“Why can’t you wait until I’m dead?” my grandmother would laugh, half joking and half annoyed.
“Don’t talk like that! You’re not dead, you’re here to tell me what can be thrown out. If this place ever caught fire, it’d go up in about three seconds with all the paper. I don’t think you’ll ever need these church bulletins from 2008,” or some such variation, I would reply.
She and I were sorting through years of papers, books, and who-knows-what in her room at the Richmond Villa. Grandma was a pack rat. She hated to throw things away for fear she’d need them at some point, for something, down the road. She saved cards she received, even their envelopes, old gift bags, tissue paper, newspapers, everything.
Not only did she not like to throw things away but she especially disliked anyone else doing it for her. She politely, with just a hint of annoyance in her voice, reminded me that it was her stuff and that I should probably leave it be. So I would end up just moving it around, organizing as best I could while sneaking as much as I could into the garbage, since she didn’t even know what most of it was and surely wouldn’t miss it.
It isn’t a pleasant task, organizing 10 decades of a life to a nightstand, dresser, and table (essentially), but one of my quick room sweeps to get rid of clutter was still less emotional than reducing nine decades of two lives from a two-story house to each being contained in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room.
It’s these tasks that no one thinks or talks about when someone dies, the dismantling of a life well-lived, like taking down the stage from an amazing concert. We have to figure out what to do with all the stuff, most of it holding no value but still infinitely valuable, little trinkets that remind us of our childhood but remain mostly useless except for nostalgia. It’s a challenge, no matter how resolved you are to be firm, and we end up doing the same thing we’re forced to do with our kids’ school work; we can’t keep everything, it’s not practical, so we can only keep the really important, meaningful stuff.
Some people end up rifling through the possessions of their loved ones in a fog of mourning, but for us it came in stages. The first stage was a decade ago when my grandparents left their house to go live at a nursing home. It took us months, literally, to get through everything in their house, a job no one in the family wanted but everyone was kind of forced to help with. We divided everything into categories, if only subconsciously: keep, toss, or give away.
If it were all old pictures that would be one thing, but it never is. It was the book collections of avid readers, the remnants of an entire general store, the dozens of phone books and Simpsons-Sears catalogs from the 1970s. Everything smelled like the old house – musty-smelling, in a good way, if that’s possible. It usually made my sneezer act up.
Grandma told us to “take anything you want” (a standing order for years, but never more applicable than at that point in time), and it was interesting to see which items meant something to which people. My aunt wanted an old peacock-shaped serving platter that is just about the gaudiest thing you’ve ever seen. My dad became the keeper of grandpa’s encyclopedia/dictionary. I wanted nothing more than grandma’s cookbooks, a bunch from different fundraisers in River Bourgeois and old ones with handwritten recipes (not that I would ever be able to replicate any of it, only if I wanted to make a feeble attempt). I will always keep them. They have that same good-musty smell.
Stage two was the really tough one for me, so much so that I didn’t take part. I could write the obituary and I could put myself in funeral-planning mode, but I could not bring myself to go through grandma’s things at the nursing home after she passed. That job was taken on by others.
I prefer to live in the nostalgia of my cookbooks. I like to think of her laughing somewhere as she watches me try to make her biscuits. Amazing what we use to distract ourselves from reality, and what comforts us in times of grief.