Who will remember us after we are gone?
Really – who will remember each one of us, past perhaps our grandchildren? Or, if we started a family young enough (I didn’t), perhaps our great-grandchildren? If we have not achieved the notoriety that a Lincoln or a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa has, then who will remember us?
These thoughts came about during the past year when my sister and I were charged with cleaning out our Dad’s house after he died (see “Remembrance II“). This is the house that he purchased for Mom in the town where she was born – her “homecoming,” so-to-speak. She loved it, even though she died after only a few years of living there.
After Mom died, it took Dad 24 more years to die (at least physically; emotionally, I believe he died when Mom did). And in that 24 years of living alone and missing Mom, Dad accumulated three 30-yard dumpsters full of “stuff” that we threw out, and that didn’t include lots of furniture, food, clothing, etc., that we donated.
That’s a lot of stuff. More than a third of a lifetime of stuff.
What my sister and I sorted through over the course of months (yes – months) meant something to Mom and Dad. Sometimes we understood why it meant so much, and it meant a lot to each of us as well. Did those things mean something to his grandchildren? Only a few, markedly recognizable things. To his great-grandchildren? No – they only remembered that Poppy used to bring them a treat whenever he came to visit.
Some things we found:
– Mom’s old eyeglasses
– Thousands of rubber bands
– Hundreds of plastic bags (wrapped inside of paper bags, wrapped inside of…)
– Piles of empty boxes
– A compilation (at least 10 years worth) of mpg for Dad’s Saturn
– Laminated, hand-written, detailed instructions on how to correctly pull the handles on slot machines in Atlantic City in order to win money (we’re talking coins here)
– Black lab calendars for at least the past 10 years (Dad loved our black lab, Misty) with important dates and events listed
– Christmas gifts that Dad had specifically asked for, opened in front of us, then placed in piles, never to be taken out of the boxes
– Packages of white tube socks, unopened
– Bottles of rubbing alcohol
– Thousands of band-aids and cotton balls
– Hundreds of clipped coupons
– Thousands of personalized mailing labels from every charity imaginable (Dad always was a soft touch for sending in donations)
– Hundreds of comic strips clipped from newspapers, held together with rubber bands or paper clips
– Trousers in Dad’s size from Haband, still with tags on
– Several boxes of new sneakers in Dad’s size
– Boxes of tissues and toilet bowl cleaner from the days when Mom & Dad had their own business (they retired in 1981)
– About 15 digital wrist watches in their original boxes, never opened
– Packages of sugar and artificial sweeteners from fast-food restaurants
– Styrofoam coffee cups from McDonald’s (used but washed clean)
The list goes on and on…
But please don’t get the wrong opinion about my Dad… He was not a “hoarder,” as showcased by the reality show of the same name. He was simply a man for whom time stopped when Mom died, and who couldn’t bear to part with anything that reminded him of their 41 years together in marriage. Being born in 1925, he was also a child of the depression, where doing without was “normal;” where he ate what his mother grew in her garden on the farm, and he drank what he milked from the cows (that is, whatever was left after he finished squirting all the cats who lived on the farm) and had breakfast each morning with the fresh eggs he grabbed from the chicken coop.
You never knew when you might need something, so you’d better not throw it out…
Every available resource was used, then reused. Clothes were patched and handed down, foods canned and “put up” in the basement, vegetables stored in root cellars. You were poor, and in order to survive, you kept just about everything.
Old habits die hard.
But we also found:
– a bank envelope with 5s, 10s, 20s and 1s laying on the top rack of the dishwasher
– two paper clippings (one for each of his daughters) with the name and number for a business that specializes in estate junk removal with a comment in Dad’s handwriting: “for after…”
– detailed instructions on the location of life insurance policies, bank accounts, keys, important papers
– a note from the parish priest who married my parents authorizing their double room reservation in a NYC hotel for their honeymoon (my, how times have changed!)
– The NYC train schedule that Mom & Dad used when they first started their business – when they walked through the garment district, door-to-door (and having many of the doors slammed in their faces) – trying to find work
– three copies of a prayer for those living alone
– Dad’s rosary
– Dad’s American Legion membership cards all the way back to 1945, when he was honorably discharged from the Navy
– All of the sympathy cards sent to Dad when Mom died 25 years ago
– laminated copies of years of the “In Memorium” notice Dad put in the local newspaper each year on the date Mom died
And so on and so on and so on…
How much stuff do you throw out until you no longer have anything tangible to touch, to hold onto, from your loved one?
I remember when I traded in my car a few years after Mom died; before leaving it at the dealership, I ran my hand along the worn leather of the passenger seat, knowing that Mom had once sat there when we went shopping together. I cried while I was shredding Dad’s old tax returns and cancelled checks, running the tips of my fingers over his handwriting, always heavily indented into the paper. And when I drove Dad’s 20+ year-old car to the salvage yard to have it scrapped for parts, I could barely see for the tears, knowing my hand was touching the steering wheel with his DNA still on it, interspersed with laughter at the sound of its jet-engine whine. Not to mention the sound of the muffler that a teen-ager would do almost anything to own…
Now I know I’m the author of Soul Gatherings, with daily quotations that touch upon the importance of relationship and interconnectedness, rather than the material. And I truly believe all of that. I know that my parents live on in my memory, in me, in their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But I’m human, and it takes a lot longer for our heart to catch up with our head where strong feelings are concerned. And throwing out so much of the “stuff” of my Dad’s life was exhausting, liberating and draining, along with a deep sadness accompanied by a profound sense of loss.
Who will remember us after we are gone?
Tell me – who will remember???
“En ma Fin gît mon Commencement…
In my End is my Beginning…”
~ Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587) ~