My mother used to say my father could live in a bare white room overlooking a concrete lawn. It wasn't meant as a compliment. She needed good light and pretty fabrics, artfully placed objects, graceful garden paths bordered with flowers.
Indoors or out, she thrived on beauty. And she could decorate on a dime, combining a few quality pieces with flea market finds to stunning effect.
"This is your mother's house," Dad always said. The only beauty he cared about was her.
When my parents' health began to fail and they moved to assisted living, the task of emptying their three-story home of 53 years fell to us children. I spent two weeks one sweltering summer drifting from room to room, dusting and cleaning, sorting and stacking, letting go of all that was precious to my mom. We asked her for guidance: What stays? What goes? What do you want to pass on to us? But she couldn't bear to enter a house no longer hers. She couldn't even bear to talk about it.
My parents kept a well-maintained, organized home. But a half-century of living in one place adds up to a whole lot of stuff. Cleaning it out overwhelmed me, made me think hard about the vast amount of implements we surround ourselves with, the minutiae, the documents, the ephemera, the decor and collectibles, the cupboards and drawers and closets and shelves crammed with everything we need to live in this world, or think we do.
I realized with no small amount of shame that in the home I share with my husband and two children, we'd accumulated as much stuff as my parents had — in half the time. I surveyed the boxes in my basement, filled with old toys and games and books and baby clothes. I looked at my mementos with a colder eye — the valentines, the notes from school, the scribbled drawings — and wondered: Are these gifts or burdens? Tokens of consolation or more heartache for those who must sort through what remains when we're gone?
My siblings and I saved some things that mattered to us, some beautiful, some merely saturated with memory. There wasn't tension or resentment about who got what; we were simply unwilling to inflict pain on each other. And maybe — along with our mother's keen appreciation for beauty — we also inherited our father's lack of attachment to objects, no matter how lovely or well-made.
I passed over my mother's prized Haviland china with its delicate rosebud trim and kept a stack of her used dish towels, worn soft and slightly stained. The polished copper pots that hung in her kitchen went for a song at auction without a second glance from me.
But I agonized over selling a trunk of fabric, fingering the pink and gray geometric cotton she'd once fashioned into curtains, the blue flowered print from a dress that rustled as she walked through the door on a rare night out with dad. Later I would lie in bed at night and mourn those old scraps: Why didn't I save a few swatches? How will I remember her in that dress now, floating by in a faint cloud of Calgon?
Certain things we couldn't bring ourselves to sell or even sort through. Boxes filled with photos and garden journals. Cookbooks and daybooks and bibles. Letters and cards. Christmas ornaments, silk scarves, earrings, lace tablecloths, linen napkins. All of it got stored in our homes.
Not surprisingly, only one box bears the label "DAD." I'm sure he doesn't know or care what's in it.
Seven years have passed since we sorted through a lifetime of my parents' belongings, and still those boxes fill our closets. A few more boxes were added as we winnowed down their worldly goods again and again, from assisted living to memory unit to rooms in skilled nursing.
Mom died three months ago. Now, dad teeters between this life and the next, weak with pneumonia and grief. Sometimes, he'll open his eyes. Sometimes, he'll squeeze my hand.
Last night I left his bedside in an unreasonable panic, gripped by an urge to find the box labeled DAD.
Where is that letter I wrote him one Father's Day when I was too broke to buy him a gift? Cleaning out the big house, I'd found it in his top dresser drawer, where he'd kept it for 30 years. Where is the rosary that forever hung off his bedpost at home? His ring from Youngstown State?
Suddenly, I need things. Things he held in his hands, things I'll hold when his hand will no longer hold mine. Things that stand in for him. What if I can't put my hands on those things?
If he could, he'd tell me not to worry. That none of that stuff adds up to a hill of beans.
I want to see the world the way he does, ever mindful that the best things in life aren't things. There's something appealing about that. Something beautiful.