Last summer my 91 year old parents passed away within 3 months of each other. Since then my sisters and I have been traveling back to the small town we grew up in to finalize the preparations for an estate auction and eventual sale of the house. The three of us are scattered across the country and gathering to complete this project involves considerable planning and expense. This week we'll make the third and hopefully final such trip. The longer this takes - it has been seven months since Dad died - the longer it takes for closure as the emotional wounds are to some extent reawakened on each visit.
Mom and Dad lived in this house in this little farming town for 65 years from the time Dad returned from Europe at the end of World War II. They remodeled the house in 1955, expanding the capacity for three children and belongings. During that period of time the storage areas of the house were leveraged to the maximum and they threw little away of records and memories of their lives together. Photographs that date back to the late nineteenth century were carefully stored in boxes when the sheer quantity overwhelmed the efforts to contain them all in albums. Records of expenses and purchases were meticulously filed never to be retrieved; receipts for car repairs on vehicles long since passed from all but vaguest memory, warranty information on household appliances replaced many times over, copies of letters to vendors and manufacturers seeking repairs or refunds for items now many years consigned to landfills, and newspaper clippings, report cards and piles of notebook paper filled with childish scrawls chronicling the passage of the three of us through our years of schooling.
What to do with all these things? We continue to return to the house and sort through items that in reality could be handed over to the auctioneers to separate into disposables and salables as if the continued attention to this process somehow suspends the finality of events that have already taken place. So many things. Things which each meant something to one or both of our parents and now must be disposed of. For myself I need little materially to remember them but for my sisters letting go seems to be more difficult. To dispose of their possessions seems disturbingly to discount their importance to those who chose to save them. Yet we all accumulate our own life's collection of memory's touchstones. I cannot find it in me to haul boxes of remembrances home to store them away and pass the task on to the next generation.
And yet - if we pronounce the job finished - then we must face the fact that this time when we close the door we close the door also on the beginning, the middle and the beginning of the end of our lives. The blessing we had of all these years of an intact family meeting for holidays in the family home is over. As these things pass through our hands, the minutia of a couple who spent sixty-nine years together and raised three children, and we realize that most of these things are ephemera that must be relinquished to mere memories we are acutely aware of our own mortality. We hold items in our hands whose only value is emotional and remember how as children our lives seemed to stretch on infinitely and now seem all too short.