When I make soup, I tell my son the pot I’m using was my mom’s, and the ladle I’m using was my great-grandma’s, then my grandma’s, then my mom’s, and now mine.
I’ve spent the past year saying Kaddish for my mom, emptying and selling the house that my sister and I grew up in, figuring out her tax returns—she was meticulous and detailed to perfection—and going through her stuff. Her stuff. George Carlin used to riff on the accumulation of stuff—the stuff we prize, or the clutter of stuff that surrounds us, and why the heck do we still have all this stuff, anyway? Well, when your stuff has an owner, it’s easy to manage. I can tell my kids to pick up their stuff! Or get rid of this stuff! When you have stuff dating back generations, including your mother, your grandparents, and great-grandparents (not to mention items given by extended family), that stuff becomes both a treasure trove of history and an enormous burden.
Yet, going through this stuff also has become a form of catharsis for my grieving.
Although we never spoke about it, my mom cleaned out my grandma’s condo in 2011, a year before her own diagnosis of cancer. She did it alone within a week of my grandma’s death because she knew she had to put it up for sale. At some point, she asked me if my son, who was named after her father, would want his stamp collection, and sure enough, it appeared in a plastic container in my front hall closet. These random items were like little visits from my grandparents, and I understood that my mom needed to unload them to a safe, new home.
What I didn’t fully realize at the time was this tradition goes back to the previous generation, when my grandma had to clear out my great-grandma’s stuff when she died in 1979. I was a kid. I had no clue what happened to the stuff until I noticed my grandma wearing my great-grandma’s wedding ring. I had no idea about the meat dishes, tablecloths, gloves, and laced snap-on collars that were in storage (and apparently very fashionable in the 1950s). I knew about the jewelry, silver, and china—oh, the china. I have generations of it. When I am ready to host a holiday dinner, I will alternate place settings of each of the sets I have. I believe in using what I have and take the time to set the table with all the lovely pieces I’ve been given. My mom taught me that.
So what does this mean for me? It means I have my great-grandma’s checkbook, her gloves, gold-painted plates and bowls that were wedding gifts, a notebook from 1956 where she described cutting vegetables into flowers and creating various Jell-O molds, her engagement scrapbook from 1912 and pictures from that year of her and her sisters and her husband in albums, with names and dates waiting for future generations to discover.
I have my great-grandfather Isador’s naturalization papers, his oversized, tailor scissors, his tefillin, prayer book, and tzitzit, even his funeral sign-in book. Carefully wrapped and boxed. His stuff.
I found letters he wrote in the 1930s to my grandma while she was at Camp Chi. And while I never met him, he had such love and devotion to her. My mother adored him and knew when he passed, her first daughter would be named Ilyse with an “I” in his memory. Now his stuff is my stuff.
I have pictures and movies. Yes—movies! My grandfather was a photographer, decades ahead of his time. I transferred home movies and slides into DVDs, and it’s worth it to see my grandma twirling around pregnant, a young woman in 1946. She wasn’t a twirler by the time I came around. The endless boxes of slides weighed literally and figuratively in my living room and in my mind. It was a relief to transfer that history to DVD.
There is something comforting about stepping backwards in time and holding belongings of the people who came before me. It fills me with a tremendous appreciation and gratefulness for their hard work. And from the stories I’ve heard and pictures I now have, I am filled with contentment that they all led really lovely, meaningful lives. Sure, no one’s perfect, and my mom would mention things here and there about “the family,” but overall, if these people weren’t particularly special, I don’t think my mom or grandma would have saved their stuff.
But my mom’s stuff has been harder to delve into. There is a sense of feeling untethered now that she is not here. No one loves you like your mother. My anchor is no longer here. But I have her stuff. Her books and lesson plans, political buttons, teaching materials, yarn and knitting needles. Her jewelry. Her certificates of appreciation for teaching and volunteering. Her schoolbooks my grandma saved—along with her report cards and diplomas.
It makes you reevaluate your own possessions and accumulations. All those school pictures I gave to grandmas and great-grandmas throughout my own life and my kids’ lives. They come back. Framed and in envelopes. I remember where they hung in my grandparents’ condo and in my mother’s house. They’re back. My collection of Pez dispensers and teapots. My tchokies, my books…my stuff.
I still have more to clean out and organize. It’s very overwhelming, but my kids and their kids will never have to wonder where we came from because we have stuff to pass down, even if they don’t know it yet.