I haven’t written my column in nearly a month for a very good reason: my mother-in-law, Betty, became ill and suddenly passed away. In addition to arranging the funeral, I was charged with cleaning out her apartment and going through her things. While on the surface, my purging project may have appeared systematic and smooth, rifling through my mother-in-law’s possessions was emotionally wrenching.
My mother-in-law had a lot of stuff! Her drawers were filled with cancelled checks, bank statements, medical bills/hospital reports dating back years. She kept warranty cards from every appliance she ever purchased, photo Christmas cards of nieces and nephews who are now adults, 45s and LPs from the 1950s, used wrapping paper, and empty grocery bags. Such things were easily dealt with, but the stuff of her life, the things she held dear, were not so easily dispersed.
Betty saved everything...her children’s school awards, the ties they wore at their first communions, the stirrers and matchbooks from their wedding receptions, cards, letters, and photos from her grandchildren. Among all this stuff, these mementos of past and present, were Christmas and birthday gifts the family had given Betty through the years: sweaters...still with the tags on them, toiletries and perfumes...still in the gift bags, blankets...never used, statues and trinkets we all thought she’d like...still in their original wrapping. Apparently, Betty didn’t need or want any of those things. Instead of showering her with more stuff each year, we should have spent more time with her. Lesson learned too late.
Betty valued the past and kept treasured mementos in her closet...her late husband, Joe’s, baby shoes wrapped in tissue paper, her wedding flowers and Joe’s boutineer pressed in a wooden box in her dresser, love notes and cards he sent. She loved her husband with all her heart! In fact, one of the last things she said to me in the hospital was, “do not throw out Joe’s things.” I never would have, but hearing her concern for her late husband’s WWII U.S. Navy uniform, etc. underscored her love for him and her desire for him to be remembered. That she said nothing about her personal mementos...the photos of herself as a little girl, her high school yearbook, her jewelry...is greatly telling. Throughout her life, and even as she neared her death, Betty consistently put others first.
In life, there are lessons to be learned everywhere, even in dresser drawers and closets. Through the past months, I realized that the stuff of life is just that...stuff. Don’t hang on too tightly to material things; the house you own, the car you drive, your doll or coin collection, whatever...doesn’t mean a thing. You live. You die. And in the end, much of your treasure becomes someone else’s trash or is stashed in another closet. Most importantly and sadly, however, one lesson is most profound: good, old Doctor Suess was right when he said, “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”