The Things They Left Behind
“WOW,” I would hear from people who hadn’t been to my house in a while, “the place looks… different.” “Of course,” I’d answer. “That’s because we’re now the museum of dead people.”
The line was a cheap shocker, sure, but also the truth. Every room in the house my husband and I had owned for more than a decade contained dozens of items that were ours only because their owners had died. My bitter undertone was honest, too. I wanted what I inherited, and I felt lucky to get it, but sometimes it felt less that I owned these things than that I bore them, like a weight.
From 2006 to 2011, one by one, everyone went: my husband’s mother, then his father, then my aunt and my mother. (My father had died years before.) The last years of their lives were an extended, painful decline—cancer, lung disease, dementia, loneliness, fear. We (mostly me) served as long-distance caregivers, and the experience left a bleak, grinding sadness; I learned about the reality of aging in a way I wish I hadn’t. The deaths, more tangibly, brought a lot of stuff. All our relatives had lived in well-furnished homes, and except when it came to my mother, we were the sole heirs. We sold the houses—in Fort Worth, San Diego County, upstate New York—and sold, gave away or threw out a lot. But much of what I saw filled me with longing. I stood in the dismantled rooms, pointing: I want that. That, that, that.
Across the miles, loaded trucks rumbled to our Los Angeles house, bringing from my Aunt Clarice a collection of 1960s abstract art, old cookbooks and knives, heavy saute pans, Waterford hurricane lamps, vintage wool blankets and a 1960s KitchenAid stand mixer, as heavy and solidly built as an old Buick. From my in-laws, Jo and Bill, we got dining room and bedroom sets, antique mirrors and a staggering extravagance of old sterling, china, crystal and cut glass. From my mother, Gloria, I took a couch, a wall storage unit, the 1950s Swedish blonde wood hutch, a table and a bedroom set that I’d loathed through childhood for its spare lines but now saw as Mad Men cool. Plus dozens of 1940s books with teeny-tiny print, a set of avocado-green Pyrex casseroles, boxes and boxes of crumbling photo albums and ancient diplomas and birth certificates.
Behind my greed was a logic. Clarice’s paintings filled many of our previously empty walls; my in-laws’ immaculate furniture replaced our embarrassing secondhand funk. We actually needed Gloria’s Mad Men bedroom set for the guest room, where there had never been a place for guests to put their clothes. All the kitchen items were serviceable, so why waste them? The photos and documents were family history. You don’t just toss such things in a Dumpster. And yet: I hadn’t foreseen the heaviness of it all. I’m not talking about literally feeling buried, though sometimes I did in my small home office, jammed to bursting with my old desk and file cabinets augmented by my mother’s Swedish hutch and end table, a chair from her den, my father’s 1935 handball trophies and a huge chinoiserie lamp. (Of course, nothing matched.)
What haunted me were the shadows. I’d spent so many hours in my relatives’ homes over the years, visiting when I was young, caregiving later on, when the knowledge that time was running out gave a luminous density to all that was said and done. Things from those places carried the memory of where they used to be, ghost images that rose unpredictably to throw me out of time. I’d open a drawer for one of Jo’s forks and suddenly see them in her yellow-and-white kitchen; I’d look at Clarice’s mixer and see it on her counter. I’d reach into one of my parents’ night-stands and catch a smell I recalled from childhood, and for a second felt I could look down to see my father’s carefully folded undershirts.
The old places, evoked, made the people rise so vividly, it was as if they were in the next room. The realization that they weren’t, and wouldn’t ever be, would hit like a slugto the gut, as if I’d only just heard the news. Living among other people’s things means you never stop thinking about them.
Ah. What I didn’t get when I booked those moving vans was that holding on had always been the real point. The unexpected blessing of caring for the old is how deeply you come to know them. The endless hours you spend listening to their stories creates an intimacy very much like that of early romantic love. You lean forward, begging, More, please. Who were you before I met you? Tell me what you know and have seen, who you are. In that intimacy, my relatives were transformed for me, their inner selves risingfrom their failing bodies, revealed in all their singular power.
Until you lose someone that close to you, you don’t understand the meaning of gone, and until you empty their cupboards and drawers, you don’t grasp how easily every physical trace of a life can be erased. When I grabbed what remained, I was seeking talismans, magic objects to stave off the disappearance. The battered dictionary my mother got as a gift in 1937, just before she became the first in her family to go to college, contained her, poor and ambitious and 17. A collection of figurines from Mexico, Europe and Africa held Clarice, traveling far and alone in the 1950s, when women just didn’t do such things. All that I kept, the diplomas, the photos, the perfume bottles, an ormolu jewelry box and the battered strainer my mother used to serve peas, carried a force field of human desire, decades of struggle and triumph, children born, journeys made, moments that I couldn’t bear—that I wouldn’t allow—to vanish on the wind.
Four years since the last death, I’ve learned that with their exile from life’s flow and change, the dead recede, whether you want them to or not. To live in the present, you have to turn away. I now keep Clarice’s mixer out of sight in a cabinet, have had Jo’s dining chairs reuphol-stered, have stashed boxes of paper in the attic. I let the dogs sleep on my mother’s couch—she’d die if she weren’t already dead.
Loosening my grip isn’t the same as letting go. I’ve given nothing away. At Christmas, I summon Jo’s thin, blue-veined hand to hover over the cut-glass bowl of cranberry sauce, listen for the whisper of Clarice’s cigarette-hoarse voice when I use her chefs knife. My parents’ nightstand drawers still have that distinctive scent, and sometimes I lean down to smell it—for the painful comfort of feeling them near.
The dead always cast shadows; the challenge of midlife, when their numbers accumulate, is to see them and yet face forward, so they fall behind. The act is its own kind of faithfulness: to what and who was, and to whatever comes next.