Monday, January 2, 2012

What Remains...

“Though nothing can bring back the hour 
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; 
We will grieve not, rather find 
Strength in what remains behind; 
In the primal sympathy 
Which having been must ever be...” 
William Wordsworth

I inherited a mess.  My father, like me, was a packrat.  If it were only his stuff that would probably be fine, but it was my late aunt’s stuff, my late brother’s stuff and distant cousins from New Hampshire’s stuff I also have to deal with now.  He was the executor of all their wills and I have the crap to prove it.  I have spent so many weekends trying to sort stuff, ignore other stuff, but ignoring it will not make it go away. Anyone who has seen his house of late knows what a herculean task it will be.  What does one do with a vintage 1946 Hallicrafter Ham radio?  A 1920 Edison Phonograph?  Piles and piles of clothing?  Shoes?  Old papers that are somewhat nostalgic but really worthless?

I guess if I were the patient type, Ebay or a large garage sale might be the answer. An “estate sale” sounds better for marketing purposes. But how do you decide what to keep from someone who has passed on or simply throw away?

This is what remains after a normal person dies. Things.  My father was not a writer, nor artist of any sort so there is no material things to represent his work. He was not a veteran like my uncle where I have scores of records, pictures and documents.  He was an accountant, a fiddler of numbers, which after those numbers are recorded, kept for seven years for IRS purposes, thereafter,  are deemed worthless.  I ponder what will remain after my death too.  Maybe I should write more, at least a book or more articles, which might fill the void that my children or grandchildren will hopefully have.  Certainly medicine does not leave any material things.  Even your best work will not last but a generation.

Several months before he died, I did force him to go through some old client business and shred sensitive documents.  He hadn’t really worked in his profession for about seven to ten years or so, so all those papers were old.  The local paper recycler was glad to see my minivan filled to the brim with paper bags of confetti.  I still did manage to find some older tax returns from 1964 and 1968.  They are only 47 and 43 years old respectively!

But I am left with other papers and mementos that are difficult to both keep or throw away.  I have his Crossing Guard certificate dated 1939, prayer books, deeds to old properties, a promissory note from my grandparents, etc.  So many seemingly worthless papers…

Should I keep a vintage 1970’s”Members Only” jacket with epauletts that seemingly every cool father wore accompanied by a mustache and bell-bottom jeans? Do I keep the suit he wore from my medical school graduation, the baseball medallion he earned as a high school player, a 1964 tax return showing our old address?

Some things I have stored in library archival boxes.  The inner nerd librarian in me coming forth I guess. Each is labeled.  My children will know these people who meant so much to me. I have sifted so much.  I don’t wear men’s clothes or shoes.

 I do not have a box for my mother.  Her “things” she never kept or were angrily thrown away by my father when she died. (Don’t even ask what happened to her wedding dress). Even normal things that most people kept, like yearbooks, pictures or diplomas I never saw. I have next to nothing from her family either. The only pictures I have of her family were literally thrown at my father by my uncle at her funeral.  They were limited at best. My mother’s family was not a sentimental crowd.  Estranged largely and not sentimental.  I crave things from their lives but have little to show despite exhaustive genealogy or EBay searches.

These are things that make up a life.  But also things that perhaps my sister and I are the only ones who would attach any significance to.  My sister is not the sentimental nor pack rat type so her contribution to disposing of this mess is minimal.

I think of Carole Radziwell’s touching memoir of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bissete and his cousin Anthony Radizwell.  She too was left with “things” after all of their untimely deaths.  But the underlying message of her book was not the material things.  It was the memories of her loved ones that were the real tribute.

I have donated many things so far.  The clothes especially.  Homeless men in my nearby urban area will have warm jackets with vague hints of cigarette smoke, which I tried to soak then wash out to no avail.  They will have many shoes, T-shirts, pants, etc. too.  The furniture I will try to sell.  A few pieces I will keep in my already crowded house.

The material things are one thing.  What I really think my father left was his laugh, his fist pounding directed at not only his children but also his grandchildren and hopefully, through many funny stories, to their grandchildren as well ; his love of clothes; his cursing;  his urban euphemisms and malapropisms; his demands “while you’re up make me a sandwich;” his incessant efforts and bribes to get someone to clean his car (“I’ll give you two dollars!”); his whining about your demands but he always came through: (“I promised didn’t I?”); his Polish curse words and his slipping my daughters $5 with the words ‘don’t tell your mother.”

These are the things I should keep. I have talked to many friends recently who have also lost parents  and and still can not bring themselves to deal with “the things.” I figure at this point I am ahead of the game.  I will not worry so much about the boxes of tchotchkes that are piled to the brim. I’ll keep sifting. Crying and sifting. It will be a long winter. A long but strong winter...

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