People and Things, by Carole Howard

My mother died in 1997 at the age of 80. She’d been losing weight and the docs neither found out why nor ended her slide, even after I insisted they admit her to a hospital and get some nutrition into her body.  Still, it had never occurred to me that she was gravely ill. So it was a shock when I got the phone call. Naivety, I guess. Or maybe denial.

My brother and I flew to Florida to pack up our mother’s things and help our dad decide where he’d live. (He couldn’t care for himself — that had been my mom’s job – because of Parkinson’s.) The packing-up process practically smacked me in the face with, “All this stuff we accumulate, in the end, it’s just….. stuff.”

But the hangers in the closet did me in.

After I took some pieces of her clothing that I wanted, I sorted the rest (which involved removal of my mother’s notes to herself, like “This blouse goes with the blue pants or the green skirt plus the paisley scarf), then donated it to the nearby synagogue. But they didn’t want the hangers. What was I to do with them? It felt wrong to just throw them out.

The hanger issue tormented me. I gathered them into bundles and used twist-ties to join them at the curvy ends. They were unwieldy. I unbundled them, then put them in cardboard boxes. It took a lot of boxes to accommodate those pieces of wood, plastic, and wire. And I was still left with the question of what to do with them. In the end, I put them back in the closet, neatly arranged according to type. Closure. Logic. Neatness.

I knew my reaction was crazy but, just like the time I went up to the apartment my husband and I were moving from, to get one last thing, and unexpectedly bawled, I knew there was something else involved.

Yet when a very good friend and member of my extended family recently died, I had a completely different reaction to her possessions. “Lily” knew she was dying, since she was the one who had declined chemotherapy. The process wasn’t a mystery, just the timing. In the last month or so of her life, she had friends come over, a few at a time, so she could give away her beautiful (she was an artist) clothing and jewelry. She had a LOT. Every piece had a story. What was unsettling to me was that she took enormous pleasure – glee, practically – in telling the stories and giving the pieces away. Really, glee. I wanted to be gleeful, for her sake, but glee was too much to ask.

Now that she’s gone, I have quite a collection of things that remind me of her: scarves, sweaters, earrings, earrings, and more earrings, and one pair of shoes. So does my daughter. She wears them frequently. I have another approach: I take out one thing and wear it a few times before I take another. Each one reminds me of Lily, one at a time, widely spaced.

I’m not sure what accounts for the difference between my reaction to my mother’s things and to Lily’s, nor the difference between my daughter’s approach and mine. Nineteen years older? Mother vs friend? Cleaning everything out vs accepting some gifts to give Lily pleasure?

I just don’t know. Did anything similar ever happen to you?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery with a musical undertone, set in West Africa.


Filed under musings, writing

6 responses to “People and Things, by Carole Howard

  1. Eileen

    When my dad died four years after my mom, he had a household full,of stuff. Some stuff was destined to be donated. Other things had sentimental family memories attached to them. There were seven of us children to decide who got what. In the end we drew straws for the things that mattered most, the things that we each treasured, the things we did not want to fight over. Not just any things.

    • Eileen, thanks for the comment.

      You were lucky that things went so well between you and your siblings. I was, too — my brother and I had no friction over who got what. But sometimes you hear such horror stories….

  2. I’m seeing my future in you post and wondering how i will react. Thank you

  3. Carole, everyone’s reaction will understandably be different in the death of a loved one, I think. It seems to me you were dealing with more than one dynamic. Your mother’s passing was unexpected and Lily’s was not. That fact alone is huge! I remember when my parents died (separately), my mother’s was not as difficult because she was ill for a long time and we knew it was expected. My father had a sudden heart attack and was gone immediately. Much harder!

    Also, I think our reaction to someone’s passing has to do with how we and also how the ill person feels about the inevitability of their end. If it seems more a natural part of “life” and they accept it as such, I think it is easier for us who are left to deal. That set of feelings can manifest in…reactions to hangers and such.

    Your post was very healing for me. Thank you. You made me think deeper about losses I’ve faced recently and by putting your thoughts out there, I pondered about mine, too, and writing them make them even clearer.

    • Thank you, Coco, for your thoughts. They raised points I hadn’t considered, and that was extremely interesting. Of course you’re right that “everyone’s reaction will be different,” but you were helpful in my understanding of my own reactions.

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