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January 28, 2009

Packing Up a Life

How do you pack up a life? That is what my brother and I had to do this past Monday and Tuesday. With my mother's passing last week, we had to clear out her 2 bedroom apartment.

Although tiny, her apartment was crammed full of her papers, writings, trip diaries, memoirs in progress, photo albums and all kinds of miscellaneous items. So my husband and I headed off to join my brother, knowing that we only had 2 half days and one evening to accomplish the task.

Mother had joined a writing group and was working on her memoirs when she died. Of course as a genealogist I could not bear the thought that these might be lost. I was determined to gather every scrap of paper I could find and take it home to sort through at my leisure. That way I could preserve and share it with others in the family.

I had not realized the enormity of the task. Papers and journals and binders full of notes, were everywhere. I counted 25 large 3 ring binders chock full of writing and printed genealogy reports. I packed 7 photo albums then my brother found hundreds of loose photos stuffed into large envelopes in her basement storage locker. Mother had an office where she wrote on her computer late into the night. Beside her desk were 2 large filing cabinets (4 drawers) full of file folders. One extra filing drawer was part of her desk and when I started in the office I found another rolling cabinet also full of files.

So we organized ourselves - my husband would tackle the kitchen. A small job we thought - perhaps an hour tops to finish it. Hah! The kitchen took hubby almost 7 hours to sort and empty out.

My brother was to sort larger items of furniture and go through mother's clothes and dresser drawers. That was very difficult, it is a sad thing to look through pockets and pack your mother's favourite outfits into bags for Goodwill.

My job was to gather all the file folders, photo albums and looose papers. At first I felt intrusive and very uncomfortable about "prying" as I skimmed papers to know whether it was something I should take or something that my brother, as executor, needed.

Partway through our packing we were surprised by the arrival of two women who had been friends of mother's and in her writing group. We had a lovely talk with them, it was very nice to hear them talk about our mom and how much they enjoyed having her in the group and as a friend. They invited us to join them the next day for a service they were having in honour of our mother.

Many of the people living in the apartment building dropped by to offer condolences or have a chat about mother and her impact on them. It was quite heartwarming to hear their stories and to realize how well they treated her.

Calling it a day at 7:30 pm we looked around and felt that we were in a worse mess than when we had started. We had boxes ready for our vehicle and my husband had taken out load after load of food items (some with expiry dates of 1995!!) to the garbage but it looked like we had hardly made a dent. We left feeling a bit depressed both at the seemingly never-ending job ahead, and at the realization that we were packing up a life. Once packed it would be over. A life lived, now gone.

I'll talk about Packing Up a Life, Day 2 in tomorrow's blog post.


Thomas MacEntee said...

It is not an easy task but a necessary one. I cleaned out my Mom's house with 30 years of "stuff". No matter that we had a plan, something always went wrong. But out of it came The Box which is my main source of family memories and records.

Wish I could be there to lend a hand!

M. Diane Rogers said...

I can appreciate how very difficult these tasks are. If you have the room to store the papers at least for a while, it will likely be much easier to sort them later. My mother collected lots of paper - clippings, cartoons, university papers, all kinds of bits and pieces. It was too painful to think about sorting them (and getting rid of them) for a couple of years, but by that time it was really nice to be reminded of all the things she was interested in and of all the interests we had in common.

Taylorstales-Genealogy said...

Don't despair, this is a very difficult time for you and your family and now you're dealing with her personal belongings. Cherish the memories, not the mess. You will be happy to have those precious binder, folders, and files. I remember when my mother passed and I had the task of going through her things..what to keep, what to give away, which sister got may bring home more than you anticipated. It may be easier to keep most of her things now and gradually go through them at your home. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

Tex said...

One of the last things my mom told me before she died was that she'd hoped to have enough time to "go through the house one more time." She'd already done lots of culling, having a couple of big garage sales, but it was still a huge, emotional job. She and Dad had lived there more than 30 years. It was like another death, and I had to grieve the house and the "stuff" as I remembered it as well. Be gentle with yourself-- the task is large, but you will persevere. I wish you the best--

Anonymous said...

What a draining task! I am just at the beginning of it with my father. Thank you for sharing. Best of luck.

Jennifer said...

Good luck, and stay strong. Cleaning out the home my family had been in for 65 years was an absolutely monumental task, but it was over, eventually. It's like all the stuff has an energy of its own, and it can be draining just to see and touch it all. It's a process of passage, though, like all things. Just remember to take care of yourself too. Hugs.

Becky Thompson said...

I sure appreciated your story. Someday I'll be doing the same thing with my Dad's 'stuff'. You are in my prayers--this is a difficult time. You're doing the right thing, tho. I've been following with great interest and thank you for your stories.

Randy Seaver said...

I too have done this for my mother's belongings. But we (my two brothers ando ur spouses) took months to work on it before the house was ready to sell.

We were able to get through the grieving part of it and work toward the goal of selling the house pretty efficiently. There was never any animosity about who wanted what, which was wonderful for all of us - it kept our family together.

Looking back, I see that I cherished the little surprises that I found in the house - the briefcase crammed with important documents up high in the closet, the spoon holder and spoons hiding in the closet, the papers in the old books in the family room bookshelf, etc. We all have pieces of her copper enamel artwork and so shel ives on in our homes and our hearts. My daughters love the old pictures, the wall hangings, and the old books that they received as part of her legacy. We kept all of the personal "stuff" in the family.

I wish you all the best - and I hope that you find many little surprises in your boxes of papers and books. And that you'll tell us about them.

Hugs -- Randy