My Mom, up until a month or so ago, had a three-car garage full of furniture and mementos. Antique dining set chairs long past their prime, gilded vases and adornments, a rolling wooden cart that once housed treasured vinyl records, frame upon frame of custom artwork, Persian rugs, and a leather recliner. Save for the space needed to park her car, these beloved furnishings bulked up the garage, a looming shadow of the past — memories too painful to summon, but too sentimental to truly forget. So they stayed there.
This was, after all, a vast improvement from a handful of years ago.
About four weeks before my Dad passed away on November 5, 2011, he and I sat across a round wooden table in the kitchen of my parents’ house in Arizona. Willing the tears back into my eyes — “Kel, if you get too emotional during this conversation, it’s over” — I coaxed my Dad’s end-of-life wishes out of him. He was frail from , and we could all see it but him. Positively (and stubbornly) swearing he had a year or more left to live, he begrudgingly told me how to write his obituary, where he wanted to be laid to rest, and all the other stuff no child, no matter the age, wants to hear.
“…And you’ve got to get Mom out of this house. It’s just too much for her. There’s just too much stuff.” I had a laundry list of duties he wanted me to execute, and it was important for me to carry them out for him.
In February 2015, my Mom moved out of the home she and my Dad built together. Mourning him, the home, their lives there together and an abundance of other sentiments, she hung onto most of the furnishings that once filled it — knowing in her heart they’d never fit in her new, smaller home. Though she was trading a Tuscan-inspired home for a white Craftsman contemporary house, a truck full of dark wood, mustard- and rust-colored fabrics, wrought iron decor and the like made its way along with her.
But I can’t claim to be any better at this than she is.
Over time here in California, I’ve culled most of my decor-based memories of him down to a closet and a few boxes in my garage. At first, every time I removed something he either owned or bought for me, it felt like a betrayal. When we’re fresh with grief, everything is sharp around the edges and everything hurts like hell. Everything reminds us of the person we lost — a song, a favorite place, a specific meal, nostalgic smells, household items.
After my Dad died, I particularly clung to items he had more recently purchased for me. I have memories of driving him around in the rain one day, because it was important for him to have something to do or look forward to each day. We found ourselves at a store perusing home decor, and he picked out some things for me, including a pearlescent blue and green plate in the shape of a flower. I remember scolding him on the way back to the car as the rain poured down and he insisted on carrying our purchased wares himself; I was terrified he was going to slip and fall in his weak state. But he was proud to usher home these things for me, and I let him.
For years my family and I split rent on a home in California so they could frequently visit my husband and I from Arizona, and we morphed our styles and unused family furnishings. Time passed after my Dad’s death, and my design style evolved greatly. What was once a shared style between my parents and I dissipated after my husband and I bought our own home. I experimented with my newfound aesthetic, and pieces of my parents’ influence began to fall away.
Some things were given away to friends or donated, and others shuffled around the house — some of them to the dark corners of the closet or garage. Every time I removed something, I thought my Dad would be disappointed. I felt my stomach drop — every time. A framed print, a table, a rug, a decorative object: was I erasing him? As time barrels forward and I’m left trying to remember what advice he’d give me on a rough day, or what he’d order to eat at a certain restaurant, am I doing myself a disservice in choosing to remove the tangible memories?
When I do finally remember exactly what he’d say about this, I realize the answer is no.
He’d tell me we can’t take it with us. He’d shake his head and chuckle at me for vacillating over whether or not to keep a vase he once got me, or a years-old candleholder he forgot he even owned. He’d remind me to keep the special things between us — the ones that brought the best memories. He wouldn’t want me, or my family, burdened with the things he left behind. Moving on from these tangible memories doesn’t mean I don’t love or miss him more than I can fathom. It’s a hopeful, progressive part of the grieving process.
In my house now, I can count a few items on one hand in each room that hold good memories of him. Like the small red hutch with built-in wine storage (he loved red wine), framed vintage Bruce Brown surf film posters he found for a few bucks apiece, and the flower plate, which moved around the house until it landed on a bookshelf upstairs. In the closet of my daughter’s room I have a few of his shirts he wore when visiting me in California, and we would walk around our beach town at night after dinner, talking about music. In a few boxes there are things I’ll probably relinquish to donation bins next, but I’m not there yet.
I’m encouraged by my Mom’s slowly dwindling collection in her garage.
A couple of weeks ago she was standing in her garage, watching as a volunteer from Goodwill hauled the old items onto his truck. All steeped in some memory of my Dad, one way or another, she allowed them to be plucked from the refuge of her keeping. She was handling the process remarkably well, even surprising herself, until the volunteer loaded up the leather recliner.
“He could tell I was hesitating,” my Mom told me. “He asked if I was alright with him taking it, and he asked ‘what memory does it bring you? Is it a good one or a bad one?’ And I trusted him, because he said he does this a lot; he goes to people’s homes where someone has passed away. It’s amazing how many emotions are attached to some of this stuff, he said.”
My Mom answered him, “Well, we bought the chair when my husband was sick. He never sat in the chair when he was healthy.”
The volunteer looked at her and asked, “Do you have another chair he loved when he was healthy?” and my Mom said “yes.”
He smiled: “Focus on that one.” —