I sat at the table surrounded by
boxes. Full Boxes. Full of old letters, bills, expired coupons,
plastic bags, clipped articles, broken pencils, unidentifiable small
objects and just "stuff". Separately stacked, there were the old
newspapers; not kept because of their significance, such as John
Kennedy's assassination. Just the "never getting around to reading
them and throwing them out" newspapers. I had been surrounded with
and had to climb over my mother's "stuff" all my childhood. Neither
I, nor any of my family could ever figure out why she did this: kept
everything. We struggled with it for years. When I lived with her I
couldn't have my friends over to visit. Well, unless their house was
also like this. I couldn't wait until I was old enough to get out.
But when I was 18, I didn't have to find an excuse to leave, because
she kicked me out. Kicked me out because I "wasn't being pleasant."
So in 1968, I was on my own. In
New York, at18 years old it was tough to be on my own and in
college. My mother decided that part of getting kicked out was that
she would not help me at all. She told me later that she had the
idea that, once on my own, I would somehow realize I couldn't make
it and I'd come back within 6 months, ready to live at home “the way
it was.” Even the money from my father's child support checks (which
continued until I was 21) was withheld from me. And she didn't give
it to me until ten years later only after I explained to her over
and over again how I came to the conclusion that she owed me $2500.
In 1978, I moved cross-country
so her house no longer was an active issue, and after a time, we
grew somewhat closer via telephone. I enjoyed listening to her tell
me about her life and her activities and was pleased she was getting
out of the house. She helped me out when I needed it, by listening
to my troubles. But if the issue came up, she was still determined
that I was wrong about my intolerance of her "stuff.”
And now, here I am, in 2002,
once again surrounded by her "stuff.” But this time she is 82 and
has had a massive stroke and has been admitted to a nursing home, in
a semi-coma. Now it is up to me to get rid of all the stuff. To go
through it piece by piece, just in case she hid anything of
significance between the old Ann Landers articles and the long
I began. And found family
history. There was a letter written in 1955 from my mother's sister,
describing a day in the life in her household. According to this
first letter I found, Grandma (who lived with my aunt and died in
1959) had made lunch that day for her brother, Great-Uncle Julius.
(died in 1956). My cousin Larry (who had polio as a child) was doing
well on the clarinet (he died in 1961 at 16 years old, killed by a
drunk driver). My cousin Cheryl would be in a play in 4 weeks. Also,
there had been some boy named Bernard who wanted to ask Cheryl to a
school dance but was too shy.
My God! Life was in these boxes.
On little scraps of paper were our lives! And my mother had kept
them. I became more and more excited going through things. There was
a letter from my cousin Paula, written in 1952, when she was 10.
There were letters from my grandfather (who died in 1959) who
deserted my grandmother, mother and aunt when my mother was two
years old. There were bitter, irrational letters from my father to
my mother during the years of them working out their divorce. With
those were the actual negotiation papers between the lawyers. There
was testimony to my mother's capacity for friendship in boxes and
boxes of letters from friends that she kept in touch with for 57
years and many letters from one friend she'd had since she was 13.
Of course there were also the
boxes of newspaper clippings. But many of the newspaper articles my
mother cut out, reflected her ideals as a human being. She didn't
necessarily live by them; apparently as reflected by her habits, she
was unable to. But it allowed me to get to know her all the same. My
feelings on my mother's "stuff" softened. My aunt, now 85, and my
cousin Paula, came to the apartment while I was clearing things out.
Without telling them what it was, I handed them the two letters from
the 1950's that they had written to my mother. I quietly watched
from across the room as they read them. When they were done, they
didn't say anything. Just tucked them into their pockets as
And I went about the business of
choosing what to keep and what to throw out. But in the midst of my
mother's chaos, I knew that she had done something important. She
had preserved history.