What We Keep

Apr 15, 2015 by

What We Keep

My mother died last month. Going through her house and personal things, deciding what to keep or to sell, has consumed much of my time in recent days. I’m finding it difficult to sift through everything. My mother had a 3,000 sq. ft. retirement home, and it’s filled with furniture and knickknacks from her life. But now I’m left to deal with things. As the sole survivor of my family of origin, the burden of tearing apart a life and a home rests squarely on my shoulders.

What do I keep?

Some of it is easy. Old Tupperware containers and half-empty bottles of lotion? Trash. What about the wooden magazine stand? Then I noticed the Lamp with seashellscrack splitting one side. Garage sale item. Hopefully someone will think it’s worth $5. “How about this?” I asked a friend who was helping me one day. I held up a lamp, its glass base filled with sea shells. “It’s nice,” she said, “but do you really need it?” “I suppose I don’t,” I replied, a bit hesitant at the firmness in her voice. How could I give up the lamp? “My parents collected the shells on the beach during one of their trips to Florida,” I added. My friend stared at me. “Were you with them on vacation?” she asked. “No,” I admitted. “Garage sale,” she advised. “You can’t keep everything.”

My friend is ruthless when it comes to dealing with things. Trash, sale, keep. But what do I keep? My house is not as large as my mother’s, and besides, I have my own things (not to mention I’m married to a man who still has every issue of National Geographic he’s ever received). Still, I wasn’t ready to give up the lamp. I stuck it in the back of my car, already crowded with items I couldn’t bear to part with, and took it home with me. I put the lamp on a bedroom nightstand. But as the days pass, and the more I look at the lamp, the more I realize that my friend is right. I CAN’T keep everything. But what DO I keep? These are my mother’s things, not mine. The glass lamp with the seashells contains my mother’s memories, not mine.

What do I keep?

Two wooden end tables from my mother’s living room, pieces I remember dusting when I was a little girl. A faded tin canister which used to hold her candy now holds my pens. And a tiny plastic heart-shaped photo frame with a picture of me. I’ve always hated that particular photo, but for some reason Kathleen Photo Framemy mother didn’t. For years she kept it by her bed. It was the one thing (besides her rosary and her walker) that she insisted on taking with her to the hospice facility the day she left her home for good.

There’s a reason my mother wanted that little photo frame near her. It brought back memories of me. And there’s a reason I’m going to keep that little photo frame. It now contains memories for me too. Every time I see it, I’m reminded how my mother insisted on having it near, especially at the end of her life. Looking at it, I’m reminded of how very much she loved me. There’s a reason I feel the need to surround myself with things from my childhood. There’s a reason for everything we do, whether we understand our reasoning at the time or not. But ultimately, it’s simple, really.

We keep what is precious.


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  1. Anna Louise Lucia

    Yes, it comes down to that. We’re in the same process, after my Mum died at the end of Feb. Clearing has become easier than I expected once I realised that many of the ‘precious’ things in Mum’s house were her memories, not mine. I get enormous pleasure from opening up her sewing box to mend a pillowcase, or cutting bread on her mother’s breadboard… I don’t need to keep everything. Hugs and blessings to you.

    • Kathleen Irene Paterka

      Anna, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother’s passing. It’s hard enough, losing our loved ones; and as we ‘clean house’, we’re dealing with all those memories too. And you’re right; we don’t need to keep everything. It’s just so hard figuring out which ‘memories’ to keep. God bless…

  2. Laura Fitzgerald

    Kathleen, sigh. Since you’re a writer, might I suggest taking pictures of her important items and then journaling about them, so you capture the memory forever but don’t have to hold onto the item once you’ve gone through the process of writing about it? (maybe it would have the opposite effect, though, and make you want to keep even more things!?) It could be a way of saying goodbye to the items and honoring the role they played in your mom’s life. I’m sure you’ll keep her rosary. The littler the time, the better. With my dad, I kept a cigarette lighter, one of those cool metal ones he used my whole life. It takes up no space but brings me right back to him whenever I see it.

    • Kathleen Irene Paterka

      Laura, I love your idea of photos and journaling about the items if/when they are tossed. And thank you for sharing about your dad and his cigarette lighter. It only takes a little thing to make a big memory that will take us back forever. P.S. As for my mother’s rosary? We buried it with her, since it was one of her treasures. As for the other 17 rosaries she had in her house? I kept 1 of them, since I’d given it to her.

  3. Mikey

    Thank you for the help with my struggle to decide what to do with items that I have in my basement that I need to rid myself of. I have things from my mothers house, an aunts house and another aunt and uncle’s house who were all like parents to me. But as I go forward and try to get rid myself of some of the clutter I will remember that these are not my memories, but someone else’s and that may help me not to be so attached to some of these items. The taking pictures of the items is another great idea.

    • Kathleen Irene Paterka

      Mikey, it’s difficult to let go of these things, isn’t it? And it’s so glad to hear that I am not alone in my quest to try and figure out what is right for me to keep, and what I can let go of. Most of all, I want to keep the memories. (BTW, I agree with you about Laura’s idea for taking pictures of the items – that’s great!)

  4. It’s so hard to go through everything someone left behind. We had to do that last spring with my mother-in-law’s apartment. She only had a small 2 bedroom apartment, but she was a PACK RAT. So much stuff crammed in there. And unfortunately, since we didn’t live nearby, there were very few things we could keep/take home with us (or maybe that was a good thing…). My brother in law – who did live near her apartment – was keeping SO much and his wife was getting very stressed out at the thought of where to put it all. It’s good that you had your friend there to help with the keep/donate/trash decision. It’s almost impossible to keep everything with sentimental value since so many things might spark a memory. Love the photo/journaling idea mentioned above. And that’s very sweet about the photo she had of you and an excellent thing to keep and remember her by.

    • Kathleen Irene Paterka

      Jackie, I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your mother-in-law. And yes, I love the idea of photo / journaling for sentimental reasons. Meanwhile, I hear you loud and clear re: PACK RAT. My husband Steve is the love of my life, but he drives me batty with his habit of NEVER throwing anything away. That being said, I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s my ‘go-to-guy’ for everything. I often tell him that if I survive him, I will have to unplug every machine in the house, because I have no idea how all those things operate (modem, router, etc.)

  5. Judith

    Kathy, pictures are a wonderful idea. We sold the family home in 1996 the year after my Mother died. It was extremely difficult for me. My sister Jean cleaned out a lot of the things in the house-for goodwill, family, friends. She was good at that job. I hold onto greeting cards I receive, for awhile. I took lots of the pictures of the house, the landscape. I don’t need to look at the pictures though. I can visualize the farm and house and yard just like looking through a window. I kept a dress from my great aunt, a tall stool I said on in my Dad’s workshop and a relish tray that probably came from Florida in the 50s.

    • Kathleen Irene Paterka

      Judith, thanks for sharing your memories. No matter how long it’s been (one week, one month, one year or several), we still hold things dear. It’s hard to let go. It’s so damn hard. And why? Because we loved the people so much, that’s what I’m coming to understand. My mother used to drive me crazy, with her constant insistence that I should ‘wear a hat… it’s cold outside, and you’ll get sick if you don’t wear a hat!’. I hate hats, and even though she’s gone now, I still have no intention of wearing a hat. But you know what? I don’t think I’ll be able to pass by the ‘hat aisle’ anymore without remembering my mother. That’s what we need to do…. remember them. Whether it’s through pictures, or a relish tray, or memories captured in our minds. We keep our loved ones alive.