I’m emotionally preparing myself for what will surely be a difficult weekend.
In the Fall, my step-father, whom we affectionately called General Jim, passed away after caring for my mother, Irene, for several years before he was forced to place her in a nursing facility when Alzheimer’s claimed the mind of the woman he loved.
They lived in Gahanna, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. It became the only home my children ever knew in the states. We lived overseas their whole childhood, and we came home every summer and stayed with mom and Jim.
The house in Gahanna was “home.”
The memories I have there are wonderful. Mom and Jim were collectors of, well everything, like most people of their generation. I would call their house cluttered, but for them, the plethora of nicknacks occupying every corner of their home, including a fully stocked pantry in the basement in case of emergencies and boxes of unopened electronics that Jim would buy on sale, made up a life they shared together.
They married later in life, after their respective spouses passed away, so when they joined together to enjoy their later years together, they also brought with them the memories and stuff that came from a previous life just as replete with memories.
The house has no theme, no thoughtfully planned-out interior design. It’s just a collection of stuff that accumulated — some of it worthless apart from the meaning behind each item.
Just before Jim passed away, I went up to visit him with my brothers and every bit of their “stuff” melted my heart and the words spoken feebly, “I miss your mom” and “I love you, too” — his last to me — linger in my thoughts.
The bedroom in which I slept when I visited holds some of the things I left behind just to make it mine. The room the kids slept in, filled with old books with titles that are written on my heart forever, brings a rush of sweet memories of watching them bond with their grandmother and the only American grandfather they knew.
The table in which we gathered for meals brings the sweet sounds and smells of cooking, the commotion of five kids preparing for dinner and my mom calling us together to sit and recount our day and to hear stories of Jim’s experiences fighting for us in France during World War II and the incredible tales of the lives of two extraordinary people.
How do you clear out a house that holds so many memories?
In some ways, it’s not saying goodbye to people that is so difficult, it’s saying goodbye to memories that were and that can never be again.
Even more troubling is my mom is still alive, still with us in a very limited capacity. She doesn’t realize what is happening to her home, that we are gathering at their house in Gahanna this weekend with Jim’s son and daughter to sift through their belongings and decide who takes what and what gets donated or simply thrown out. Mom has no use for any of it anymore — which brings its own heartbreak for us — even though we stocked her room at the nursing home with items we thought might have meaning for her.
What do I choose? Every single item means something in one way or another. The cuckoo clock my brother, Mike, brought home to my mom when he was stationed in Germany … the one that lulled me to sleep every night as a child with its ticking? The creepy monk painting that my brother, Scott, and I joked about incessantly? The items my mom collected when she visited me and my family in France or The Netherlands or Finland or South Korea? Or what about the ugly porcelain pekingese that left me dumbfounded why she ever had it in the first place? There are a lot of those items, some of them came from my grandmother’s home when mom and my aunt Lynda had to clear her house upon her own bout with Alzheimer’s.
It’s just things, I tell myself. Collect treasures in heaven and not of Earth, the Bible says, and that’s kind of how I generally feel about stuff. I have removed most of the clutter in my own life, and not just metaphorically. But, the memories are another story. They are harder to release, and most of those items in their home seem to encapsulate each and every memory, so I don’t really want to let go of any of the stuff.
So off I go with brothers Mike and Scott
… heart heavy
… memories alive and sweet and tormenting.