The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 24, 2021 1:00 am

In possession of memories

However much we might leave behind, most precious reminders will always be internal

Catherine Christoff

In 2014, my great-aunt Irene died two months shy of what would have been her 100th birthday.

She had all her own teeth, which she attributed to chewing on licorice roots as a child. She was in good general physical health and spirits. She enjoyed racing her wheelchair around the corridors of the nursing home where she spent her final years.

She was, truly, footloose and fancy free.

Aunt Irene had lived in many places: houses with yards, condominiums, apartments, an assisted living facility and, finally, a nursing home. With each move she had to downsize, deciding what to take and what to leave behind. When dementia took away her ability to choose, my mother, brother and I chose for her.

The living spaces became smaller, with fewer drawers in which to put clothing and jewelry, fewer dressers and tabletops on which to set knick-knacks and mementos, and less wall space on which to hang pictures and family photos grew scarce.

In her final move to the nursing home where she passed, dealing with Aunt Irene's “things” became overwhelming. What to do with the dresser that didn't fit in the new room? Or the beautiful clothing that required hand washing? We agonized over what to keep and what to let go.

Part of the dilemma was trying to identify the items we hoped would bring her joy during the remainder of her life while considering the challenge of disposing of them after her death. Aunt Irene didn't have any children and had survived both of her husbands, so there wasn't anyone to ask.

By the time it became necessary to choose what things stayed with Aunt Irene, her dementia had progressed too far for her to weigh in on the issue.

My father died in 2012. Within a matter of days of his passing, my mother donated all his clothing to charity and gave away his tennis rackets and golf clubs to family and friends.

Other than his car, my father left no other “tangible” or “worldly” possessions of any significance or importance.

My mother, on the other hand, had a lot of “stuff.” She loved her home and yard. Decorating for the holidays was her passion. She enjoyed shopping and antiquing with friends. Her possessions brought her joy quite possibly because she had carefully selected each of them herself and because each item held a special memory for her.

When we moved my mother to a memory care assisted living facility in 2016, it was suggested that we furnish her room with “treasured items.” The facility said we should include “meaningful possessions,” “cherished photos” and “favorite furnishings.” What were my mother's favorite things? I realized I really had no clue and that it was now too late to ask her.

After my mother died, it was difficult for me to part with her things.

How could I simply get rid of something that might have been important to her or, quite possibly, a family treasure?

I felt guilty because I had never asked her about her things and didn't know their stories or significance.

I believed that keeping her possessions would keep her memory alive, and also show respect for her life. My home became overstuffed with her furniture, dishes, artwork, holiday decorations and tchotchkes.

I was afraid to get rid of anything because I wasn't sure how much, if anything, any particular item had meant to her. I have realized that I will never know.

My mother has been gone almost three years. Other than some Christmas decorations, family photographs, a few pieces of furniture and artwork of which I have fond memories, I have given myself permission to let go of all of my parents' worldly possessions.

And while I hope my children might keep some of my things, it's OK with me if they don't.

The process of helping others downsize has taught me that it is the personal connection you have with something that makes it worth keeping.

In the end, though, I think my father got it right. The best “possessions” in life are the people we love and the memories we make with them.

Catherine Christoff is a Fort Wayne attorney.

Sign up for our Opinion newsletter

Sent daily