This past weekend, I spoke at the memorial service for my niece, who died a month ago and was one of my two closest blood relatives. It was good to have a few meals and time with some of the remaining members of my family and her friends, and I also spent several hours combing through various bits of my niece’s belongings. Detritus, in some respects.
I’ve not been writing any blog pieces for several months. I’ve been working on essays and interviews related to my new book, No Spring Chicken, and also spending time each month with my niece in her home four or five hours away from our home, while she slowly deteriorated from ALS. And the day after she died I broke my foot, so while I’ve been healing, everything takes me forever and writing a post just didn’t come to the top of the list until now.
It struck me as I sorted clothing into what was fit to donate and what should be thrown out, as I pored through drawers, and boxes of pictures and mementos, and small box after box and little travel cosmetic bags or what have you, looking for family heirlooms, or jewelry I would hate to see thrown out or given to someone who didn’t know my niece, that none of us is likely to give much thought to what people will think as they go through our stuff when we die. I threw out things I thought she’d rather her son not have to see or throw out. I put aside items I thought someone might love to have, but, who? She had the one son who really doesn’t value stuff, especially old stuff, even if it’s sellable as vintage or antique. But I put all his arrowheads, dumped out of the drawer of an end table my other niece will use, into a plastic tray I found in the trash, so he’d see them the next time he goes to the house. I mean, they’re real arrowheads carved by native Americans out of stone. That seems valuable to me, and would be valuable to a collector. There are books from the 1930’s through 50’s that I know are sellable to a collector (I looked them up on the internet; they are currently selling on EBay.)
My niece didn’t spend a lot of money, that was clear. Not on clothes, not on jewelry, not even much on travel (although she had maybe 50-100 pairs of shoes, I think, which none of us can wear). She died with substantial savings which have gone to her son. He wonders why she didn’t use it to travel or fix up her house, and I told him I thought she thought she was going to do that after retirement, but ALS takes you down quickly along with your late life plans; and I thought she really wanted him to have an inheritance, too.
The jewelry I found was mostly costume, as was her mother’s, my sister’s, when we went through her belongings. (I never did find my sister’s 1940’s small peyote bird ring with a little oval turquoise in it; I had worn it for years; she said she wanted it back and I had not known it was even hers, so I returned it… and then it was lost. It was the one thing I did want from my sister’s stuff.) I kept a tiny pendant that had been my niece’s, a circlet of garnets. I wear it as I write. It will remind me of her when I wear it.
But it will also remind me of this: what she left behind was a legacy of better education for the children in her town. She was elected repeatedly to the school board because she doggedly stood up for what children needed: better diets at the school, more access to college scholarships for low income kids, a refurbished auditorium at the high school, presence at the athletic competitions to cheer them on, even if her own son was not on the teams she supported.
Her (tons of) junk—the shelves and drawers full of things like half-used old cosmetics, Christmas decorations she no longer put out, which she probably thought she would clean out and throw away when she retired—will also remind me that what things she found valuable—my sister’s Frank Sinatra scrapbook, my mother’s scrapbook of cards from the 1920’s that her first husband gave her; many, many, many unlabled, unorganized, uncategorized photos—may be meaningless or valueless to those who become the people who go through these items and, after all, get rid of them in one way or another.
I of course was disappointed that her son said, “I don’t know any of these people,” when I asked if he wanted this photo or that one.
I replied, “But this is a photo of your great-grandmother, my mother!”
“I never met her.”
“Yes, you did, but you were two years old.” There are pictures of her holding him, and a picture of my mom with her first husband, his great-grandfather.
(This photo is me at Easter, having joyfully found an egg, age two-and-a half, six months before I went into the hospital with polio. It’s the kind of picture that has a story that is important to me, but maybe no one else.)
Someday, he will probably have children of his own. His wife now openly says, “When I have my children, I will…” or “I hope they…” so they are coming. A couple of us in the family are saving, for instance, the small child’s overstuffed chair made in 1929 that was my sister’s when she was little, and was passed on to me to use for not only my childhood but on into adulthood in several of my homes (it was perfect in my one-room studio apartment in college). Then when my grandnephew came along, my sister and niece asked for that special chair for him, a natural progression. My mother said to me more than once, “You learned to walk from that chair!” I always thought her choice of word sequence was funny, as if the chair actually told me how to stand up and walk. But the sentimental and family historian part of me wants very much to believe that if not he, his wife will enjoy telling their child, “This chair belonged to your great-grandmother; it was hers as a small child, and then it belonged to your great-great aunt, who stood up from this chair and took her first steps away from it!” I want to believe this will continue to matter to someone, the family stories… especially since I and my other niece never had children ourselves. When one has no children, there’s a whole other issue that looms large: who will come by, who will care, who will tell the stories?
I look at the piles of paper in my study, and the boxes of stuff in my garage, and tell myself, as soon as my broken foot heals, I’m going to start getting rid of stuff. For sure, the stuff no one ever is going to care about. For sure, some lingerie I never wear anymore and never will. Some years back I ran across my geometry notes from high school which I hope I already threw out. But when I look at my curio cabinet, with mementos and photos from my parents and my grandparents, I wonder, “Who’s going to care about this?”
What will I leave behind, really? Two books. Maybe even three. Not true best sellers, but maybe a few thousand people will have read, enjoyed, been stimulated with a new thought by them. They have been referred to as “evergreen,” the term for a book that will not pass out of style or relevance. At some point, I won’t be here to find out if they last, or if they even need to be reprinted. There are people who used to be my clients who gained something from the work I did for them. I’ll leave behind many friends (some of them also relatives), for sure. Many hours of conversation and laughter. Kindnesses, I hope, maybe generosity, along with affection and sometimes insight. Perhaps a few younger or longer-lived people will remember those things.
What will you leave behind?