Death is a fact of life, especially for those of us in middle age. Although a few of us may wrestle with the issues of mortality on a personal level, it is more likely that we are traveling final roads with parents. The past few years have been filled with goodbyes for both my extended and my nuclear family, and I have been to far too many funeral brunches held en absentia for friends.
Death produces is a major change in a relationship, and change often results in the necessity of dealing with “stuff.” Not stuff in the sense of philosophical issues, but stuff in the sense of items in boxes and storage sheds.
My own much loved parents have not been on this earth now for several years. When my father died, my sister and I redistributed or dispensed with the accoutrements of his daily life. Although he was an unusually tidy man and almost fanatically well organized and had himself streamlined his collection of earthly goods — there was still a goodly amount. I only recently had to buy a bottle of antacid again. He had enough stockpiled to stem off a cholera epidemic. My sister says she’s still got boxes of Kleenex left.
His cleaning rags became our cleaning rags, so I dust the furniture with my sheets from college or the towels he and Mom bought in the 70s when they wanted to pep up the basic beige bathroom. I clean the car windows with remnants of linens purchased when my parents were years younger than I am now. When a scrap gets too small or worn to wash safely in the washing machine, I whisper farewell and put it in the trash. Somebody witnessing me getting teary-eyed over half a hand towel with a faded paisley print would think I had lost my mind.
I am keenly aware that the twist ties around the screwdrivers were twisted by my dad’s fingers. And I know full well that the couple of handkerchiefs that my sister passed on to me were ironed by my mother before she had her stroke. My father couldn’t bear to use them and wash away the traces of her rare excursion into domesticity — and now neither can I. So added to the odd altar of memory are a couple of bleached and ironed squares of material with my dad’s initials in the corners.
What really puzzles me is my attachment to the address book that I have tucked away that is no longer accurate. I just can’t seem to part with it. In my perkiest handwriting in pre-computer days, I have written the numbers and addresses for friends long lost and family long dead. My parents are still there together in my careful cursive, their address and phone number giving no clue to the casual observer that dialing a few numbers wouldn’t conjure up my mother’s distinct voice.
I have put the address book away, wrapped in one of the handkerchiefs. I will leave them both for my puzzled children to dispose of on a quiet Sunday afternoon some day in the future.