Left to clear out the apartment after her mother’s sudden death, Jane Boyd discovered the true worth of earthly possessions.
Dear Mom: If only your will had told me what to do with it all.
My mother was neither a hoarder nor a pack rat, and yet the task of disposing of her things after she died was so exhausting and had me so frazzled that the night before movers were to arrive at her apartment I found myself at 10 p.m. frantically rummaging through the dumpster behind her building in search of my cellphone I was sure I’d thrown in the garbage. I cursed my carelessness and stupidity—and the streak of oily goop smeared across my arm.
Dear God: Don’t let me lose my phone. Not now. Please.
Not that there’s a good time, but tomorrow her home phone would be shut off, everything would be gone, and I was alone in a town I didn’t live in. I needed my phone to reply to friends in the city: How ARE u? Fine. I’m in a dumpster—call u later!
It was the end of September. She died in August, unexpectedly, and I didn’t get to ask the important questions I had ready for when The End grew near: “Mom, do you have any last wishes I don’t know about, now that your lifelong crush James Garner is dead? Any final advice for me, other than marry a millionaire if I don’t get a book published?” Also: “What should I do with your stuff?”
That summer in the hospital after she fell, when it was clear she’d have to move from her three-bedroom apartment to a retirement home, we broached the subject of a furniture purge. There was no urgency, and she didn’t seem concerned. Then suddenly she was gone, and I had six weeks to empty out her place down to the mystery keys in the kitchen drawer.
Dear TGM, Barrister & Solicitor: It seems to me the phrase “I give, devise and bequeath all the assets of my estate…” is a clear case of TLI (Too Little Information). For example, where does it say if I should keep the bowl she mixed all our birthday cakes in, when I don’t bake and have a fear of using hand mixers?
From the dining room table, once Homework Central, to her favourite antique chair and the piano on which she played “Moonlight Sonata” a thousand times or more—every item felt like another loss to grieve and a reminder note to self: I am a single, childless woman, and the last person who may ever love me and my flaws so unquestioningly and whose opinion of all my stories is “Love it, honey!” (vs.”What is your angle here?”) is gone.
“Do you need a toaster? A coffee table? A bedroom set? Lamps with flattering, low-wattage bulbs?” I’d ask friends while staring with glazed eyes at the dozens of bridal shower teacups and the vases from every florist delivery ever received. Each day I scribbled BOOKS! on my to-do list, not knowing what to do with them.
“What makes sense,” I told a friend, “is to keep only what’s useful or sentimental—the things that matter most.” With one last chance to do something for someone who’d done so much for me, I wanted to get this right. But when it came to the “sentimental,” how would I avoid needing to rent a storage locker the size of a small bungalow? My brother, 2,000 miles away, didn’t want anything—I mailed him the yearbooks with the embarrassing hair photos anyway.
Dear Ministry of Finance: The “fair market value” of household contents was, honestly, next to nil, but you’ve probably heard how nobody wants to buy fancy cut crystal or silverware and china you can’t put into a dishwasher. I did sell 200 record albums my mother carted around for 40 years to a very tattooed guy named Striker at a flea market for $30—is this a capital loss?
One night, I drank a few glasses of wine while cleaning out her bedroom closet. This was a bad idea. When you get to the clothes you need to be practical and hard-hearted, bolstered and soothed by chocolate or ice cream, certainly not wine, which makes you sentimental and weepy and liable to stain silk tops with makeup-tinged tears—and you can’t sell or donate clothing with mascara stains.
Time was running out. Would I ever hold Downton Abbey-themed dinner parties or entertain royalty? Unlikely but not impossible. So I kept the crystal, silverware and china. Then I gave much of the rest to the church, to charities and to friends furnishing a vacation rental home. Note: it was their movers coming the day after I thought I’d thrown out my phone, which was in my purse, thankfully, because I needed the camera on it.
Dear Salvation Army Woman: In case you’re wondering why I took a photo of the stuffed animals and doll in the trunk of the car before I gave them to you—my mother grew up in poverty in the slums of Glasgow and didn’t have any toys, so I’d given her these. I suddenly remembered I might forget what they looked like.
I packed up for home. Useful items (towels, frying pan, knives): check. Sentimental items (cards and letters): check. Miscellaneous Mom-orabilia (cameras, computer, cookie jar and more): check! I forgot I lived in a 575-square foot studio apartment barely big enough for my own stuff—did I have “grief-induced amnesia”?
Friends offered basement storage, but this worried me. If they saw her bag of toiletries with her hairbrush (hair included), they’d insist on grief therapy where I’d have to explain why I still had the used-up roll of dental floss she’d put in my last Christmas stocking, among other things.
Hi! I have a brilliant idea. You know those 16 photo albums and 20 boxes of loose photos I suspect set off my nervous facial tic? What if I created a line of quirky “vintage” (hah hah) cards, with pics from the ’70s where our family looks like part of The Brady Bunch but not as cute. With fun captions like “Have A Nice Hair Day!” and “Life Is Better in Bellbottoms! LMK!!
One day I noticed a film of dust on a carton of her kitchen gadgets, and it occurred to me: I’m hanging on to these keepsakes of a past I can’t get past, but are memories enough? In future will I regret the things I got rid of or will I forget what they were? Who’ll get rid of my stuff when I’m gone? Meanwhile, I tried not to trip over boxes; the last thing I needed was to end up in the hospital myself.
Over time, grief fades a little. But so did the memory of the last time I saw my mother and spoke to her and held her hand, and I found myself wanting to keep close the things that, in the end, really did matter most: her journals, the scarf she knit for me, the ring she always wore, photos of the two of us, the phone messages I never erased, which take up no space at all.
The rest is just stuff. No wonder she wasn’t concerned.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue with the headline, “Home Alone,” p. 60-61.