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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Light Enough to Travel

Over the past few weeks, we've been engaging in the bittersweet task of moving Grandma out of her apartment. Bitter because of the necessity for much sorting and in doing so, trying to reconcile with many of her decisions which while her own -- it was her life -- end up affecting me and everyone else around her. 

My mother is dying. After breaking her hip this summer, her health went into rapid free fall. We realized quickly there was no way she'd live on her own again. So she has stayed the past few months in the lovely facility where she was for rehab after her surgery. Because of her increasing decline and frailty hospice care was recommended several weeks ago. The hospice nurses are great and caring and helpful and the social worker was very kind and listening on the day all the tears I'd been holding in since our arrival back in the States started leaking out. And turning into a dam break and ensuing flood. 

For the present mom is declining stably. That is my term, and I'm not sure quite what that means. Just that after weeks of leaving the care facility wondering if she'd be there the next day, the descent has leveled out a bit, and I find myself wondering if she won't outlast us all. 

So with Grandma settled into her care facility we knew the time was coming to move her things out of her apartment. And in all the hardness, here is the sweet part of the bittersweet: after countless times of moving free-spirited Grandma around, this is the last time. We won't be sorting this stuff again. 

Anyway, Brother and I decided early in the month to give notice for her apartment. Somehow I wasn't sure that was what my Life Change Stress Level Processors most needed, but let's just deal and get it over with we said. Okay. The kids are into the rythym of the schoolyear, I thought. I'm not in a permanent house yet. Okay. We can do this. Yeah. Okay. By faith, We Can Do This.

So we did. 

We didn't try to keep it a secret from our mom, but with her state of confusion, depending on the day it wasn't clear how much she understood. She just asked sweetly once if we would be really good about labeling everything. Yes, okay. Sure.

Other times, when she asked what I'd been doing that morning, I just couldn't bring myself to say, "Well, I've been throwing all your old magazines and newspaper clippings into the recycle bin, actually."

Because, you see, my mother was a pack rat, a clutterer, a hoarder. Not quite ready to go on Oprah but almost. Mom always said it was because she was raised during the Depression when everything was scarce and you never knew when you might just need that random little empty plastic bottle. It sounded reasonable for years until I'd met lots of other people who'd lived through the Depression and didn't need to save every piece of string or the twist ties from loaves of bread. And then she inherited all the family stuff her mother had saved before her. And that my mom couldn’t bear to part with it. Some wonderful things and a lot of it just junk.

I've heard it said that people who hoard things are unconsciously trying to make up for a lack of real relationships in their lives. That is a whole other topic but it does make one ponder.  What are people trying to keep when they keep too much stuff? Is it procrastination? Lack of organization? Or is there something else going on? When does a family item become an historical artifact? And just because two previous generations kept it, does that mean I have to?

The trouble is, I have the same underlying keeping-things gene going on.

My grandmother (on the right) with her older sister.  Grandma, why did you keep so much stuff??

But I draw the line some places. In my mom’s stuff, I found two copies of my great grandmother’s will. I believe she died when my mother was a girl, so….that puts us in the 1940s or early 50s. Odds are good that any questions of inheritance have been cleared up by now—since two other generations have also come and nearly gone. Why are we keeping this??

But now of course, it’s old. And kind of cool. And I am tempted just to put it back in the box…

But my kids look at me with a kind of wildness behind their eyes: NO, Mama! We ain’t dealing with all that later on! Do NOT pass it on to us!

So…(sigh)… the buck will stop here.

I think my mom kept a lot of this stuff because her mother – who was the family historian – kept it. Not necessarily because mom really liked it or used it. Oh my, no. Most of it just stayed in boxes or Rubbermaid tubs. (My mind has begun working on a short story about some ancestral tea cups…) And I think my mother always thought she was going to do something big and wonderful with it all. But she never did, because it wasn’t her dream. It was her mother’s. And too much of that hanging on to family stuff just because it is family stuff can make you feel obliged to live in that other person’s life and not live your own.

And now it’s my turn to make decisions about it all. 

And you know what? I want to honor those who have gone before me and have made the effort to preserve these things and the family history with them. I write this sitting at my grandmother’s writing desk, probably built around the 1890s, and it's a sweet thing to imagine her sitting here writing her letters to my mother (which I've also found.)

But you know what else? I want to live my own life.

A little family history can give you ground to stand on. A little more can tell you something about who you are. And too much can feel like being buried alive.

I want to live my own life. And I want my kids to live their own lives. And that means parting with some things in order to make room for others. 

Several years ago, a friend sang while packing to move, “Gotta keep it light enough to travel.” When we packed up our house three years ago before our Swiss adventure, that refrain kept running through my head. I can’t say I’ve always lived it – we shipped back a container load of an Awful Lot of Stuff. But the refrain is back now.

The Now is a new adventure. For the sake of everyone, gonna try to keep it light enough to travel.

I am worried that this post might sound angry or bitter or something. It's really not. And maybe if you've haven't sorted mom's newspaper clippings yourself, it just can't be understood. But here is the real point of the matter: 

We gave the keys to mom’s apartment back on Monday.  Three days early. I’m grateful that now I get to spend less time with her stuff and more time with her. 


  1. Thank you Jenny. You write so beautifully.

    We will be praying for you as you get through all these painful and scary transitions. You can do all things through Christ, who strengthens you.



  2. Praying for you Jenny. It's not easy sorting out all the things in life, but God takes are hand and walks us thru it.

  3. Jenny. So well said. Knowing you. Knowing your dear mum. She always always made me smile. I loved her little kerchief she'd tie around her neck. I liked the fact that she took the time to do that. It was a sort of exclamation point. At least to me. And I laugh with you and I cry with you. I know how much she collected. I know bits and pieces of her. Of you. I know what it is to move a parent into hospice. To have the time to sit with them. The time of in-between and not knowing. Some of my best days were spent with my dad in hospice. I remember asking him one day, can I do something for you dad? To which his response was: just love me. So good of you to face the stuff. To dig in and get it done. To write about it. To now have time to sit and ponder. But most of all, to just love her. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers. You make me smile too. And, I bet she still has that twinkle in her eye. Just as you do. Blessings, Jenny and Jan. xo dlf