Betty Duffy

Friday, May 4, 2012

People and Things

I live about 45 minutes outside of Indianapolis, so when I go into town for a meeting on Thursday mornings, I'm always tempted to go shopping afterwards. There's a Trader Joe's and a TJ Maxx right around the corner from Pedge's house, where we hold our meeting, and I imagine, over the years, I've saved thousands of dollars by repeating the mantra to myself "people before things" and heading to my Mimi's house instead.

There, I'd sit on the couch and flip through the knee high stacks of catalogs that Mimi kept on the floor surrounding her favorite chair, and we'd eat lunch, and get caught up on the past week, maybe watch a soap opera.

I don't know how many pregnancies I announced to my grandmother in this setting, nor how many times she asked if I was pregnant when I wasn't--as pregnancies have been the primary news of my life for the past ten years.

 Mimi wasn't always enthusiastic about these announcements--the most recent one being about this time last year. She was an only child, a Protestant, an advocate of not-so-natural family planning, and usually the revelation that I was expecting again came with an almost, but not quite congratulating statement like, "At least I know they'll be cared for in your family."

I never quite knew how to respond to these statements, and the implications that came with them--that children required certain material satisfaction in order to be welcome in the world. My instinct was to be as matter-of-fact as possible, and also politely casual about the news--dropping it as I would any other bits of information--in between bites of a sandwich. "Well, people before things."

 "I thought you were happy with the number of people in your family," she said. 

"And I still will be."

 Of course, when the babies arrived, there was no one who bragged louder than my grandmother at the gratuitous number of great-grandchildren she'd been given. It was one of the first things she mentioned in meeting anyone new, "I was an only child. I had three kids, nine grandkids and 29 great-grand children. Can you believe it?"

And when Mimi heard the news that I had lost that most recent pregnancy, she was one of the first people to call me, crying on the phone saying, "I just want you to know, if I could, I'd be holding my little Boo-baby here on my lap right now." Boo-baby is me--that whole side of the family calls me Boo--always has.

So, the family has been going through Mimi's things, now that the person who accumulated them is gone. For awhile, the cousins and siblings did a fragile Texas Two-step among these items:

You take it.

 No you.

 No you.

 Well, ok.

And in the process of wondering if everyone was getting the right things Mimi wanted them to have, my sister and I started hypothesizing how we'd split up our own mother's goods, and how we might work out the more difficult distributions even now, before we're overwhelmed by her one-day inevitable death. We may be tactless and rude, but we will be prepared.

My mother has rings, some that were my paternal grandmothers, some that were Mimi's. And at the end of a day, after two funeral meals, and several hours sorting through and thinking about jewelry I actually said out loud, "My mouth hurts from eating too much sugar, and my brain hurts from thinking about diamonds."

 "Sounds like a first world problem to me," said my sister-in-law.

 "I'm a monster!" was the going feeling that night, and the pendulum swung back to monk-like levels of detachment. I don't want any of it. Please do not offer me another thing. I will say no.

Nevertheless, family went home. People taking their bequests, loaded them up into pick-up trucks and Mimi's diaspora settled her former belongings into various parts of the country. Youngish families furnished rooms in their homes. Knick-knacks found new coffee tables to sit upon.

Yet there was still a house full of stuff remaining. Where did it all come from? Mimi's house never looked like it was hiding so much stuff. But she loved shopping, loved jewelry, loved clothes, and a bargain, and figurines, and tea-pots, and plastic storage containers, and colonial candles.

There are five closets filled with clothes, most of them out of date. There were three boxes full of costume jewelry. A few pieces of fine jewelry, with receipts attached so she would not forget their value.

The thing I'm most surprised to have brought home are Mimi's nylon Vasarrette pajamas--the kind you occasionally come across at a thrift store, smelling like mothballs, a bit faded, and think, "Uh oh, Someone's grandma just died." It is different when they belonged to your own grandma. I've been wearing them to bed.

My husband's default position is that most of what I bring home from thrift stores, garage sales, and grandparents' houses is crap. We have reached a point in the furnishing of our living room where certain doors and corners cannot be accessed because of furniture I keep scooting aside to make room for one more piece--this couch from my cousins, this chair from Mimi's bedroom, this end table I picked up from someone's trash heap.

I like crap in spite of how distasteful and unbecoming I know it is to like crap. If my husband weren't moving things out the back door as fast as I bring them in the front door, there would be no room in this house for people. So the "people before things" mantra becomes more and more important for me as we sort through the things people keep leaving behind. Most of it cannot improve your life in any noticeable way, and will end up being someone else's burden to dispose of--except maybe for those coasters, and the steak knives...


Erin said...

I have been dreading, for the longest time, the inevitable passing of my husband's grandmother. She raised her grandsons and so it will be our place to sort through her things. And, boy, does she have things! I am not at all interested in collecting things. I am much more of a simplistic person. My husband, however, is something of a "tidy hoarder" as I call it. You woudln't think we have so much stuff in our home because he boxes things and places them neatly on shelves and it all appears so organized. But during our recent move, I realized how much crap is actually in those boxes. We don't even use half of it. Of course it drives me up the wall, but I know he wants these things for one reason or another so we try to compromise. Nevertheless, we have lived in the new house for six months now and I am STILL unpacking. I pity the person who has to go through our things someday.

wifemotherexpletive said...

For however long it lasts, the idea that you get to sleep in your Mimi's pajamas makes me pine and long for my Grammie like nothing has in quite a while. huh. thanks, its a good thing (temporarily...)

Julia said...

My Lenten project this year was to get rid of a bag of Stuff a day. Not a garbage bag, a shopping bag. It was one of my more successful Lents in that regard; we don't have an attic or basement or storage space, and we were at the point of either having to spend MONEY to store stuff we didn't need or else purge. My husband, who would gladly keep K-Mart receipts in his drawer for a decade, had a very penitential season.

I do find that when there's less physical clutter in my life -- fewer Things -- I'm much better at focusing on people. We notice the weight of material goods when we physically carry them; we're not so good at noticing their impact on our hearts when they simply fill space.

A friend of mine, non-religious, had an epiphany when she decided (for ecological reasons) to try not-buying anything for a month. She allowed herself food and bus tickets and shampoo and the like, but nothing else. She thought this would be onerous, but within three days put up a blog post saying she couldn't believe how much lighter she felt, because she had eliminated so many decisions from her life!

ElizabethK said...

I like crap, too. And this was a good reminder that it's time to stop the denial, and type up and put in a safe place the directions my grandma has been kind enough to give me. I keep losing these instructions, because that way she can never die. I do have a profound fear of crap--mainly because the passing of my maternal grandma has created hoarder levels of crap in my mom's house, an untenable situation that is now going on 10 years.

Kimberlie said...

I thought so many things when I read your post. I thought about how it took my aunt and cousin three weeks to clean out my other aunt's house when she suddenly passed away last year. I thought about how the accumulation of things and the ensuing chaos and clutter it creates in my house makes me resentful of the the requests to help people (which I do) because it means I am not home much to clean up all the clutter and it bothers me greatly. Mostly when I read about your Mimi's jammies, I had an overwhelming urge to go out and buy a bottle of Pond's cold cream, Oil of Olay, and Channel No. 5 because my grandmother always smelled like these things and I miss that smell.

Karyn said...

My mother-in-law inventoried everything they own and then had all of the six children initial what items they wanted when she and the father-in-law die. My husband calls it the "death list". I guess it's good for making the distribution easier and may avoid arguments but I couldn't believe the amount of time she put into this inventory. And how much stuff she has - of course, they have two houses, so I guess it makes sense. I, on the other hand, get rid of stuff too quickly and I can tell it makes my mother-in-law nervous to pass anything on to me, as she knows I probably won't keep it, lol!

I was surprised at myself, however, when my grandmother passed away recently and my dad was about to sell her rings. I would have jumped through the phone if I could have because they are about the only material things I would have left from her.

I miss my grandmom, too. Funny, she reacted to my pregnancies in much the same way you described.

nancyo said...

I spent months (and months) cleaning out my in-laws' home when they moved to assisted living last year. I've also sorted some of my father's things after he died. There's the stuff. And then there are the emotions. Sometimes they're intertwined, and it really is a tricky thing. I'm determined, however, that my daughters will not have to go through what I did.

Emily J. said...

Funny. I was thinking when I got home that I didn't care if you took all Mom's diamonds. I don't like diamonds that much anyway. You can have all the rings.
...except the little one she's wearing... and the diamond hoop earrings. . .

BettyDuffy said...

No, you take them. I insist.

BettyDuffy said...

Oh well, fine. I'll just take them.

(No backsies!)

JMB said...

I think, for me, I like my own family's crap, not so much anybody else's. I have an assorted collection of Franciscan pottery, a fur and St. John Knit from Grannie. I love them because they used to be hers.