There have been a number of times this fall when I’ve begun to write something that felt sharable. However, throughout the month of October, I devoted my free time to traveling around Upstate New York and Vermont to photograph fall foliage and didn’t end up publishing anything. There were several experiences I wanted to write about, such as soaking up an amazing, positive vibe at Sandy’s Books and Bakery in a little town called Rochester, Vermont (en route to a waterfall I wanted to photograph) and having deep conversations with strangers that bordered on magical. Meeting my new tribe of delightful, kindred spirits with whom I will participate in group retreats on a regular basis over the next three years for the purpose of personal and spiritual growth. Personal revelations and challenges. Observing the first anniversary of my dad’s passing. Traveling twice to Watkins Glen to achieve my big photography goal of the year: photographing waterfalls on the gorge trail when the fall colors were at peak. The thrill of anticipating that just around the next bend, I would be standing in the scene I’d seen so many stunning pictures of through the years – and how exhilarating it felt to arrive at that spot.
But the moment that really stands out for me and that I feel inspired to write about now is a much “smaller” moment, when I pulled in my driveway one breezy morning after walking the labyrinth down the road and noticed what appeared to be a butterfly circling gracefully around the backyard until it finally landed in the grass. As it soared through the air, I thought I could make out two wings but then noticed it wasn’t a butterfly after all. It was a leaf! The tallest tree in the backyard was releasing some leaves, and I found it really inspiring. I sat in my car for a while watching the tree let go of its leaves and noticed it did so in spurts, despite the constant breeze. It wasn’t a continuous process, and it didn’t release only a few leaves at a time. It seemed there were moments of letting go of a flurry of leaves all at once, followed by a resting period. A few minutes later, another flurry, and then more rest before it would be ready to let go of more.
Even though it didn’t let go of its leaves at all once, it’s the season of letting go, and the cycle had been set in motion. The leaves the tree put out in the spring to capture and photosynthesize sunlight were no longer useful to the tree because it was time to simplify and prepare to rest for the winter. To turn inward. The tree was focused now on letting go and soon would release all its leaves, resulting in a colorful carpet of leaves covering the backyard.
I love to observe nature and discover what it can tell me about myself and about human nature. On my way home from the labyrinth that morning, I drove by the storage facility in which I’m storing many of my parents’ belongings. I’d intended to have a yard sale during the warmer months this year, but it didn’t happen because I had other priorities. This is my year of deep decluttering in all areas of life, and after decluttering the house completely during the first quarter of the year and doing lots of digital decluttering, clutter clearing my car, etc., it felt like I took a break, much like the tree in my backyard. But when I drove by the storage unit that morning, I reminded myself that I needed to resume my decluttering pilgrimage, beginning with my mom’s clothes. Perhaps taking that one step would get me back into the swing of letting go of stuff that has outlived its usefulness in my life and was only taking up valuable space.
I’ve been renting the storage unit for nearly a year now, and it has given me the gift of time to deal with my parents’ belongings that weren’t sold, donated, or disposed of when we sold their house back in January. I can’t put a price tag on that gift of time, especially since my home has no usable storage space for sentimental items. I stayed away all summer while attending to other matters, and it was hard to return when my son went back to college. When I raised the big, metal door for the first time in a while and was greeted by a roomful of things that are no longer needed by loved ones, I experienced deep sadness. However, I sat with the sadness and was present to it, and eventually it shifted into a sense of comfort as I sat on my parents’ living room sofa and smelled familiar fragrances that I hope will never fade away. And that’s probably why I don’t mind paying for the storage unit. Grief has no timetable, and I have no usable storage space in my home, so it’s not something I’m going to fret about.
My mom hasn’t needed her clothes in 3 1/2 years, and we’ve all had a chance to go through them to take what we want. When she was alive, she’d regularly donate clothing she no longer wanted to a local community organization. Her clothes were a big part of her identity. She loved having nice clothes to wear to social events. My mom was a very kind and classy lady who liked to look her best and always was dressed with a big, warm smile. And that’s why the huge bags of her clothing are still in my storage unit. Getting rid of them feels like letting go of a significant part of my mom – even though I realize she is not her clothes, and she would not want them in bags in a storage unit. She would want them to be worn by women who would appreciate them.
Last night, I had a dream in which I was with my mom and wanted to talk with her about something that has been problematic in settling the estate. But in the dream, it seemed she was still alive, and it didn’t make sense to talk about her being dead when she was still alive, so I asked her if our “future selves” could have a conversation. Then I told her that she had passed away 3 1/2 years ago and that Dad passed away a year ago – and then I couldn’t say anything more than, “And I miss you so much!” because I was crying so hard that I was aware that my dreaming body also was crying. We gave each other a big hug before the dream ended.
I woke up from that dream ready to write this blog post and donate my mom’s clothes this week.
With the tall tree in my backyard as my mirror, I acknowledged that I’m spending this entire year (and beyond) doing what the tree was doing that breezy, October morning: letting go of what no longer serves me to make room for new possibilities when the time is right. Decluttering my life has been the most amazing process of enLIGHTENment. Probably the deepest letting go I’ve experienced this year relates to the habitual thoughts in my head – much of which was inspired by getting rid of physical things but some of which wasn’t. Thoughts and relationships are what I was busy clutter-clearing when I wasn’t going to the storage unit. Buddhists call it establishing “right relationship” to them, and it is very liberating! Decluttering your life is a profound act of mindful self-compassion or what I like to call tender, loving self-care. Self-love is not selfish. It benefits everyone. When you honor your most authentic self, you’re putting good energy into the world. And when you do it well, letting go is done with love, grace, and gratitude.
So, yeah… I have my work cut out for me inside that storage unit. But it will get done, one flurry of letting go at a time, and with grace, like that leaf I mistook for a butterfly sailing so exquisitely around the backyard on its journey to the ground.
Although it’s hard to believe, three years ago today – Memorial Day 2014 – was my mom’s last day on earth. The last time the sun would set with life in her body. Of course, I miss her and think of her every single day. But I’ve also never felt closer to her. Although technically it has been three years since I’ve seen her or heard her voice, that’s really only true on some levels, for I see and hear her in my dreams from time to time, and her voice only grows stronger in my heart and mind. It’s actually quite astonishing.
Each time the earth returns to the place in its orbit around the sun where it was when my mom passed away, my body knows. It’s like traveling through a familiar belt of stardust. She died after lilac season and just as the irises were blooming. She didn’t live to see the roses in her garden bloom, but we did, and we were grateful she took the time to plant and nurture them with the same loving attention she gave to us.
Today, I am remembering but not feeling grief-stricken. More than anything else, I feel grateful for having a mother who was so warm and kind to everyone and who loved me so much. For having a mother who loves me so much and seems to have found a way to get through to me even though she no longer has a body that breathes and walks and loves and laughs and makes music here on earth.
One day last summer, I was sitting on a bench at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (where I feel her spirit strongly) feeling sad, and I heard her voice in my mind: Let it go. Let it go because it’s hurting you. You’re so wonderful. Now I can see you more completely and wish I could show you how beautiful you are – the amazing light that you are…because then you’d never be sad again.
I am so grateful for that voice that arises in my heart and speaks in my mind as if my heart and mind are one end of a cosmic telephone. That voice has been growing in me and helping me to heal and grow in ways I never could have imagined during the first, anguishing year without her.
My mother loved me so much, despite our differences. When she was alive, I was always giving her push-back because we saw the world so differently. Three years after she passed away, all I connect with now is her spiritual essence, which shone through more strongly as her body became weaker, and I gave up my role in the mother-daughter dance we had been doing my whole life and related to her as one spirit to another. I held her as she cried because she was nearing the end and was afraid her organs would eventually burst, and she was also afraid of upsetting my dad, who was not ready to let her go. I listened to her and assured her that what she was experiencing was normal (which I knew from my hospice experience and research) and that she and we would be okay. Although we loved her and would miss her, it was okay for her to move on. She liked it when I was with her and wanted me to be there as much as possible, and I’m so glad I had my priorities straight and took time off from work to be with her in her time of need, even though I had no idea how long it would go on. When my intuition told me I should take the day off from work to be with my mother or to care for myself so I could be stronger and more rested to care for her, I didn’t hesitate to call in sick. I am so grateful I did that. I knew it was time I could never get back and do over.
Three years ago tonight, when my dad was leaving the hospice house, he told her to hang on until morning, when he’d return. She was the one who took care of everyone, and she was hanging on for our sake. So I told him he needed to say goodbye and give her permission to go. Through some grace, I was able to get through to him, and he told her that he loves her, and it’s okay for her to let go. And a few hours later, she did, in the middle of the night with the adult child she worried about most sitting by her side.
May 27, 2014 was the first morning of my life I woke up motherless. It didn’t make sense that the sun could even rise.
When I reflect on May 2014, I think of being closer to my mom than I’d ever been and making her my priority. I remember keeping vases of fresh lilacs around her and dropping the role I’d played all my life to be truly present to her. I remember filling her hospice room with love and music and conversation around her bed with her bridesmaid from so many years ago who serendipitously found her just in time after not being in touch for decades and shared memories I otherwise would not have known about my mom during her early twenties. I remember doing everything I possibly could do to help my mom let go, even though I didn’t want to lose her.
May 2015 was actually even harder because I had gone a full year without her, and the realization hit hard that she wasn’t returning. I was also in so much emotional pain from grieving other losses that occurred throughout that year that I couldn’t imagine ever feeling good again. She was the one I would pick up the phone and call when I needed moral support, and she wasn’t there. The pain felt enormous, and I was weak from all that grief.
For the past year and a half, at the end of every month I reflect in my day planner on what dreams and goals came true, what lessons I learned, what I need to rant about, and what I’m grateful for. This month – May 2017 – there is not enough space for me to write about what I’ve learned and feel grateful for! To feel as whole, intact, and radiant as I do now is like a miracle.
Time is a healer, but healing is a choice, and how far you go is up to you. Every moment – and in some moments more than others – there is a choice between healing and habit. My experience has taught me that healing begins with mindfulness and an intention to feel good. When you pay attention to what’s going on inside of you, instead of fleeing from it or fixating on external stimulation of any kind, you become aware. When you are conscious of something, you can heal it – even if it really hurts and feels enormous, and you feel powerless against it. Over the past three years, I have learned that pain that big – grief that penetrates all the way down into your bones – isn’t as big as it seems because who you really are is SO MUCH BIGGER! I still feel sad or weak from time to time, but it arises along with a witnessing presence that allows the energy to be felt and expressed. Instead of identifying with the sadness, I allow it with the tender, loving presence a mother would give to a hurting child and realize it’s just a passing storm. The witnessing, unconditionally loving presence that I identify with is much bigger than the emotions – big enough to absorb them in what feels like a ginormous hug. It’s similar to how it feels to be on the seashore: uplifted and part of a rhythm and energy that is much larger than your small, separate self.
So here I am, on my mom’s third angelversary, immersed in gratitude for everyone and everything that has brought me to this point, and for my mother’s love, which has never left me and continues to grow by leaps and bounds in my loving heart and – miracle of all miracles – has replaced my Inner Critic with a nurturing Inner Mother that guides me to practice tender, loving self-care every day.
The past three years have been the most challenging journey of my life, but I’ve emerged from the depths of the forest of grief. From the perspective of my larger self, I know that all is well and that the journey served a purpose. It is the most amazing grace ever to be able to say this after everything I’ve experienced in the past few years. There is hope after loss.
When my mom was alive, before any holiday or birthday she would ask me what I wanted. I almost always answered that I don’t need or want anything. My mom liked material things, and I tended to rebel against that and distinguished myself from her through my response to that question.
But it was true: I wasn’t interested in things or clothes. Never went on vacation. Didn’t watch TV. I bought the wedding dress for my first wedding off the rack at Macy’s for $70 only a week before the big day, and I just wore my favorite outfit for my second wedding. I was content where I was, with what I had. My maternal grandmother would comment that she and I were very much alike because we didn’t need fancy things. Give us the wind in the trees, and we could be content. In fact, the last time I visited my grandmother at her home before she fell and went into a nursing home for the last couple months of her life, we sat on her front steps appreciating the sight and sound of the wind in the late summer trees. I loved that, at the end of her life, she found contentment in something so simple and ordinary and that I could join her in that space.
It seemed my mom always wanted more. She loved going to the mall, even if only to look (which I totally didn’t understand because the only time you could get me into a mall was if I had a specific, unavoidable purpose). She grew up poor and was determined not to live that way as an adult. She started working right after graduating from high school and, with the exception of taking some years off to raise children, kept working until a few years before she passed away – at which point she retired from what many would consider a rather glamorous job at a performing arts venue.
She was so generous every Christmas and experienced obvious joy in giving gifts to everyone. Anytime she’d give me money for my birthday, Mother’s Day, or just because, she would tell me to make sure to get something for myself and not spend it on household bills or anyone else. She wanted me to treat myself. Occasionally I would, and more often I would intend to, but inevitably somebody would need something, and I would pass on getting something for myself because the gift was needed elsewhere.
A year or two after my mom died, I was downtown and walked past a shop that had something in the window that captured my attention. Normally, that doesn’t happen because I couldn’t be less interested in shopping. (Retail therapy is not in my self-help repertoire!) I can’t remember what the object was, but when it caught my eye, I felt sad that my mom wasn’t around to ask what I’d like for Christmas…because she was the only one who ever asked, and this time I would have had an answer. And it would have made her so happy that I had an answer!
I spent two full months this year decluttering my home completely. After getting rid of all the stuff I didn’t love or use, I focused on making my home a sanctuary aligned with my authentic Self. I looked around the house and received clear insights about what could make it feel more like I wanted it to. I had received some insurance money after my dad passed away in October and bought some things to elevate the energy of our small, 1840s rental home: a couple Japanese shoji room dividers to create closet spaces where none existed, several plants, a standing desk converter, a digital photo frame loaded with hundreds of my images – things like that. I also finally did something I had wanted to do for many years, which was to wrap some silk vines around the railings on the stairs and weave fairy lights through them. So magical! Now, everywhere I look in my house, my eyes rest on spaces and objects that are beautiful, useful, and/or intentional and that bring me joy. Everything else is gone! It’s an amazing feeling.
However, as I mentioned in my last post, there was one final thing that needed to be upgraded: my bed. The bed I had been sleeping in was tiny and uncomfortable, and when we moved everything out of my parents’ house, I claimed the bed from their guest room, which seemed like an improvement. But it, too, was small and didn’t feel quite right, and eventually I discovered it was more than 20 years old, which was at least twice as old as the bed I previously had been sleeping on. A few weeks ago, I was lying on my bed looking at my vision board hanging on the wall and was drawn to a picture of a large, comfy bed. That’s when I convinced myself to let go of the hand-me-down beds and buy a new one. And with that purchase, my home improvements felt complete.
This morning (Mother’s Day), I got out of bed and created a Mother’s Day altar, which I’d never done before. I clipped some lilacs from a tree in the yard and put them in a vase my mom used for lilacs she clipped from our yard when I was a child. I also placed on the altar her funeral candle and a Mother’s Day card I’d just made, along with a crystal heart and a small turtle with the words “Live with joy” on its back.
Living with joy is my Mother’s Day gift to my mom, wherever she is. Isn’t joy what mothers ultimately want for their children? It’s what I want for mine.
Two years ago, grief felt enormous, as if it penetrated all the way down into my bones. I can’t remember ever feeling sadder than I was during May two years ago when my first Mother’s Day without my mom and the anniversary of her passing were complicated by additional losses. But time really does heal. And having the energy to finally take charge of my home and make it beautiful, uplifting, and joyful was both a big deal and a milestone. It felt like stepping out of the dark forest I had been wandering in since my mom passed away.
I have to believe she would be happy for me because the journey I have been on since February is one of learning to love and value myself and ramp up the joy by creating a sanctuary to support my vision of my best self and who I want to be moving forward. In other words, it’s a process of reclaiming my life. I have created a joyful, uplifting infrastructure from which to create my future. That infrastructure includes details such as:
an elegant, crystal pitcher of local spring water on a small table in my bedroom (found when clearing out my parents’ home)
red, silk roses in a vase next to my bed
a bed tray for having tea and reading a nourishing book before falling asleep
an aromatherapy diffuser for creating a lavender-scented bedroom to facilitate sleep
a comfy pillow that wraps around my entire body
And that’s just the bedroom! At night, I look forward to “lavender and rose” time with lavender aromatherapy and rose tea while reading or listening to something nourishing so my last impressions of the day are positive and empowering. That’s important because they are what my unconscious mind will marinate in for the next eight hours!
None of these items would have crossed my mind back when my mom asked me for gift ideas. I didn’t think of them until I cleared my home of clutter and reflected on what would make me feel comfortable, joyful, and loved – which is exactly how she wanted me to feel and was the intention behind her gift question. As I decluttered the objects and spaces in my home, a powerful, parallel process took place inside my head that rippled into other areas of my life. The work I have done in my home this year is an act of tender, loving self-care that grows from my mother’s love, for which I have immense gratitude.
The special touches in my home feel like what you would put in place if you were expecting an honored, beloved guest. Throughout the course of decluttering and uplifting my living space, I have become my own honored guest and best friend, which is no small thing coming from someone who used to have a strong inner critic. What parent wouldn’t want that for his or her child?
So, Happy Mother’s Day to my angel mom! My light is bright again, and I think it’s the best gift I can give you because it’s what you always wanted for me.
The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.
Although my mom is on my mind every single day, two days before Mother’s Day, I woke up thinking of my dad, whose presence I’ve felt quite a bit lately.
I’ve been staying on the Massachusetts North Shore for the past few days, and yesterday I visited Fort Sewall, a historic point of interest overlooking Marblehead Harbor. I hadn’t been to Fort Sewall in nearly three years and felt drawn there for some reason. Actually, a photographer I conversed with on the beach the previous night told me he shoots there a lot, so the seed was planted.
I entered the park a few steps in front of an elderly man who instantly reminded me of my dad. Perhaps it was something about his pace or energy. I guessed he was about the age my dad was when he died last fall. I stopped to photograph a picturesque view, walked a few more yards, then stopped to admire the view of the lighthouse across the harbor. That’s when the man approached me with a friendly greeting and started talking about how much he loves this place. He kept exclaiming, “I just love it here!” He said that he sometimes comes to this seaside park and sits on the bench for hours, and when he’s there, he doesn’t have any thoughts in his head at all. Nothing bothers him. I replied that the richness of the sights, the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks, the refreshing breeze, and the smell of the sea take you out of your mind and your thoughts, and he agreed.
I noticed he was wearing a blue 2013 World Series jacket and wondered if the Red Sox were in the Series that year. Baseball was my dad’s great love, and the jacket reminded me of him. He was also wearing an Air Force baseball cap. We stood together in that spot for a good 45 minutes, sometimes for long moments of silence as we appreciated the fullness of the experience and all the sensory impressions. Again, he exclaimed, “I just love it here! It’s like heaven.”
He talked about how he used to go out on a boat lobster diving and spent a lot of time on the water. One thing was sure: This man was in his personal paradise, and I appreciated being there with him. His joy intensified my own.
Eventually, I told him I should get going, and he asked if I wanted to see a picture of his “pride and joy.” Then he reached into his wallet and took out a picture of a bottle of Pride furniture wax next to a bottle of Joy dishwashing detergent. Not what I expected, I laughed and appreciated his sweet sense of humor. He told me he was at an 85th birthday party, and that joke was a big hit with the older ladies. I imagined him bringing a smile to many faces with his joke and found it lovable. Somehow, it reminded me of my dad’s sweetness and sense of humor.
I said goodbye about five times before we finally headed back toward our cars. We walked together out of the park, and I paused again to take a picture. He commented about what a nice camera I have, and I explained that my dad passed away in October, and I received some money that I used to upgrade my camera for my photography business. I explained that although I’d rather my dad were still around, I am grateful for the camera.
When we were nearly at the parking area, I stopped at a railing along the road to take a couple more pictures. To our right were some steps that went into the water, and he told me you can get fresh lobster right from the boat when it pulls up there. Before parting, we both said how good it was to see each other. As those words came out of my mouth, I realized it was odd to say “see” instead of “meet”. And yet, we both did.
I drove away thinking of my dad and feeling grateful to have interacted with someone who reminded me of him.
When I got back to where I was staying, I Googled “2013 World Series” and confirmed that the Red Sox won the championship that year. That was my dad’s favorite team. Although you could expect a 2013 World Series jacket wouldn’t be uncommon in this neck of the woods 18 miles north of Boston, it was the first one I noticed.
This morning, I woke up thinking of my interaction with the elderly man – and his Air Force hat, in particular. I couldn’t remember: Was my dad in the Air Force? I pulled up his obituary online, and sure enough: He served in the Air Force reserve. At that moment, I felt that what I experienced wasn’t just a random interaction. It was a spiritual encounter. I connected with my dad’s essence through that friendly stranger.
About a year after my mom passed away, my dad and I were sitting in his car in the driveway, and before driving to wherever we were headed, he told me about a book he was reading that referenced some unexplained occurrences family members reported following the death of a loved one, who was a famous historic figure. Although my dad was not inclined toward the supernatural, he was excited to tell me about it. It seemed he found this particular account convincing. In general, I think he really wanted to believe and seemed visibly touched when I told him about different experiences I’d had after my mom – his beloved wife of 50 years – passed away. I sensed strongly that she was trying to communicate with him, but he wasn’t picking up the cosmic telephone because he didn’t hear it ring.
Within two minutes of pulling out of the driveway, we drove past the recreational field where my dad used to coach baseball, and we saw my mom pull out of the parking lot right in front of us, in her car! I exclaimed, “That’s Mom!”” He had seen her, too. But it was something that seemed at the same time completely matter-of-fact and too unbelievable to comprehend – the kind of thing that makes you cock your head and look perplexed, but then you return to what you were doing and perhaps convince yourself you didn’t actually see what you thought you did, only to wake up in the middle of the night or in a quiet moment thinking about it and realizing that you experienced something otherworldly.
I have come to believe that our loved ones never really leave us and communicate with us through many different disguises and messengers.
There is an elderly man who is a regular patron at the library where I work. He, too, reminds me of my dad. He is from the same era, presumably has similar attitudes and values, and I have a special place in my heart for him. One day, he fell asleep at a table and really reminded me of my dad, who fell asleep all the time when he was sitting down! I feel happy when I see this man. I am glad he is in this world.
One morning, I was at work, and this man popped into my mind along with something about a hospital. Later that morning, he came in the library, and although my prior interactions with him had been limited to smiling, waving, and wishing each other a nice day, this time he stopped to talk with me. He told me that he had been in the V.A. hospital all morning and that his doctor wanted him to have an operation that he didn’t want to have and is refusing to have it until he feels he really needs it. I’d had several conversations like that with my dad!
There’s one more time in the past week when I felt my dad’s presence. I recently decided it was time to buy a new bed because the hand-me-down bed I had been sleeping on wasn’t working for me. I looked online and found a really great, eco-friendly futon mattress and a beautiful oak frame for it. It was exactly what I wanted. Very zen.
After putting the bed together and making it up with new sheets, I was so happy because the bedroom looked and felt amazing. I couldn’t wait to sleep in it that night. I was in the kitchen and wished my parents were around to see how happy I was because I was able to use some of the money I inherited from them to buy a wonderful, new bed. I imagined my mom would be thrilled that I got something nice for myself. That’s what she always wanted for me! But I imagined my dad shaking his head and grimacing at the cost. I smiled, remembering what a penny-pincher he was.
Then I felt a very strong and clear sensation, as if someone were standing right behind me, followed by a prickly sensation in my lower back, as if l was being hugged around my waist. It was so strong and clear! I sensed it was one of my parents and got the feeling it was my dad and that he showed up to say that he approves and is happy for me.
My sister and I were texting a few days ago, and she said she hadn’t received any signs or felt our dad’s presence lately. That reminded me of what I experienced in the kitchen the night before. Experiences like that have become so commonplace that I sometimes forget to share them.
I don’t know how it works, but I’m grateful that it does.
After a month of superhuman effort and not nearly enough sleep, last week we closed on my parents’ house, which my family moved into in 1980, when I was in eighth grade. In early December, my siblings and I accepted an offer on the house that gave us a mere three weeks until the projected year-end closing date to get everything out of the house. I had no idea how we were going to accomplish this feat – only that it would happen because it had to. And it did. Although it took place at warp speed – or perhaps because it did – the process was an intense journey of love, reflection, and clarity from which I emerged with some fresh stories to share.
The morning after we accepted the offer, I felt stunned. I recalled the scene in Titanic in which the builder of the ship realizes it’s going down and that in a matter of hours, everything in the ship will be at the bottom of the ocean. That scene summed up how I felt about the reality that all my parents’ material belongings – absolutely everything they accumulated throughout their lifetime – would be gone by the end of the month. As I lay in a comfy bed in the guest room of the home they filled with so much love (and stuff) over the past 36 years, it seemed impossible that all of it would be gone soon, and only love and memories would remain.
After my mom passed away in May 2014, her possessions remained essentially untouched. We hadn’t gone through any of her clothes or personal items, although last winter my dad started talking about how we needed to take care of her clothes and have a yard sale. But it didn’t happen. So for 2½ years, we were spared the grim task that we suddenly had to face head-on, that made grief feel brand-new again, as if an old scab had been torn off.
But it wasn’t all sad, for such times are opportunities to realize that you are not alone and that there is a handful of gracious people willing to step forward and help, even right before the holidays, during winter storms, and when you’re sick with possibly the worst cold you’ve ever had. People who will think for you when your mind is foggy from said nasty cold and provide emotional support when they notice you’re feeling overwhelmed. People who will work for days sorting through and arranging stuff throughout the house, including a frigid garage. People who show up with a truck and move very heavy furniture into storage for you because (according to them) you are worth it.
Times like this serve as a beacon that illuminates where love and nourishment exist in your life – and where they don’t. You notice who shows up, who you can depend on, and who you can’t. The people who stepped up to help inspired me to reflect on the relationships I devote the most energy to. When there is so much love and light available, why settle for anything less? The helpers in our lives teach us how to be kinder and more generous and considerate of others in their time of need because we realize how much it matters and that interdependence is the basis of our human existence. It’s one thing to know that with your mind and another to experience it as a living truth that beats inside your heart.
The silver lining to the gut-wrenching job of preparing for a rushed estate sale and clearing out my parents’ house was spending time with my sister and daughter, sharing interesting discoveries and memories with them and others who leaned in and formed a caring circle around us. I came across so many long-forgotten treasures. Some finds, such as the sheet music from my very first piano lesson in third grade, made me wistful and compelled me to reflect on roads not taken and crossroads where I allowed fear and lack of confidence to get the best of me. Holding the music in my hands filled me with the same excitement I felt at eight years old, when I received my first, official piano assignment. The whole process was like a great life review, two months before I turn 50. I realized that the choices I’ve made have resulted in so much unnecessary suffering, hardship, and limitation, and life didn’t and doesn’t need to be that way. So I resolved to turn it around from this point forward by making better choices, believing in myself, and not selling myself short. I realized that all along, it was my own mind that set me up for failure and suffering. And it is my own mind that can set me free.
I felt my parents’ presence more than ever once all their possessions were out in the open, and I saw objects that generated so many memories. There was my mom’s sewing machine, sewing notions, fabrics, and the dress patterns she sewed for my daughter. I regretted not asking her to teach me to sew. She taught a friend’s daughter how to sew after the friend passed away, and that should have been my cue to ask her to teach me. I came close a few times, but life was busy, and I ignored the little voice inside that urged me not to put it off.
To save it or to get rid of it: that was the question. My old (circa 1975) calculator, for example, was an interesting conversation piece that I found in my dad’s dresser. It had been left behind on an airplane one day, and my dad had first dibs on it and would be able to bring it home if it remained unclaimed after a certain amount of time. I so hoped it could be mine because I wanted my very own calculator – and they were new, exciting, and expensive back then. I loved the green, glowing numbers! Holding the bulky, vintage calculator in my hands brought the story to life more vividly than merely describing it from memory. But is it necessary to hold onto the objects, or just keep the stories? Might a photograph or video suffice and save space?
There were stories, moments, and memories attached to so many objects in the house. Now there is nobody left to tell many of the stories, so if I don’t know them by now, I never will. I think back to when I did a screen recording of my parents talking about old photos five months before my mom died and how grateful I am that we did that. Perhaps my son could shoot some video of me showing and telling about the objects I came across in my parents’ house that sparked stories. Together, we could create a video heirloom of family history. It’s important to share our stories and to listen to the stories being shared with us. They help us, respectively, to review and make sense of our lives and understand where we come from.
The night before the estate sale, I cried three times. The first time was when I opened a tin of my grandfather’s things, including what appeared to be an engraved wedding band, and reflected on all my relatives who have passed on and how short a lifetime is and what we leave behind – and the meaning of the trinkets that get passed down through the generations, as well as the gesture of saving them.
The second time was when I opened a box of my parents’ friends’ obituaries that my dad had clipped from newspapers. So sad. So much loss. So sweet that he did that. When I looked through the box, I found my mom’s obituary, which he had printed from the Internet, and was overcome with sadness because it must have been so hard for him to add that obituary to the box. I could feel his sadness so strongly.
The third time I cried was when I discovered yet another dresser full of personal items at 10:00 PM when I was exhausted and sick, and my tennis elbow was flaring so badly that it hurt to even brush my teeth, and I needed to get to sleep to be ready for the sale in the morning! Actually, there was a fourth time, too, when I checked the weather forecast before going to sleep, for the weather gods were not smiling upon us that weekend.
After our rather disappointing attempt at an estate sale that wintry weekend before Christmas, the next step was to rent a large dumpster and box up items to be donated. This involved a final walk-through to decide what I really wanted to save from the landfill. It was the last chance before these items would be gone forever, a process of looking and listening for which items spoke to me, which ones seemed to want to be saved, which ones I might regret letting go of so hastily, and which ones my parents would want passed down – keeping the reality of limited space in mind. And then came the realization that possessions really didn’t matter, and what our parents would want most was for the three of us to treat one another with kindness and respect. I felt them guiding me. Ultimately, it wasn’t about the stuff. It was about the memories, relationships, and the qualities they modeled and inspired in us.
It was also time to attend to boxes of personal artifacts that had been set aside because they were not part of the estate sale. One day, I came across two boxes of particular significance, one right after the other. The first contained every printed program in the history of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where my mom worked for 40 years. Many of the covers were so familiar that they brought me back in time, to when they graced the coffee table of my childhood home, and I read them from cover to cover. The feelings these programs stirred up were admiration and respect for my mom, who was a VIP staff member at SPAC and was literally my ticket to all the performances. I felt strongly connected to her and grateful that she encouraged me to be musical.
Then there was the second box, which had the opposite effect. It contained my mom’s Eastern Airlines recruiting and training materials that listed physical requirements for flight attendants, including specific body measurements and height requirements. My mom loved being a flight attendant in her 20s and bought into the whole airlines fashion culture. She met my dad when she worked for Eastern, and he worked for Mohawk. She had to give up flying when I came along and eventually returned to work as a recruiter. Coming across the Eastern Airlines materials helped me put into perspective my mom’s ideas of what a female should look like and aspire to and all the body shame I experienced growing up because I was such a sensitive soul – the shame that caused me to decline my sister’s invitation to be her maid of honor because I couldn’t bring myself to wear a dress I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable in, that might leave me open to critical comments from my parents. Even though I realize my mom was a product of another time and meant no harm, I can trace most of my “issues” back to that box and have a certain, ceremonious fate in mind for it.
The two boxes summarized perfectly the dichotomy that defined my relationship with my mom and the complex dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship. Even when we do our best, sometimes we end up unintentionally hurting those we love the most. And on the flip side, what we perceive as criticisms from which we need to protect and defend ourselves can blind us to the love and light that’s coming a hundredfold from the same person. We might fixate on the negative and fail to see the positive – and cut ourselves off from the good stuff, which is unfortunate all the way around.
There were so many boxes. When I opened up yet another box of meaningful newspaper clippings, cards, plane tickets, programs from school music concerts and recitals, etc., I was at the same time completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff my parents saved and deeply touched by how loved we were that they saved everything that had anything to do with us.
It was amazing to hold objects in my hands and feel their emotional charge and realize I’d been carrying those feelings inside me all these years. Uncovering such objects activated old feelings but also allowed me to interact with them in a greater context, with the experience and wisdom of an adult rather than a child – which was very healing!
The process of clearing out my parents’ house led me to discover how sentimental they were. Seeing what they saved revealed their sweetness and the depths of their hearts. I understood how much they loved each other and that love was the fundamental nutrient I was raised on.
I found a box of my grandfather’s reel-to-reel recording tapes. One of them includes a recording from the day I was born and many recordings of me when I was very young. It was really touching to find them and to know that my grandparents were so excited about my arrival that they started making recordings the day I entered the world! I didn’t have to do anything or be anything in particular to be loved and celebrated. I just needed to show up, to just be me. That’s a mighty realization! That night, I drove home listening to the radio, and when a love song came on, I imagined my parents and grandparents singing it to me when I was a baby, which was really powerful. A deep shift occurred inside me when I listened to the song in that way.
I’m so grateful for all the time I had in the house before it was transferred to the new owner. Observers might have thought I was depressed, but that was not the case. I was on a deeply spiritual, healing journey and sought closure the best way I knew how: by leaning in and listening to the tender places. Unearthing hidden treasures.
Even when only a few boxes remained in the house, I’d stop by to do yoga and take a nice, hot bath. I still found it comforting to be there, even though the house was silent and empty of everything except for the bathtub and major appliances. The empty rooms mirrored the inner clearing process I’m undergoing as my clarity deepens in response to grieving multiple losses, and I work on releasing what no longer serves me in the days leading up to my 50th birthday. It was interesting to notice what memories arose when I stopped and took in the energy of each room. The rooms were full of memories. Light still graced the empty spaces.
After everything had been cleared out, only the energy remained within the walls…and it was exquisite energy, so peaceful and nourishing. The night before the closing, I had a white, jasmine-scented candle glowing on top of the stove and basked in the energy all night under the full moon in my little makeshift bed in the living room.
While sweeping the bathroom the next morning, I thought about how I would go forth and integrate what I found and saved from my parents’ house into my own life. In time, I will figure out how all the objects and the stories attached to them will fit, and I will decide what to keep and what to let go of and just hold onto the stories – or even rewrite them in some cases.
Then I did a goodbye walk-through. I stepped through the front door and remembered how my mom would greet me with a big hug and smile and the aroma of something yummy in the oven, like a birthday cake or macaroni and cheese. I paused in the family room, where we opened Christmas presents, and the TV was always on. This is the room in which I watched Downton Abbey with my mom and then with my dad after my mom had passed, and where I visited with my grandparents and so many other relatives and family friends through the years.
There was the dining room where we all gathered around the table to celebrate birthdays and holidays, though the room seemed so small without any furniture…
I went through each room, allowing the memories to arise and honoring the space that held them. When I got to the master bedroom, a heart-shaped rainbow appeared on the floor where my mom’s bed used to be.
This is how it ended:
The night before the closing, when I was going through the very last box in the house, I felt a nudge to ask my daughter if she’d like to come over the next day to say goodbye to the house. She immediately replied, “Yes, I do!” In the morning, before taking my last shower in the house and doing my goodbye walk-through, I paused to look out the bathroom window at the back yard and remembered how my dad scattered some of my mom’s ashes in a special spot. It occurred to me that I hadn’t scattered any of his ashes there, and that needed to happen so “they” could be together there as part of the land. Later, when I picked up my daughter and granddaughter, I realized I forgot to get my dad’s ashes when I stopped home. So I called my son to ask him to meet me at my parents’ house with the ashes.
As it turned out, my last moments in the house were spent with both my children and my granddaughter. (It reminded me of the night my mom was dying at Gateway House of Peace, and my son and daughter had an ice cream party and movie marathon in one of the upstairs bedrooms and made a sad situation feel more like a celebration.) Little Ava, who will celebrate her first birthday this weekend, was crawling around exploring the house and then had a dance party with my son, with lots of laughter. It was wonderful. Then I thanked the house and its energy (which felt like it was ready to move on), closed the door behind me for the last time, pulled out of the driveway, honked the horn, and waved at the house with my daughter and granddaughter – who represented my future – in the car with me. It was the perfect ending to a 36-year chapter. It was totally unplanned, but that’s the kind of magic that happens when you follow those nudges of intuition and take some time to pause, reflect, and listen.
I realize that if all these endings and challenges hadn’t happened at the same time, I probably wouldn’t have gone as deep and been able to work on some firmly rooted programming from way back when that no longer serves me. I trust the role that pain and grief play and am filled with gratitude and astonishment.
At the end of this chapter – the one in which I had parents and a home in which I grew up that is now empty space and memories – I have learned so much about love, on so many levels and in many different contexts: What it is and what it isn’t, where it comes from and where it doesn’t, why I am capable of loving and caring so deeply, and how to love better, including loving myself (which might sound like a selfish thing but couldn’t be further from that). It’s amazing what you can discover standing in a huge dumpster filled with memories. You might find you are surrounded by more love than you ever imagined possible – and that you always have been, even when you convinced yourself otherwise.
In the end, I realized the Eastern Airlines box was quite small relative to everything else. I remembered that I am Nancy and Ed Meyer’s daughter and my grandparents’ granddaughter, and I am worthy of love, no matter how I look or what I do or don’t accomplish. I need not spend my energy regretting or being ashamed of paths taken or not taken or berating myself (or allowing anyone else to berate me) for my perceived shortcomings, mistakes, and failures. And because of that realization of my inherent worthiness (and yours, too), I resolved not to settle for any less going forward – from another person or myself.
I am also Jasmine and Cianan’s mother and Ava’s grandmother, and the better I feel about myself, the better I can love them and support them in their journeys. As the above picture of Ava suggests, when one door closes, another one opens. Life is for the living.
Even though our lives are interdependent and interrelated and ultimately united at the core, a week and a half after the closing, it feels like I’m finally returning to my life and goals, after several months of attending to sooo much else. Back to that business I was trying to develop last year, that book I am intent on publishing, decluttering my house, getting more and better quality sleep, and filling the empty spaces with my own dreams and goals. And so…onward, feeling a bit more whole and shining a little brighter.
Onward to the grocery store, for I have a birthday cake to make for a wide-eyed, one-year-old girl.
Happy New Year! I hope 2017 is off to a bright and hopeful start for you.
It’s been a month since I’ve written a blog post because immediately after publishing the last one, we accepted an offer on my parents’ house, and the world started spinning faster than ever! We accepted the offer on December 7, which included agreeing to close by December 30.
Well, on December 7, everything my parents owned was still in their house. To say the house has generous storage space is an understatement, and their belongings filled up all that space. We had on our hands the accumulated possessions of a lifetime – and not only their lifetime, but my grandparents’ lifetimes, as well. There were boxes upon boxes of my grandparents’ things that appeared not to have been touched since the day they were brought into the house. It became obvious that my parents saved everything. And that made for a ginormous job for us, during the holiday season, no less.
There was only one weekend available before the projected closing date to have an estate sale: the weekend of December 17. I had met with a woman who organizes and runs professional estate sales, and she told me to get back in touch with her when we have a buyer. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about staging the house for showings anymore and could organize for a sale. However, given how soon the closing would be and the time of year, that option was out. So I researched how to run your own estate sale, took copious notes, and researched values of things, while working around the clock hauling items and boxes out of the far reaches of my parents’ storage spaces to see what we were dealing with. I had no time to price things, so almost everything was “make an offer.” And in the midst of that inhuman workload, I came down with my first cold in at least four years, and it was a bad one. I was sick for 12 days straight, including the weekend of the sale, when I could barely talk above a whisper! AND there was a snowstorm that weekend, which made driving perilous. And of course, it was the last weekend before Christmas, as well, so people had lots of other things to do besides help with or attend an estate sale. However, a few angels showed up and helped me organize for the sale and were on hand during the sale for moral support. I couldn’t have done it without them – or even come close!
Needless to say, the outcome of the estate sale was disappointing. If we had more time to work with, or if it were a different time of year, it would have been a completely different story. At the end of the weekend, aside from getting rid of some furniture, it looked like we had as much stuff left as we had begun with. So then we started bagging and boxing donations. My sister rented a dumpster, and I rented a self-storage unit to literally buy some extra time to sort through things at a more leisurely and mindful pace.
Let me tell you: They were the craziest weeks of my life. I intend to write more about the whole experience because there is so much to say about it. But for now, I want to focus on the piano.
The Mehlin & Sons 1954 spinet piano was my mom’s first big purchase when she was working at her first job at General Electric after graduating from high school. She was passionate about music and taught herself to play. When I came along, she bought me a toy piano (pictured partially below) that I adored, and I became fascinated with “the big piano” and couldn’t wait until I could learn to play it.
I started taking lessons in third grade, and piano quickly became not only my passion but also my identity. My mom was delighted. She worked at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and arranged for me to interact with dozens of classical pianists and musicians through the years. When she thought my motivation to practice was waning, she asked Andre Watts to have a little talk with me. I met Liberace more than once and babysat for Emmanuel Ax’s son, which involved interacting with Mr. Ax both before he left for the performance and when he arrived back home.
In high school, I was piano accompanist for school choral groups and played piano (and marimba) in jazz band. I accompanied vocalists outside of school, played for weddings, and even competed on piano in the local (county level) Miss America pageant at age 19 and won the talent competition (which was the only reason I was in it). Piano was the first Great Love of my life.
It turned out I didn’t have the confidence or resilience to pursue a career in music or even major in music in college, and that is something I still regret. And stage fright was an issue, too – because I was playing for the wrong reasons. I was more focused on impressing people (including pleasing my mother) and doing it “right” than on expressing the music in me. I think I also was not playing the kind of music that resonated most with me – which I know now to be more meditative, flowing, and New Age. I remember how I dreaded being called on to solo in jazz band because improvisation felt too personal and vulnerable. It felt safer to play the notes on a printed page – someone else’s music.
I went to Ithaca College, a school known for its excellent music program, where I majored in psychology. When I took a piano performance class with music majors, I felt like I was out of my league and dropped the course. I’ve continued to play now and then through the years, but just for fun and relaxation and almost never in front of another human being – although there have been very occasional jam sessions that felt really good. However, when I’m playing (often with headphones so nobody can hear me), there’s no feeling quite like it. I feel totally in the flow and joyful. It feels as if, in those moments, I am doing the thing I came here to do (i.e. be my authentic self), especially when I have no music in front of me and play from my heart. So I guess you could say that I’m quietly picking up the broken pieces of my abandoned talent and putting them together in a more authentic “Zen and the Art of Piano” way. I have other Great Loves now – namely photography and writing – but piano remains my first, and first loves can be especially powerful and hold a special and enduring place in our heart.
So I married a man with a music degree, and after we got divorced, I married a professional musician who doesn’t read music and is all about improv.
My daughter took piano lessons (which my parents paid for) and played my mom’s piano, and my son taught himself and played it, as well. One of the most poignant memories during the last few weeks of my mom’s life was on Mother’s Day, when the house became quiet and heavy with the realization that she would be gone soon. My daughter broke the heaviness by going to the piano and playing “Hallelujah”, and my mom made her way to the living room with her brand new cane, to sit close and listen.
So that Mehlin & Sons spinet piano means a great deal to me. It was my first Great Love and possibly the deepest connection my mom and I shared. It filled her with such joy to hear me play it and to fall as deeply in love with it as she had. I wished I could keep it, but I couldn’t because I don’t have the space or any kind of storage area for it. So it became important to find the right home for it. And when the right person approached me and expressed interest in buying it for her son and granddaughter, I could not put a price tag on it. The personal value was too great to be measured, and it felt better to give it away to a good home.
Two days after Christmas was the Big Day when the piano movers were scheduled to take the piano to its new home. Although I hadn’t planned anything beforehand, I woke up early that morning knowing exactly what I needed to do before going to work. I jumped out of bed and into my car and drove to my parents’ house to play a final, private concert for my mom on our piano.
All that remained in the living room that morning was the piano, a lamp, and an easy chair – which was perfect for such an occasion. The piano needed to be tuned but always had such beautifully weighted action.(I will miss that familiar touch so much.) And I knew exactly what song to play: “Flying Free”, a choral arrangement with a simple, flowing piano accompaniment that I hadn’t played in many, many years. When I asked what I should play, that song came to me so clearly and instantly that I didn’t question it. It was neither challenging nor impressive – in fact, I considered it “easy” when I played it back in seventh grade – but it was a song that always felt soulful and uplifting to play and that I could play through inevitable tears. Even the lyrics (though I was too choked up to sing them) were perfect on so many levels.
After all, discovering and expressing my soul is what my relationship with piano has been about all along. It’s a path that wouldn’t work if it was based on comparing myself to others rather than being truly inspired. It needed to be authentic and include music and mentors who stirred something in me and led me to the threshold of my soul, where my own music resides. Improv, the thing that scared me most, is perhaps what I needed most to learn, to take me to another level where I could feel and express the music flowing through me more authentically. And that’s something I can still work on when I’m alone with my keyboard and headphones – although I yearn to ditch the headphones at some point and not give a damn what anyone will think or whether I’m “good enough” to be heard.
Playing this farewell concert was what I needed to do to honor my relationship with this piano and with my mom (who gave me the gift of music for which I am so grateful) the best way I knew. I cried a lot as I played, but it wasn’t because I was sad or depressed. It was because I was expressing what was alive and real in me, rather than pushing it down and denying it. When you are able to risk being emotionally open and vulnerable, you can go to some incredibly beautiful and transcendent places and flow with the music within you that longs to be set free.
It was like making love to a cherished lover for the last time.
As I played, I imagined for a fleeting moment that I was back in high school, practicing piano while my mom was in the kitchen making dinner after getting home from work. The house was filled once again with love, light, warmth, cozy furniture, framed art on the walls, and the comforting aroma of my mother’s cooking. Even though she didn’t particularly enjoy cooking, my mom was happy listening to my pre-dinner music.
But mostly I allowed the music to flow through me like a prayer. A somewhat out of tune prayer, which was actually a lovely testimony to the instrument being played and loved through the years.
When I closed the cover over the keys for the last time before leaving for work, it was like closing the lid to a coffin and saying a final farewell to a dearly beloved person. I caressed it, patted it, gave it a kiss, thanked it, thanked my mom. Two hours later when I was at work, my sister texted: “Piano is gone.” I blinked back the tears that would flow like a waterfall after I got out of work and was alone.
At least I know who my beloved instrument has gone to and feel that it has found its way to its next rightful home. I hope that if the new owner ever decides he no longer wants it, he will contact me, and maybe I will be in a position then to take the piano back. But if not, at least I got to say goodbye to it for real and play a last concert for my mom. A friend suggested that perhaps my dad was there, too, and they were dancing in the room as I played. I love that idea. I hope they danced.
A few days later, on New Year’s weekend, the new owner sent me an email expressing his gratitude for the piano. It included a picture of him and his young daughter sitting “at the helm of our new treasure” with their hands touching the keys. The little girl was beaming. It was the perfect closure for me and the perfect ending to a very difficult year. That piano was the most cherished of all my mom’s possessions, and she would be so pleased to know that a young girl will be able to enjoy it now and learn to play on it, just like I did. And so am I.
P.S. Since I very rarely let anyone hear me play, it was terrifying for me to share online the humble, imperfect recording of me playing my mother’s piano for the last time!! However, a voice from deep within insisted that I must. So I did. And it felt like recovering a very significant part of myself that had been banished for a very long time. It felt like healing!