giving away, or throwing away, things that were surely precious to their owner, but had no special meaning to those of us on the Hefty Bag Brigade.
I wondered why the family was in such a hurry to clear her clutter. Couldn’t it wait, for goodness’ sake? The woman was barely gone and here we were disposing of evidence that she existed.
The work was therapeutic, though. Illness wrests control from a human being, from a family, and hard work lets us feel like we’re reclaiming it. Death brings emotional chaos; resolute tidiness restores order. So in the unfathomable absence of an always-present mother, we focused on indisputable tangibles: Her lipstick. Her teacup. Her shoes.
From beneath teetering sweater piles, we exhumed cheering memories, fingering the fancy scarves she wore and sniffing the candles she set out last Thanksgiving.
But much of what we unearthed was unsettling. Every tote bag and trunk held a disheartening reminder of her unmet goals and dreams: Gifts — some of them wrapped — that never got given. Recipes that never got made. A pair of jazz shoes without a single scuff. An astonishing inventory of unopened wrinkle creams. A library of how-to books whose objectives, from simple craft projects to ambitious entrepreneurship, proved ever out of her reach.
What bothered me was not that the projects were unfinished. It was that they were never really started. I’m haunted by a series of small jewelry boxes scattered throughout the house, each cradling a tiny silver charm representing her favorite things: the Eiffel Tower, a sewing machine, a cable car…And each had a price tag still attached. Never linked to the nearly bare charm bracelet curled up in yet another buried box. Never worn.
Nancy wouldn’t have loved us trodding through her tucked-away stuff. Nor, frankly, would she have wanted strangers to read about it. But she’d have been glad at what it taught me: That you can’t hold life in your hands. You can’t wear it, stockpile it, or cram it into cubbies for safe keeping. You can’t divvy it up into boxes marked “Garbage,” “Goodwill,” and “Grandkids.” And you can’t measure it by the number of dumpsters it takes to dismantle.
Life doesn’t live in the things that we have. It takes place in the things that we do: coming and going, building and bonding, laughing and even grieving.
Nancy cherished her tchotchkes, to be sure. But she’d have traded them all for another chance to scuff those dance shoes.