It’s been a couple weeks since I returned back to our home in Virginia. My daughter and I went to visit what we lovingly refer to as our homeland, Wisconsin. We had a long over due mission to sort through and disperse my mother’s belongings. She passed away early last year and it’s taken us this long to feel safe to travel, safe to visit, safe to get the job done.
But, sifting and sorting through my mother’s personal stuff was something I was glad to have had the time to prepare for. Most importantly, it took that long for my dad to feel comfortable enough for her stuff to be looked through, touched, and removed from their rightful and safe places in their home of over sixty years. It was something he worried about and I promised I would take care of. It was an honor and I was determined to honor Mom and her most personal worldly goods.
I had a plan. I took time to consider what to do with clothes for example, what would my mother want? We, my daughter and youngest sister, decided she would most want her clothes to be donated to those in need, or a charity that did the most good with the sales from items. My mother enjoyed shopping in thrift stores, in fact it was like a hobby for her. And whilst she and dad always went to garage sales, having one was not my mother’s favorite, nor mine. It was not important to have money for her items but it would have been an option. Still, donating seemed the best and right thing to do.
It wasn’t as easy as you might think. A lot of charities are still not accepting donations either as a precaution, or because they are still not operating with a full compliment of volunteers, or because they are still not back to full operation hours. We were lucky to find that St Vincent de Paul was gladly accepting donations. Knowing where things would go made the sorting and dividing easier.
First we pulled all clothes out from closets, drawers, and seasonal storage boxes. We stacked like things together and assessed condition. My mom had good taste and liked things to be made well and kept well so there really wasn’t anything too old or worn. I expected to find some favorite vintage items but she had not saved anything like that. No old purses or shoes, or hats, not really anything over a few years old. The items filled about 4 large bags. We have known for years because she often said so, she was ready to go to heaven, and it seemed pretty clear she had been preparing.
Next I pulled out all Mom’s jewelry and sorted, and matched, and put sets together. She wore a lot of pins and we all have given her lots of them. Cat pins, bird pins, music themed pins and broaches, pins made of plastic, metals, wood, even a few made of puzzle pieces. My dad asked me to make little collections for each family member and after asking for input this was an easier task than I imagined. We took pictures then posted them to an album and asked for family members to let us know their pieces of interest. It took just a couple of days to hear back from everyone and there were few duplicate requests.
There were some other personal items I took care of. I cleaned out her desk sorting through and putting like things together, to make whatever comes next with the house easier. I cleared out drawers of personal stuff like her collection of book marks and hankies, and her knitting and crochet stuff. I’ll make collections to pass on to family in the coming months. I set a few things aside for myself, mostly books. Again, there was not as much as I imagined there might be, and I believe Mom had planned for this chore to be easy. Her mother had done the same.
My Grandma had been aware of her health for some time and had made sure to have an end plan. In fact at her funeral mass, her parish priest described how she had prepared kits and wrote instructions for how to mend the Altar linens, what colors to use what season, and tricks to use for stains and laundering such specialty items. I remember thinking we work our whole life to go be with Jesus. It’s best to be prepared.
One week turned into two weeks of doing this work, going through additional things my sister asked us to look through but also visiting with my father. Dad was diagnosed and hospitalized with Covid19 in December. He was released to a rehab facility then to a nursing home where he has regained enough strength for assisted living. He turned 92 there. It’s been five plus months of hell for him. We are all trying to make things as right as they can be. This chore was checked off his list but there are more that remain in dealing with a lifetime of worldly goods.
The stay in my childhood home was busy but rewarding. I shared stories of growing up there with my daughter as we puttered around or cooked a meal. It wasn’t until the last day as we got ready to leave, my daughter took one last trip through the kitchen, wiping the counters, making sure things were in their places, she flipped the kitchen light off and suddenly I was sitting in the dark in my mother’s kitchen. She wasn’t there anymore and I missed her so.
So now more than ever I’m thinking about my own worldly goods, what will happen to them when I’m gone, and who will bear their burden? Because as much appreciation and pleasure I get in their owning they are a burden. I don’t need to read tidiness books or watch TV shows to know this. It’s something I’ve been considering for the last few years and I considered as we loaded my car to return to Virginia. The temptation to have a few things to remind me of times with my mother just adds to to it all.
Here’s the thing, memories are in my head and heart, not in worldly goods.
Advice and additional thoughts:
Be as prepared as you can be to go through personal effects. Your parents are human and you may find surprises. I felt responsible as the eldest child to make certain determinations. Some things remain private. I will make sure of that.
Google local charities Make calls before driving to drop things off. Get documentation for the donation but also taking pics is very helpful especially if you need the tax deduction for the remaining spouse or the estate. Most times you get a blank receipt and you fill in the items. You mostly likely will not get any other documentation or thank you so be sure to keep this receipt.
Supplies needed: tape, markers, bags of all sorts including zipper bags, and jewelry bags, labels, and sticky notes. Also a notebook or two, and pens and pencils. There were a few items I wrote the history if known on the item. We also brought a few boxes with us and my sister had collected some.
Sometimes it’s not possible to be fair, or equal, in the distribution to family. You don’t need to be. Just do the job you are asked to do as best you can. We were raised to understand needs are different, and to share with each other is the best of all things. These initial divisions may not be how things end up. I love we are open to options in the future.
Document with pics or a written inventory. Use Google docs or create sharable Albums in Google pics. My Dad is very interested in seeing what we accomplish so I created a spiral notebook to be left in the house. My family can review and add to the lists as work continues. If items are disbursed in any way, that can be recorded. This helps us all but especially my dad.
Honor your parent or relative as reasonably as possible. They most likely are grieving, but glad for your help, but not necessarily showing they are. Decisions may take time, or change, or get a bit wild. Bear with. You will be glad you did.
As for Covid19, make yourself as aware as possible of the lasting side effects on the body and brain of someone who has had this horrible virus. Covid brain is real, so are other physical remainders. Be patient, be an advocate for your loved one.