Posts Tagged ‘decluttering’

Remembering the Good

My father died when I was 14, a year after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  In that year he became completely physically unrecognizable to me from the father I had known.  Although he suffered terribly and without complaint, his formerly robust physique was skeletal and he looked like he was in his eighties instead of 59.

Yes, I had photographs from happier times, but his haunting image while sick is what stayed with me, and I couldn’t shake it for decades.

Now I’m finding the same thing happening with my mother, who died 5+ years ago and had Alzheimer’s.  Towards the end, she was extremely physically and verbally abusive and it was profoundly traumatizing to see a formerly loving and caring person, with whom I was very close, turn into a stranger that I feared – – and do I have the courage to say it? – – even loathed. (It was not my mother I found repellent; it was the alien being she had become, and the guilt and remorse I felt, knowing I could have done better as her caretaker.)  Once she passed, I tried, I really tried, to remember the 50 wonderful years I was privileged to have with her before she got sick, but I simply could not.  I wanted to get those good years back, and I didn’t know how.

Even worse was that my adult children, who had been so close to their grandmother, were similarly traumatized.  Only my youngest daughter could reminisce fondly, but that’s because she lived abroad and never really saw my mom in her worst moments those last couple of years.

It’s been 5 ½ years now and I realized I simply cannot go on like this.  So I’ve sought therapy with a counselor for my grief, and it’s been extremely helpful.  I am sharing something so intimately personal with readers of my blog not because I want to vent.  I am hoping that the tools the therapist gave me can help someone else before they experience this.

The therapist asked me to write down the worst of my experiences with my mom, and my biggest fears.  Then she asked me to write down my best memories with my mom, from my childhood thru adulthood.  Like I said, I had completely repressed the good things to an unnatural degree.  I was unable to recall good times with any feeling of sincerity — so numb and black was my spirit.

So my first advice to you is:  if you are fortunate to have an elderly parent who is well, NOW is the time to write down good things about them:  wonderful memories from your childhood; examples of their wonderful character; when they soothed your physical and emotional pains; how they found joy in their grandchildren; your gratitude.  How I wish I could have relied on something like this when my heart turned black and was plugged with pain, and the good was blocked from my brain!  Depositing these recollections will serve as a wonderful “bank” when, G-d forbid, things get hard; a bank of goodness from which you can “withdraw” cherished moments that will perhaps keep you from despair.

So what was my breakthrough moment?  (Still a work in progress…)

In the process of decluttering not only my own stuff but boxes from my mom’s estate, I found several cartons full of hundreds of letters, pages and pages long, that my mother and I had written to one another.  These were not the typical mundane “hope you are well” and “how is the weather” kind of letters that are written when one writes strictly out of obligation.  These were chatty, deep, philosophical, intelligent, caring, and loving letters, pages and pages long, typed and single spaced, that reflected our closeness and love and respect for one another.  I was a good daughter after all, at least then!  And she was a truly great mother and grandmother.  It rekindled the depth and dimension that defined our relationship.  And suddenly the childhood pictures at the bottoms of the cartons also brought forth many positive memories I had repressed.  I will scan and archive these letters for my children:  when they are emotionally ready, they can read them and perhaps they, too, will once again be able to recall my mother with fondness and love.

Looking at these letters, something else occurs to me:  future generations will not have this.  Few people today have (or make) the time to sit down and write a letter. Instead we have email, which is hugely convenient, but they are mere thought “jots” rather than epic accounts.  Once read, they are deleted: The End.  Our grandchildren will not miss what they never had, but those of us who are older understand the depth of this loss.

I never fathomed why parents and in-laws make such a big deal out of naming a baby after a dead relative.  Shouldn’t the choice of a name ultimately be up to the parents of the child, rather than pressure from family members?  While I do think the decision of what to name a baby should be up to its parents, as I grow older I think I finally “get” it.  Perhaps it is just human ego; but I think our biggest fear of dying is that we will be forgotten.  As we age, our need to be remembered takes on a burning importance.  We need to feel we contributed; and that one’s life had meaning in a positive and eternal way for our descendants.

May we strive to conduct ourselves in such a way, that we will always be remembered for the good!

(I’m working on this.)







Decluttering: Ah, The Memories

In America, we collect stuff.  I don’t know how it happens, but soon we realize our houses are overflowing with things we had to have but do not need.  I have yet to meet an American rich or poor who does not suffer this sickness.  We live in a tremendously materialistic culture, and are constantly bombarded with advertisements telling us how much we need the latest, greatest, newest, or best.  When we can’t afford it, we use credit cards, because we can’t live without it, whatever “it” might be.  Or it was on sale or on clearance and how can we resist such a great deal?  Even if we don’t need it we might need it in the future.  So we buy, buy, buy. Partly it’s because even the simplest American homes are bigger than most houses in other parts of the world and we have storage space.  And of course, there are plenty of McMansions that can really hold a lot of crap.   I know people in Europe and Israel who don’t have collection fetishes as Americans do, but that’s because their physical environment is so much smaller.  There is simply no room to put anything anywhere, so they desist.  Heck, most homes in Europe and Israel don’t even come with closets!

One thing I love about March and April, even though I kvetch about it, is Pesach cleaning.  This goes way beyond the gentiles’ Spring Cleaning.  We Jews are supposed to turn our homes upside down looking for leavened foods, called chametz , which are forbidden to be eaten or owned by Jews during the week of Passover.  Pesach cleaning and preparations take two weeks to a month.  But in the process, our homes get really clean and downright immaculate.  And best of all, we throw out mountains of stuff that have nothing to do with actual chametz, but are superfluous to our lives.  To be honest, the act of getting rid of stuff and cleaning is an exhausting pain, and we do it strictly out of religious obligation.  But when it’s complete, it’s not only a relief; it’s a release; a cleansing of the soul; redemption.  It forces us to take stock of what’s really important in our lives, and the answer, of course, is not “stuff.”  It is, indeed, a religious experience.

One of the hardest tasks facing a person once their elderly parent dies is getting rid of that parent’s “stuff.”  The thing is, it wasn’t just “stuff” to the deceased.  If they kept it, it was usually because the item had real meaning, whether it was a souvenir that reminded them of a trip once taken, some tschotchke that was part of a hobby collection, assorted memorabilia or photographs of family and friends from younger days.  In other words, a life of memories.

I hate to sound harsh, but . . . well, for the most part, one person’s treasure is another’s trash.  My parents’ memories are usually not my memories.  Going through their clutter helps me better understand who they were and what was important to them, but ultimately . . . it’s still clutter.  And even though I wish I could incorporate their nostalgia into my own oeuvre, and even though I feel guilty as heck getting rid of stuff that I know was an important part of my parents’ lives, in my own house it’s a huge space-taker and dust magnet.  But oh, the guilt!  The sacrilege!

My mom was a life-long collector with fabulous taste.  Even objectively, I can see that most of her stuff is nice.  But: I. Do. Not. Want. It.

It pains me to know that my mother would have been unhappy about my getting rid of her stuff.  Usually there is little I want.  I ask family members if they want it.  Other than a few tokens, the answer is most often “no.”  So I post her things on craigslist, and offer other things to auction houses, consignment stores, and donate things to thrift shops.  I have yard sales, garage sales, and estate sales.  Occasionally people buy stuff that they are really delighted with and then I feel good; because my mother would have loved that her things brought someone else joy and that these strangers appreciate – – really appreciate – –  the same things that she did.  Other times priggish antique and junk dealers swoop in like vultures, offering me pennies on the dollar for things that cost my mom a small fortune.  Usually I say no, because I know how upset my mom would have been by their cold, calculated greed, and that they were buying to make a profit and not because they loved whatever it was that she so cherished.  And so, much of her stuff still sits in my house, collecting dust in cardboard boxes.

For better or worse I may be stuck with my mom’s stuff but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t want to do this to my kids.  So for the past 4 years, I’ve slowly been getting rid of my own things big and small.   Furniture.  Accent pieces.  Extra cookware and serving pieces.  Things that I no longer use regularly.  Things I needed in my twenties that I don’t need in my fifties.   I always ask my kids if they want it before I get rid of it, and usually the answer is no.  And I try to divest myself of things the same way I tried with my mother’s things:  yard sales, craigslist, consignment stores, thrift stores.  The difference is that it’s my stuff and no one else’s, so it’s easy to give myself permission to let it go.

Fortunately I am not a tschotchke collector (not because I don’t like tschotchkes, but because I am a terrible housekeeper and I couldn’t bear the thought of dusting every few days).  But I have tens of thousands of papers and books and photos that sit in boxes that will eventually suffer either from mildew or dry rot.  I admit it:  like my mother with her stuff, I cannot bear to throw these things away.

The good news is that unlike my mother’s objets d’art, technology has provided me a solution to my media hoarding:  scanning and digitizing.  All those articles I wrote or were written by others I admire that, let’s face it, will probably never be read again, can now be scanned.  (Maybe, just maybe, my kids or grandkids will be interested in my writings and journals and photographs some day?)

I have been slowly going through my bookshelves and re-reading everything.  Not every story brings me the joy I thought I remembered.  So slowly I am dissolving my library; I donate my books to our little rural library here in Maine.  What they can’t use they sell as overstock and that also provides paltry but necessary funds for the library’s use.

But the worst clutter offender:  my photographs.  So far my husband has scanned over 20,000 (!) photos which — and this is almost physically painful for me – – I have then dumped into the trash.  Thanks to an Adobe software program called Lightroom, when he scans the photos, he “tags” them with keywords so anyone with access to our digital library will be able to quickly and painlessly retrieve specific photos based on names, places, family members, events, or approximate dates.  No more going through albums and boxes.  I think there are approximately 35,000 photos total.  But that doesn’t include thousands of slides and film negatives.

Recently I bought a slide and film converter at Costco.  You simply place a negative film strip or slide transparency inside the converter, and in 3 seconds it digitizes the image and stores it on your computer  (essential:  backing up one’s separate hard drive!).  There are professional, expensive converters/scanners out there that do a fabulous job; this one is not that.  The resolution is not terrific and the color renditions and clarity are somewhat off.  But I realized the chance of me or my children (I asked them first) wishing to enlarge a digitized image from their 5th birthday party that happened 30 years ago into a quality 8×10 print copy was indeed remote. Even if I could make prints of all the slides and negatives, it would take an entire room just to contain the albums that would hold them.  It’s nice to view the images and relive the past – – for a few minutes.  Neatly archived, the only space my life’s memories take up can fit on a disk drive . . . or is that just plain, sad commentary?

And then, it’s time to move on.