May whatever breaks be reconstructed by the sea
with the long labor of its tides. Pablo Neruda
We want so much, and yet what we want is rarely simple. People, objects, houses, cars, dream jobs, recognition, fame, fortune, love, kindness. Our houses overflow with stuff .. pantries full of food we may not eat before it goes bad, drawers full of Tupperware, collections of glass jars, clothes we never wear, tchotchkes and family heirlooms. Hard to throw out because of their history, even if no one in the family really wants them. The more we remain in place, the easier it is to accumulate. To throw the old in back of the closet or push it behind the new in a cupboard or drawer. To buy another filing cabinet or bookshelf instead of culling out to make room.
There are times when the new brings excitement and great pleasure. The long awaited upgrade to a very old iPhone or computer. The latest model after your beloved older car has been driven to the point of falling apart. But so much of what we acquire becomes a burden that we must haul with us wherever we go.
My parents stored two lifetimes worth of belongings in the first and only house they bought and lived in, first together and then for 12 years, my mom alone. Because they were people of simple needs, careful consumers and slow to buy new gadgets, gizmos and machines, I assumed that cleaning out their house after Mom died would be relatively straightforward.
We got off to a fast start, clearing out assorted plastic containers, half eaten food, incomplete sets of everyday china, the chipped and mismatched glassware, dull knives and random kitchen utensils. Quickly sorted and packed for drop off at the Salvation Army. Her clothes were straightforward to sort through as well. More petite than Molly or me and frugal with her money, most of Mom’s clothes were easily donated. I saved a few fancy party dresses she wore when she and Dad would go out dancing in case Molly wanted them. The furniture would be sold as we had no room to use or store it. The books boxed and sent to our house so I could sort them when I had more time.
But then I bogged down. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep everything else, it was that everything held memories of my childhood, their marriage, our life together. The heavy gold clock on the mantle that had long since stopped working and couldn’t be repaired. Older than I am. A fixture of my childhood home. A silent witness to the extended family gatherings, the fights, the tears, the arguments, the thoughts that should have been shared and the words that would have been better left unsaid.
Time marches on. Clocks stop working. Dishes break. Silverware goes missing. A lifetime of possessions, carefully gathered, soon to be without a home and nowhere to go.
For months after the house sold, I regretted what I sold or gave away, wishing I had worked harder to figure out where I could squirrel it away. But then I realized that life goes on, grinding up the things we thought we wanted, making holes in our clothes, creating fragments, breaking down, falling apart. In the end, what lasts are the cards and letters and photos that remind us of what was and what was said. Words of love and visions of joy and togetherness to hold on to when the days get cold and dark and the people we love most aren’t there to wrap us in a warm hug. Dangerously fragile, yet oh so powerful. A glance at the faces or the words on the page, and the past comes rushing back. The beauty of those days. The magic of the time we spent together. The love that no one can steal.