June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The ‘Stuff’ of Life

My parents lived in the same house for over four decades. As they entered their later years, they gradually gave their valuables to their two daughters. After my father passed away, my mother placed the remaining valuables on the kitchen table and my sister and I took turns choosing the pieces we wanted. My mother sometimes acted as a referee but it still turned out to be a pretty smooth transition. But unlike many of their friends, my parents had never downsized their living space. My father was a collector who saved newspaper clippings and greeting cards from the past 40 years. My mother considered herself to be a smart shopper but actually was a hoarder and threw nothing away. This combination resulted in a house filled with “stuff,” and after our mother passed away, my sister and I had the daunting task of cleaning out their house.

My sister and I have had times when we got along and, to put it mildly, times when we didn’t. Now we had to collaborate on a project that neither of us had any experience in or any desire to do. Following a period of procrastination, we decided it was finally time to move on this.

My sister and I met over coffee to discuss a plan of action. After a few days and pumped up on caffeine, we realized we were avoiding the task by pretending to discuss a strategy to help expedite cleaning out our parents’ house. We eventually exhausted this excuse and picked a day when we would have to begin.

I decided we would start with the clothing. Both our parents were from backgrounds where the “custom” was to hide valuables inside linings and pockets. This meant we had to pull out every article of clothing and check it to make sure nothing was inside. We never found anything valuable but we did find the dresses our mother wore to our weddings, the Persian lamb coat she wore in photographs, the tie clips our father wore to work. We created piles, things we would keep and things we would let go. We knew we would never wear this clothing but it was still so hard to give away. We soon discovered that in old houses, closets were tucked away in hidden places. We opened these closet doors and found more clothing crushed inside and had to start the process over again. My sister finally sat down and cried because the idea of putting a person’s life into plastic garbage bags was just too overwhelming. We mistakenly thought the passage of time would make this job easier.

The next day we approached the house with a new strategy. We came with a change of nice clothing and planned to go out for a long lunch. We were energetic and worked more efficiently in anticipation of our lunch break. We went through pots and dishes and remembered the meals my mother cooked and prepared. We collected photographs, now with nameless faces, because our parents could not tell us who these people were. We saved vinyl records from our childhood that could only be played on a record player. We found papers that documented our parents’ journey from post-Holocaust Europe to the United States. There were handwritten letters by our parents with a writing style that could be described as penmanship with an accent. We poured over books, now with yellowed pages, that my father read while sitting in his special chair. We filled boxes with “tchotchkes” that would be given to charity. Over the days, the amount of “stuff” grew smaller and smaller and we could now see things that would capture a moment in time. A platter, given to our parents by the real estate agent who sold them their first house, made us look back at how we lived in that house. A wood carving hanging on the wall reminded us that our parents did not choose this because of its artistic beauty but because it was a gift from a dear friend. We imagined the things that looked old and musty in our parents’ house would now look vintage and interesting in ours. We were on a quest to save memories.

The next step was going through the garage, which was more intimidating than the house. Anyone who knew my father knew he used the garage as his personal museum. We pushed through cobwebs, climbed up ladders, and moved broken furniture in search of hidden treasure. We found our Barbie dolls and reminisced about their beautiful clothes and the interesting lives we made up for them. An expensive crystal dish that was missing for years was hidden in plain sight covered with dust. We found the Underwood typewriter with its broken keys and Germanic umlaut that my father used to type his letters. We talked about the things we hoped we would find, but these things never appeared.

Neighbors on the block came over to express their condolences and offer snacks. They provided their empty garbage cans because ours were overflowing. We gave a curio cabinet to a neighbor and a bedroom set to a young couple starting out. It gave us some comfort knowing this was not an ending but a continuation in another person’s life.

We finished the bulk of our work on Friday and looked forward to a physical and emotional rest over the weekend. Before we left the house, we took pictures on our iPhones, gathered lemons from the tree in the backyard and cut birds of paradise flowers from the garden that my father planted many years ago.

I would not be completely honest if I said everything went smoothly and there were no bumps in this road. My sister and I had taken different paths in our lives but here we were once again, two daughters and two sisters in our parents’ home. We shared something that nobody else shared or understood. We somehow pushed aside our differences from the past, present…and maybe even the future, and made this happen. I would like to believe our parents were looking down at us and they were smiling.


Judith Eisenberg Pollak is a speech therapist and lives in Manhattan.

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