Going Through Stuff, A Memory at a Time

“You took everything?”

“Everything.”

“Everything? The Navajo rugs? The piano? All the antiques? They’re worth a fortune, you know.”

“I’ve got it all, Mother. Don’t worry,” I said in my most reassuring tone.

That I had crammed the entire contents of the 90-foot-long house we’d occupied since 1959 into my 800-square-foot Manhattan apartment was the biggest lie I’d told my mother since I was a teenager. And her unquestioning acceptance was symptomatic of the incipient dementia that made it necessary.

Everybody dreads dismantling the family household when a parent dies or is incapacitated, and managing the assorted anxieties-childhood memories, intimations of mortality, sibling rivalry, unfinished business-this rite of passage generates.

New Yorkers, however, have an especially hard time going through the stuff because most of us have no place to put it. Apartment dwellers lack the luxury of basements, attics, garages or spare bedrooms where we could stash the stuff, undigested, for the rest of our lives if we wanted to, like they can in the suburbs; we’ve got to make choices. Here’s how I did it, and some rules I formulated as a result.

To go through the stuff, you have to go home again, to the physical and psychological place you came from and, in my case, fled in the Johnson administration. Even if your parents have moved out of the house you knew, they have taken your past with them; they embody it. Simply handling the detritus of childhood floods you with memories. The objects fairly hum with associations. (Rule No. 1: It’s never just about the stuff.)

A gigantic task awaited me, and since I’d already sold the house my parents had designed and built, I had limited time to do it. My mother had vast and intriguing collections of all kinds of things, and I had inherited the gene; my husband and I have kilims on the ceiling, having long ago run out of floor space. She had also deposited everything she’d inherited from her own family and my father in the house’s many recesses, where it had slumbered for decades. There were musical instruments, platform shoes, home movies, Chinese lamps and tureens, tribal masks, my least-favorite aunt’s furniture, my father’s medical textbooks. What was I going to do with it all? And the more difficult question: What did I really want to keep? (Rule No. 2: Expect to be overwhelmed.)

I commandeered my husband and a dear friend to fly home with me for three weekends, to serve as witnesses and packers. (Rule No. 3: Help-especially extra-familial-really helps.) First we took photographs of all the rooms, so I would remember the stuff’s natural habitat. Then we sorted it into three categories (Keep, Leave, Donate). I saw, showed and bid farewell to my report cards, high-school yearbooks, the mosaic trivet I’d made in arts and crafts at camp, snapshots of long-dead relatives I’d never met. I discarded love letters from forgotten admirers and souvenirs from forgotten vacations-the wooden Dutch shoes from Holland, Mich., inscribed with my name among them.

Having two kindred spirits to appreciate, to be amused or touched by the stuff from my past and my family’s set it in my memory and allowed me to leave it behind. I was gratified that my friend so loved the house that he would have bought it furnished if it had been in New Jersey, and that my husband was proud of the report cards.

Ironically, it would be a homecoming of sorts for most of the stuff I decided to take, since it had come from New York in the first place. Throughout my childhood, we made yearly pilgrimages here to shop. It felt practically sacrilegious to think of owning, let alone wearing, the glimmering earrings shaped like snails, leaves, chains and roses I had “helped” her select at Tiffany years ago. Their velvet-lined boxes, once as glamorous as their contents, were matted and frayed now, and everything was smaller than I remembered. The stores where many of her accessories came from, once the epitome of style-Mark Cross, Bonwit Teller-were long gone. (Rule No. 4: Memento mori is inevitable when you do this.)

So what did I take? All six Navajo rugs, as promised; they formed an immediate alliance with the kilims. Some quirky decorative objects (an old hat mold, a Currier and Ives print of The Wonderful Albino Family) fit right in. The Sunkist juicer should last another 50 years, and I like the Russel Wright and Fiesta dishes much better now than when I ate off them in the 50′s. (Rule No. 5: Sometimes you become more like your mother later in life.)

We found a (now-)fashionably frayed, hand-tooled leather belt with a sterling buckle that my father had bought in New Mexico for a pittance decades before Ralph Lauren discovered them, another belt of pre-endangered crocodile, and a few vintage ties that seemed stylish rather than dated. I love to see my husband wear them. (Rule No. 6: Continuity counts.)

The letters I’d written home-my parents had kept every one-I brought back, organized by date, read and burned, not to suppress their content, but as a funeral rite. (Rule No. 7: Rituals help you process the past.)

There were some surprises. Even though my mother and I share a dress size and shoe size, most of her things didn’t fit me or flatter me. (Rule No. 8: You’re not your mother, after all.) And I don’t favor matching purses, gloves and pumps with every outfit. These went to my favorite thrift shop on Third Avenue (better than selling them, I figured), where, the grateful manager told me, they graced the window for a week and fetched a tidy sum. I’m glad I donated them, and glad I didn’t see them there. (Rule No. 9: Say goodbye and don’t look back.)

Although I was determined to take nothing I didn’t like or couldn’t use, there were some things I couldn’t leave behind. I couldn’t imagine wearing her rope of plump pink pearls, but they were her signature. (Rule No. 10: Don’t stick obsessively to your rules.) They lay in my drawer for a year, until one day I realized I could convert them into a pair of tasseled earrings just my style. (Rule No. 11: Integration takes time.)

I wept a little when we drove away from the house for the last time, then breathed a sigh of relief. The rental van we drove back carried only a few boxes for me. The rest was for friends, since I don’t have children to save it for. I felt like Santa Claus. The Wedgwood service for 17 (one whole place setting had been broken), the crystal and two sets of sterling flatware services for 12-too formal for my taste-went to a woman with a brownstone on the West Side; the Danish-modern barware and high-50′s accessories to a gay man with a mid-century ranch in the Hamptons; the art books, linens, sculpture and occasional furniture to my loyal packer.

I visit the stuff sometimes, although it does feel strange to see other people using and displaying it differently than we did. It was gratifying to give things to my friends while I lived to enjoy their delight (Rule No. 12: Be glad that you can’t take it with you.)

What I kept, I love; it feels like both mine and my mother’s now.

She died painlessly right before the New Year began, retaining her sense of style to the end: I’m wearing the Japanese sarong pants and the long, beaded earrings that I gave her for her last birthday as I write this.