My sister and I recently shared a very bittersweet experience. With help from her husband, son, father-in-law and nephew, we removed the last items from our father's condo. Then we cleaned it and got it ready for its new owner.
On the one hand, we knew how happy Dad was during his final three years. He lived in a wonderful assisted living facility, in a bright and cheery condo with a beautiful view of a wooded area. But there was something so sad about going through his worldly possessions, deciding what to do with them (keep them, donate them or set them aside for later when our brother will be there to go through them with us) and gradually emptying his place of everything that once had been his.
This was, I thought, the remains of his life. His life was reduced to boxes of 'stuff.' Possessions that at one time had some value to him and to our mother were suddenly being discarded. His clothes went to Goodwill. Most of his furniture and linens was distributed to the women who work as housekeepers in the facility. His kids took items of significance or interest to them. Still, as the items in the condo dwindled, my father's presence also disappeared, until at the end, no trace of him remains in the place he called home for three years.
So that's it. The remains of an 87-year life are nothing more than assorted items (some family heirlooms, others of unknown origin) and boxes of family photographs.
There were some pleasant surprises along the way, however, including the discovery of previously unseen (by my sister and me) photographs of my mother as a teenager and young adult, and photographs of my 18-year-old father in his Navy uniform during World War II. What a handsome couple they were. We still need to go through several old family photo albums,which undoubtedly will hold even more surprises.
We found pictures tucked behind other pictures in frames, including one of a young woman we didn't recognize. Who was she? A relative? A friend of one of our parents? There is no information on the back of the picture, so we will probably never know who she is.
This experience has made me aware of two things: the need to purge some of my many personal items so my daughter isn't faced with the overwhelming task of going through my possessions after I pass. And the importance of putting pertinent information on photographs, so future generations will know who the people are in the pictures.
Each of my siblings and I have kept some of our parents' personal items. I have a small table, a coffee table, an antique dresser and two chairs, in addition to some of my mother's cookbooks and recipe cards. I also have many of their CDs, mostly 'big band' music, with a few classical CDs and a couple of Christmas albums. These items serve as tangible reminders -- visible memories -- of the lives of my parents. Seeing the furniture or listening to their CDs serve as tangible reminders of my parents. But more important than these things, I have personal memories, as well as the lessons I learned from them: fiscal responsibility, and the importance of family, sharing and generosity. They taught us these lessons, not in words, but through their actions.
What is important really isn't the material items we collect throughout our lives, but the memories we create, the good we do and the lessons we teach our children. These are the things that make our lives worth something. Material possessions will be discarded, but the lessons we learn, what we teach our children, and the things we accomplish will live on.