Cards and Letters

We kiddingly called my mother the “President of Packrats International.”

I have learned in the year since Mom died that many of my friends with relatives from the depression era also recognize the symptoms . . . she was not alone in her proclivity to pack-rattedness.

It wasn’t that these hard-working people meant to clutter up their lives with stuff, it’s just that when they were growing up and in their early working years, they didn’t have “stuff.” Food, toys, clothes, money, everything was impossible to come by and more difficult to hang onto. The lifelong result? They didn’t throw away anything. Really. Not anything.

Before she passed last year, I had downsized and moved Mom four times in sixteen years. There were stacked-up cases of canned goods, cabinets and tall shelving units full of food and three refrigerator freezers full when she left her last house. And that was just the food. Two months before she was moving to assisted living, we counted 27 pounds of butter. When we teased her about it, she merely shrugged and said, “Hey, it’s corn season.”

Another small example? I don’t expect that I will need to buy zip lock bags, wax paper, plastic wrap or foil for the next decade. Or cinnamon, cloves or mustard seed. Or Soft Scrub. Or Dawn dishwashing liquid. Remember – everything was purchased with coupons and usually on sale at the same time.

As much as we joked about her saving ways, I did understand her. I grew up with this woman who picked up every penny dropped on a sidewalk, who re- used tin foil and gift wrap and who NEVER shopped retail for herself.

She truly felt that the money she saved entitled her to buy extravagant gifts for her loved ones or pass out hundred dollar bills at the holidays (she slipped folded ones into unexpecting palms with a wink). But I understood the pleasure that gave her, the fact that she alone had saved, stinted and squeezed to make it happen.

So now that she’s gone it seems like it might take as long to dispose of the very last of her “stuff” as the many years it took her to acquire it. Remembering that more than 90 % of her belongings were disposed of in the last few years, I’m keenly aware that what’s now left for the final sorting were the most precious, the dearest to her heart, the hardest to let go.

I had watched and listened as we winnowed down her belongings for the estate sale or for donation. She knew where she had acquired each and every item and what she paid for it. Sometimes she would even launch into, “It was a beautiful, sunny Tuesday and we had just come from lunch at Friendly’s – we had their scrumptious clam strips – and then we went to Filene’s at the mall and their dresses were marked down 50% from the sale price and I wound up paying . . . “.

Every major purchase had a similar story which we marveled at while still trying to move along the sorting/disposal process. Her memory and yarn spinning abilities were amazing. The process of cleaning out one closet took a whole day.

This child of the depression never spent her money on a sweater or a bed sheet without knowing the original price and the final sale price – the victory of snagging the sale could only be celebrated properly when she kept the original price in mind.

So naturally, I didn’t feel the attachment she did to each item during the final loss as each item was torn away, relegated to disposal.

I’ve now managed to dispense with the contents of two of the last three storage rental units but unfortunately most of the boxes are at our house – awaiting the final purge. This is the hard work, her truly personal stuff.

I’m going through it carton by carton, wooden box by canvas tote, one photo, card and letter at a time. All the flowered cards I ever sent for Mother’s Day, fifty or sixty years worth, tied together in pink ribbons. And Christmas. Valentine’s Day. Easter. Birthday. Anniversaries. And there was one package of St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween cards. Then there were all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s cards for the same occasions, similarly be-ribboned.

But it wasn’t just family – every birthday, get well or sympathy card from everyone she knew are also here . She loved getting them and she told me how many times she read and re-read through all of them. It took a while for me to understand her compulsion until I realized they provided many evenings of emotional nourishment. The letters are even more complicated.

The notes and letters – ALL of them – date back to the twenties and thirties, beginning in childhood, and are a chronicle of a long life. Letters from her father during a tumultuous childhood, a brother’s censored letters from the battlegrounds of World War II, my notes from summer camp, all are tied in bundles but they are often bundles hidden in a box of treasured linens or the last surviving dozen of her favorite winter scarves.

As all of the world’s “only children” know, there is no one else to do this sorting. No one else could read the loving notes, the little X’s and O’s lined up at the bottom of the cards or the happy smiles captured at Yellowstone, with the same heart tugs. No one else can separate the everyday from the truly meaningful. And frankly, if I don’t know any of the faces in the thousands of photos of trips and parties, there’s zero chance that anyone I save these for will. My children might someday enjoy seeing a picture of me at my sixth birthday but they could care less about the identity of Nanny’s senior citizen friends on a train trip to Lake Louise. And that’s why they all have to be sorted.

Originally I had a goal of one box every night after dinner. Fuggedaboudit. The boxes sit there mocking me, each a two or three-hour onerous job that I know I SHOULD tackle, but . . . .

It early-on proved to be tiring and at the end of an average work day, I’m just plain tired. Bad combination. So now I’m trying a box every week – or so.

After Christmas I’m expecting some quiet nights and weekends that I’ve mentally set aside as box time. But the more I think about tackling the project, the more it feels like I’m throwing Mom away, disposing of her picture by picture, note by note. And maybe that’s why I’m putting it off, not wanting to finally say goodbye to the perfect penmanship of her hand, the forever smile of her Christmas mornings.

I’ll get through every box. Maybe some night soon. Eventually.