My sister and I recently went through my old room in our parents’ home to get a head start on the inevitable. It made my mom upset because she thought we were throwing away things that were important to her. We were re-arranging her life and now she wouldn’t know where to find things.
Our parents – now in their early nineties – want to stay in their own home forever. I don’t blame them. It’s been paid for since 1988. A small ranch in a suburb on a corner lot with a beautifully landscaped property, now a bit neglected, lined in the back by prolific blueberry shrubs. The small garden plot there grew lush with my farmer dad’s careful tending to his interesting varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, and potatoes. Deer hop over the fence for snacks. Numerous species of birds come to dine at the old picnic table that she faithfully refreshes with their favorite seed. Who would want to trade that in for a tiny apartment or a hospital bed? Soon there will be no choice.
We sat on the edge of the bed, opening one dresser or desk drawer at a time, to see what could be tossed and what to keep. Most of the time we clucked to each other over why in the world anyone would save so many greeting cards! Most of them had nothing but a signature at the bottom, no personal sentiment whatsoever. Nothing special about the illustrations either.
The rare card with a hand-written note we saved, just because it might spark a memory for mom when most other pieces of her past were lost to her. Anything with my dad’s signature was a keeper – he is a man of few words, the textbook definition of “stoic” and not given to demonstrations of emotion. But he always greeted her with a kiss and a hug when he got home from work and never said an angry or hurtful word to her in our presence in their 69 years and counting of marriage. So a valentine from dad with just his name on it – that’s worth keeping.
A few cards signed “Mom B” we also kept. Granny lived in our home the last seven years of her life following a stroke and gradually passed into a world of her own. She was not kind to her fourth child of five during the last few years. She called her “that woman.” She favored my dad. That must have hurt my mom terribly but she didn’t let it stop her from being her caregiver. They say toward the end Granny would talk about how her daddy was going to come pick her up any day now. And eventually, He did.
The volume of cards now reduced to a minimum, we moved into the realm of piles of old photos, baggies of safety pins, boxes of buttons, bits of ribbon and envelopes full of interesting looking cancelled stamps torn from envelopes. The usual stuff.
If the cards and photos made us a bit sentimental, the melancholy mood was broken with our most unusual discovery of the day. I took out a box from one of the drawers and as soon as I opened the lid I burst into laughter. I looked up to heaven as if to say, WHAT in the WORLD? Taking the item in my hand I held it up so my sister, who looked very puzzled, could see what all the fuss was about. We nearly fell off the bed laughing. What I discovered there was the most ridiculous item I could imagine anyone ever saving. For, nestled in a cardboard jewelry box on a cotton pillow, was my plastic dental retainer from when I was TWELVE. Finding this ancient artifact of my lost youth struck me as so hilarious that I even called my mom in to let her join in the joke. We all three had a good time wondering how – not to mention WHY — it had managed to be saved all those years.
To save or toss? That is the question.
There’s only one answer that makes sense to me. Some day my kids will have to sift through my things (poor souls – but its the only way I have to get back at them for all the years I picked up their stuff!), and they will get a good laugh out of their old mom’s surprises I plan to hide around the house. Maybe I’ll create an elaborate treasure hunt for them that leads them to believe a major item of worth is waiting if they solve the riddle! They’ll think it was senility or at the very least an evil plot to drive them crazy. But the motive will have been simply to give them a little laughter while they cope with the sad business of saying goodbye.