Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Parents' Lives Flash Before My Eyes

You know the way they say your life flashes before your eyes when faced with threat?  Well I don't know about that, but it certainly flashes before your children's eyes after you pass on and they tackle the traces left behind.  And it presents itself in 3-D, not merely from the perspective of your child, but through the eyes of all who touched your life and wrote of it.  I am our family's historian and as such am perhaps best focused on the task of going through files.

I just returned from a week disposing of my parents' belongings. Now this is not a simple undertaking and as I live some distance away my visits are marathons compressed between two all day drives totaling 1000 miles. My parents kept things and lived in the same home for almost 60 years. In addition my father liked copying things; if one was good, two was better and he often failed to stop at two. And copying extended beyond paper to videotapes numbering into several thousand. (Many thanks to my sister who has taken on the task of their disposal!)

It is intense decision making - keep, pitch, shred, scan. And a constant need to keep moving, not allowing myself to get  bogged down in either uncertainty or memory. There is also a physical and emotional component. When I go there I first spend a day driving alone. Then I sleep in my childhood bed in a home where I can still visualize my late mother in all her familiar "haunts". My sister comes in for one day of my stay, but for most of the week I am isolated with my parents' belongings, communing with their presence through objects and text.

I am finding there is a secret society of those who have been charged with such tasks, the woman at the Social Security office, the woman at the bank all offer their sympathies having been entrusted with similar responsibilities for their parents. And it is indeed a matter of being entrusted. I feel a responsibility to honor my parents' history, to keep what was of value to them and to preserve family history for my nieces. But in the middle of that I also need to dispose of things and not fall prey to the same malady of gathering an excess of things myself. 

There is a psychology to what fills our homes. My family shares a desire to hold onto information. Books were precious objects in my home with an almost talismanic quality, representing a well educated and informed person. I remind myself that much of my reading is now electronic and try to restrict myself to keeping only art and reference books from my parents' collection.

On my last trip I disposed of clothes. Trip after trip to Goodwill. Then with my sister's help we moved on to technology. When I counted pieces kept and recycled, they numbered over 100 and we are still finding things we missed. And then there are the files that gradually filled my father's study, closets and basement. So far I've hauled away 330 pounds of shredding and countless bags of recycling. That means I went through all of it, an exercise in contemplating two lives.

These are some of the things I've observed:

My parents were once young! Yes, I found love letters when they were still teenagers. Sweet and silly and slightly embarrassing for their adult children. My very well spoken father seemed to like the word "swell" when he was 18 in the 1940s.  As in "we had a 'swell' time.

My father embraced the Internet. As a gregarious person who loved information, it fed many of his needs. He reconnected with people from all phases of his life. As a product of a generation accustomed to paper, he printed them out so I could now read his cyber conversations. He also printed out every email I ever sent them, my own personal record.

My mother kept the roster of every class she taught, every name lovingly preserved. I couldn't bring myself to throw it out, leaving that task for my sister.

My father was a paternalistic guy, offering support and guidance to friends and family. He assisted many with financial management and not only did I have years and years of his records to shred, but also those of relatives and friends.

My parents read widely and kept articles on things that also interested me. My father had articles on personal finance, estate planning and history, especially Jewish history. My mother focused on the arts, health and family history. I fought the urge to read their clippings and notes lest I not complete the overwhelming task before me. 

My mother went to college as an adult and while she ultimately taught grade school, she had many courses in history and literature. She loved school and loved learning. She even attended a mini medical school program and had the degrees and certificates carefully filed away.

I was most struck by how hard my parents worked at maintaining relationships, offering support to family and friends and writing long letters and emails. They wrote to cousins of their generation and mine, to old friends and then the children of friends. And they kept the obituaries of long-time friends in a file, a place of memory that I struggled to discard. They represented memories they held close, just as they cherished the friendships.

The writing I was most tickled by in my father's files was when he wrote to companies to express his dissatisfaction with a product. He certainly expressed his pique, but always with a bit of humor. If they in turn responded with humor he was delighted. His personality clearly came through in these missives.

My mother wrote notes on books she read and kept a file on excerpts that spoke to her, offering wisdom to live by. I felt as if I was having a conversation with her when I read through her file titled Notes on Books Read. Our conversations often focused on books and philosophies of living. Throughout her files I often found a phrase I had once coined and shared with her. She quickly claimed it and made her own. "Take a Piece of the World and Make It Shine". In fact I just gave it words, but the philosophy was the one I witnessed in her daily. I carry a piece of paper in my wallet that once hung over her desk. On it are those words recorded in her hand.

I was fortunate to be with my mother in the end. It was hard, but important and gave me a fuller perspective on death. As onerous as this task of disposition is, it too is also an opportunity to fully process all that my parents were. To see them fully and honor them in all their many dimensions.

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