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.
© 2017 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.