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Connecting To Our Past, Continuing To Move Forward

When every carefully-stored item elicits a memory and a meaning, how to decide what to keep and what to let go of? (Guillaume Delebarre/flickr)
When every carefully-stored item elicits a memory and a meaning, how to decide what to keep and what to let go of? (Guillaume Delebarre/flickr)

In the basement, my husband and his sister oohed and ahhed over childhood memories. They opened a trunk to find a family of stuffed Steiff giraffes — large, medium and small — intact. We wondered about their worth. They found a lapis necklace and silver cuff-links that belonged to Matt’s dad before the divorce. Their box said they were from Bangkok, Siam.

I was in charge of books — most of which were dog-eared paperbacks. Occasionally I discovered a hardback with a sister’s name in it, crossed out and replaced with another sister’s. Those were keepers. We left the leather-bound books for a book buyer and filled four black construction bags with old mysteries and best sellers and took them to a used bookshop nearby.

This is the job that’s left to the living after a generation dies.

For the most part, however, I was the cheerleader with invisible pompoms, the moral support, urging my husband and sister-in-law on when the memories got tough. This is the job that’s left to the living after a generation dies.

My mother-in-law died 25 years ago at 61, before our children were born. Their only relationship to her lay in stories and reading her books. But her husband, my husband’s stepfather, continued to live in their home, where many roommates and visitors helped keep the condo alive. Now, at 91, it’s time for him to move out and live with his son in Connecticut.

We will all have a turn at this. My mother died 10 years ago, but my stepfather still lives in their home. Her clothes are gone from the closets but a bag of her half done quilting projects sits in my basement. Her jewelry has been dispersed among her four children, but eventually there will be china and art to sift through.

More importantly, when these organizing gatherings occur, it’s not just the material goods that are sorted, it’s also the past. For those who are sentimental, it’s “Remember this?” and “Oh my God, remember that?” For the practical, it’s “Does this have any value?” or “Who’s going to get this?”

Matt and I don’t need more furniture, but our young adult daughters may as they begin to outfit their homes. Although I keep reading that millennials don’t want their parents’ and grandparents’ things. They want new. They don’t like brown, and most of the available items in our family are walnut or mahogany.

Do we sell? Do we save?

Before descending into the basement, we — my husband, his sister, her husband and I — sat Matt’s stepfather down and asked him. “Are you sure you want to move Bob?”

Yes, he said. But he planned on returning to Cambridge frequently to go to church.

“Why are you moving then?”

The conversation went around and around. I needed coffee.

Matt’s sister suggested a solution. “What if Ellie (our college-aged daughter) and her friends rented the condo for a year, and you kept a room in the basement?”

Bob sat up straighter. His face brightened.

The reward for all the hard work just might be to see how a small green vase or an empire mahogany chest can connect us to our past as we continue to move forward.

“Why yes, that would be wonderful,” he agreed. “Like a pied-a-terre.” Except his would have poor lighting and concrete flooring.

The task ahead is daunting. The larger basement room, with washer and dryer, is packed tight with furniture, filing cabinets, cardboard boxes and plastic bins, all of which need to be opened and sorted.

The team will then move upstairs to my mother-in-law’s desk which is filled with a lifetime of mail and papers, including my husband’s high school report cards. Two other sisters will fly in to help decide who will get the beds and bureaus, the dining room table and sofa, the side tables and chairs. The house will be stripped bare and grief will rise up from where it has been tamped down for many years.

The reward for all the hard work just might be to see how a small green vase or an empire mahogany chest can connect us to our past as we continue to move forward.

Related:

Morgan Baker Cognoscenti contributor
Morgan Baker is a writer and mother. She teaches at Emerson College. She lives in Cambridge with her husband.

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