It’s that time of year. It’s the time of year when nostalgia inevitably gets the best of me. The Thanksgivings and Christmases of years past swirl around me, with memories and visions of family and friends – music playing, feasts set on festive tables, with candles, and holiday decorations everywhere you look. The smell of wood smoke takes me back to countless winter evenings in Nebraska, when we enjoyed fires almost every night, built lovingly by my father in the grate. Year after year, the holidays arrive, and there’s nothing to be done about it – the memories creep up on me, keeping me company, like old friends (mostly good ones), and they dance and sing with me while I go through my days in the here and now.
I think a lot about how our memories of the past shape our present. As I raise my boys, I am always walking the line between incorporating the traditions of my childhood, and establishing new traditions that spring from my own family’s interests and inclinations. Clinging to the past, or comparing the present to some idealistic view of how things “should be” never turns out well, and I try to avoid it. I believe our present experience must continually and organically invent itself – and I am mindful to leave space for that to happen, in its own way. Some memories, though, are worth cherishing, and I find great comfort in spending time with them as they embrace me, and keep me company.
At the heart of some of our deepest memories, is our remembrance of, and our connection with, home. Perhaps it’s a childhood home from many years ago, in a distant or faraway place – or maybe it’s the home in which you live currently, where you’ve crafted your own life, or watched your own kids grow up. Maybe it’s the home you never had, but wish you did – a home you are striving to make real now. In any of these scenarios, I’m willing to bet there is a space that held (or holds, or will hold) you, your cherished possessions, and your memories – a magic space called home.
These spaces hold special powers. I see it every day as a Realtor. I can feel the spirit and personalities of homes that wait for their rightful owners, homes that seem lonely when vacant, or even homes that react when ownership changes. So often, little unforeseen needed repairs pop up a week or so after purchase, as if the house is testing her new owner, reacting to the absence of her previous one, or simply just having a little tantrum. It happens often enough that I can’t just call it coincidence.
Every home has a past, present and future. Every space tells a story. Every house is a vessel – a vessel that holds our talismans, our laughter and tears, our successes and celebrations, our tragedies and failures. These walls protect us when we need to rest and heal, and give us shelter to gather, rejoice, and be. Every home is magnificent in that regard. Some homes capture our hearts more than others, but they all bear witness to our lives and our humanity. They have and hold us through our particular moments in history, infused with whatever greatness or mediocrity defines them. With fortitude and patience, they wait for us to move in and move out, they hope that we tend to them, and make sure they have what they need. They allow us the privilege of whiling away our hours and days within them, however we see fit.
I recently took a trip back to Nebraska, where I grew up, and where my mother still lives. The house she lives in is one that she and my dad bought together when I was a junior in high school, over thirty years ago. My father passed away nearly 15 years ago, and the house has remained greatly the same since he died. It is filled with the furniture they inherited, or bought together over the years. It is filled with memories, and artifacts of all the many chapters of decades of living. It is in wonderful condition, and she intends to stay in this home for the foreseeable future, as she is comfortable there, and it suits her well. The time has come, though, to begin to sort through the “stuff”, and make sure that the house is filled with the items she loves and still finds useful, and can handle on her own.
As someone who tries to keep my space free of unwanted clutter (not always very successfully), I understand this completely. It is so important to keep our spaces organized, and healthy. Beginning to dismantle the house and starting the process of beginning to let go of certain things is inevitably difficult for her, and also for myself and my brother, on many levels. So we have begun, carefully, as the keepers and guardians of things, to start the tricky process of letting things go. It is good, and it is difficult. If spaces themselves are somehow sacred, just imagine the significance of the things inside them, and the stories they hold! They must be honored, and released gently.
Reckoning With the Past
I don’t consider this house my childhood home, but I lived there for a couple of years before I moved away to attend college. I have visited many times – as a young adult trying to figure out my future path, and as a bona fide grown-up, with my own husband and sons. This house, although not the house I really grew up in, holds all the things that define my early human-hood, and because of this, definitely still feels like “home”. Many old friends can be found here – like the orange corduroy couch my brother and I lounged on to watch cartoons as a kid, my grandmother’s antique bedroom set which I was honored to inherit in high school, my mother’s mirrored tray that holds her perfume and jewelry boxes, the sheets and towels I used since I was small, paintings and sculptures made by my father and his mother too, and a million other things. Now that it’s time to begin clearing the space – how do we decide what stays and what goes, and to where exactly do we send our old friends packing?
The relatively easy part is giving new or extended life to items we can re-home. The trickier part is getting rid of items that no one else could possibly use, but that hold heaps of personal significance to us. These are the items that I hold in my hand, or look at, and think – how could I possibly throw or give that away? But then my more rational mind steps up, and reminds me that I could play that game forever. At some point, I’ll still be left holding or looking at that very same item, wondering what to do with it. If not me, who? If not now, when? If I think about it, I don’t like all the possible answers. So I know now is the time to do the work.
Thankfully, Mom is doing great, and many items and furniture pieces will stay right where they are, for her to use and enjoy. The goal, however, is to alleviate some of the burden of things that really are no longer needed, so she can have the peace of mind to live in house that is really hers, now, and for as long as she wishes to stay there. So the task is to remove the excess, and leave what is good, for her.
Portals to a Previous Life
One category of items in the house that might be considered excessive, is our family’s enormous book collection. There are books – many, many books in the home where I grew up. Some books are easy to rehome, some are not. I come from a family who holds learning and reading in very high esteem. My father inherited many of the books from his family home, and continued to add to the library, diligently, year after year. In fact, when it came time to move to the “new” house, I recall the first big change to the house was the designing and building of floor to ceiling bookshelves that covered every wall in the family room. I don’t recall any discussion of re-homing or thinning out any of these books – rather, only finding a way to make room for them, to make them feel right at home after they arrived, like proper family members. Once again – a difficult task lies before us, escorting those family members right out the door.
Some of these books are very old, and some are valuable. Some of them were my grandfather’s and my father’s old medical books and journals from lifetimes ago. And here is where it gets really tricky. Many of these books have signatures and notes, handwritten by their owner, long since passed; lingering like a phantom presence of a once vibrant and industrious student or young professional, whispering to me, reminding me of who they were and what they thought about, all those years ago, from the great beyond. I can almost imagine the flourish of the pen, the ink drying, as the hand of the author connects thought and spirit to paper. For a moment, they are with me – we are truly united across space and time, right there, through the pages before me.
But what purpose do these books and many other items serve after all these years? Their usefulness is one of providing comfort, really. When I gaze upon them, flip through them, I feel connected to the ones who held court with them in years past. If we are truly connected to those we love by way of sharing our thoughts and love for life and all her splendor – I cannot think of a better way to feel connected to someone who has passed on, then by holding or using something that sparked joy or learning in that person. These items become talismans – sacred objects, imbued with the spirit and life of those we love and miss – that is, until the weight of them prevents life from moving forward, both figuratively and literally. Then you have got an issue – one that is not easy at all to remedy.
Making Space for What Really Matters
Sometimes solutions come in steps. Thankfully, we have the luxury of not being in a hurry – nor do we need to meet any firm deadlines. We took a big first step, jumped in, and began the process of removing many itmes that are no longer needed in Mom’s house. We ordered a dumpster, and researched various donation and recycling centers. I flew to Nebraska, clad in some serious emotional armor, ready to execute the plan. I knew in my heart of hearts that this was a necessary process. I would not be telling the truth, however, if I said it wasn’t difficult – even heart wrenching at times. I know the three of us felt it, in our own ways.
On the bright side, it was beautiful and healing to spend time together, sorting through these items, sharing stories and memories, and recounting the good, bad, and otherwise. How lucky we are to be able to appreciate the significance of these items, and respectfully let them go, together, the three of us. It certainly is not the items that matter, but the time spent together – the richness of the history of our ancestors, passed down through experience, endeavor, mistakes, successes, imperfections, and so much love.
There were moments when I thought I just couldn’t do it. I just wasn’t up to it. Couldn’t we tackle this chore another time? Couldn’t we just put it off a little bit longer? But every trip I made to the car or the dumpster, arms loaded with precious belongings brimming with memories and poignant significance, my load was lightened, knowing that Dad was walking alongside me. Of course he was there, as were all the family members who have gone before me. I could hear their laughter through the photos we stared at, and I relived their stories, as we recounted them. I studied the faces of great grandparents and aunts and uncles, and saw my own sons’ eyes and smiles staring back at me. I was so happy to hear my mother recount the tales, remember the stories, bringing all the years back to life, as we stood in the room on the back of the garage on Meadow Road. What a family we are – a mix of so many bright and beautiful people, from both sides of the family. It was a catharsis, of sorts, to thin out what is no longer needed, and to make space for the people are who are living right here, in this very moment. I am thankful for the ability to do that.
Our time together, and our efforts to clear out Mom’s space was a good start. We are by no means finished, and that’s ok. There is value in holding on to what comforts us. I will continue to be happy to see some of those items when I return home to see her and spend time with her. For me, that weekend was a huge step in letting go, and being more peaceful about saying goodbye – goodbye to the past, goodbye to some of my favorite people, and even the thought of inevitable future goodbyes. I believe our efforts will also allow us to enjoy each other more fully, as we spend the time we have, together, in a space made happier and healthier.
As we luxuriated in wonderful memories and endured the more painful ones – as we were hard at work, sorting, aching, remembering and deciding – I couldn’t help but think that, in a way, Dad is the lucky one. I suspect he knows it too, and is just as happy for us to do the heavy lifting – for this is not work for the faint of heart. As we labored toward accomplishing our goals without him, I could hear his voice echoing in my mind with a steady, yet somewhat irritating phrase … better you than me, kid.
Happy Holidays everyone. May your home be filled with just the right amount of love, laughter, kindness and forgiveness, and stuff that brings you joy!