Sorting through Mom’s things

36 comments on Sorting through Mom’s things
3 minutes

We’re finally sorting through Mom’s things. It took a lot longer than I thought it would for her estate to be cleared to be distributed and/or disposed of.

We’ve sorted through Mom’s huge jewelry collection and her clothes, and also her kitchen stuff. We just keep uncovering memories. Sometimes it’s wonderful, and sometimes it leaves me feeling sad.

I’ve felt sad a lot lately. On Saturday it’ll be six months since she died. I remember the six-month mark as I first grieved Rana, and it was much the same. A book on grief I read at the time says that most people go through a funk at the six-month and one-year marks. They might not consciously realize it’s been that long, but the subconscious knows and acts accordingly.

The family photos came to me. This one was loose on top of the boxes. Mom wrote 3-30-68 on the back, making her 23 and Dad 27. She was pregnant with my brother. It’s remarkable to see them this young.

This was taken in the front room at my grandparents’ huge house on Park Avenue in South Bend. My grandparents loved Polaroid cameras and always owned the latest models. This was made on Polaroid pack film, I can tell by the form factor and the white border. I wonder what model of camera they used to make the photo. Given how sharp it is, I’ll bet it was one of the higher-end models, like the Automatic 250 I used to own. It came with a pack of film expired since 1969. This is almost certainly the same kind of film my grandparents used to make that photograph.

Polaroid Automatic 250

My younger son Garrett is getting Mom’s car to replace his 23-year-old Saturn. Her 2015 Nissan Versa Note has just 16,000 miles on it — about 1,000 miles more than when she bought it in 2017. It was Nissan’s entry-level car at the time, but Mom got one with every option including heated front seats, navigation, and a back-up camera. It was her first car when she bought it at age 74.

Mom's car

We’ve been bringing home the things we want, but it’s a fraction of what she owned. Mom owns a complete 1940s Heywood Wakefield dining set, including the table and chairs, a hutch, and a china cabinet. Nobody in the family wants them. I’ll probably sell them on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Unfortunately, the table and chairs are not in original condition. When Mom’s aunt Pauline gave the table and chairs to us in 1976, we didn’t understand what we had and Dad stripped the set and stained it dark brown. Later, Dad tried to undo the damage by stripping the set again and refinishing it in as close to the original blond color as he could manage. Fortunately, he didn’t touch the finish of the china cabinet and hutch when Pauline gave them to us in the early 1980s.

Shadows on the Heywood Wakefield

Removing things from Mom’s dresser drawers I found a drawer full of Dad’s things. He kept a handful of letters I wrote him. In every single one, I was trying to encourage a deeper relationship with him. I remained disappointed until the day he died. But it says something that of all of the cards and letters I wrote him, he kept this particular handful. Maybe he wanted that deeper relationship as well, but never had any idea how to build one.

We are maybe halfway done sorting through Mom’s stuff. I wonder what else I’ll find difficult to cope with as we finish.

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36 responses to “Sorting through Mom’s things”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    An excellent photo of your mom and dad, and a good example of how good the pack film could be! A very timely entry for me, yesterday was my moms birthday, I went and put flowers on her grave, it was her 100 year anniversary, born in 1923…

    My dad passed about 7 years before my mom, and their house was chock full of everything. It was probably about 30% “over-furnitured”, as well as stacks of craft and knitting magazines, and similar ephemera, in the basement, including never jested workout machines, etc.. My older sister came into town a few times to try and get rid of stuff when my mom was alive, and my mom got so mad she finally said to leave her stuff alone, we could get rid of it after she died! So we gave up…

    After she passed, the only recourse was to hire an estate company. They told us to take anything we wanted out of the house, and they sold everything else In a three day advertised sale. Anything that was not sold, he had a junk shop jobber come and take everything else and the place was stripped to the walls. It was like ripping off the bandaid. Totally clean at the end.

    My mother had owned an antique shop for a while in her life, as well as did “picking” for a relatives shop in the greater Chicago area, so we had pretty nice furniture. If we wanted to sell the house, we would have had to rent storage space and try to sell stuff out of there, a non-starter. It could have taken years to get the “correct price”. We had a family confab and just had to disabuse ourselves of the idea that we were going to realize any huge profit from the sell-off. We made virtually nothing, but the house was empty. The important part here, is that the 4 of us did a hard target search over the week before, getting all the import art, photos, and the few family items we wanted personally out before the sell off. We still missed a few things we wished we had found.

    Of course, much longer story here, but enough. I miss my parents almost every day, and think of them often, but the one year process of getting rid of their estate and prepping the house for sale, and then the sale, was long enough, and seemed to help with the pain of loss.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My aunt Helen was the antique dealer in our family. We all got some very nice stuff from her. My parents filled their house with antique furniture.

      As I’m actively grieving Mom I think about her a lot. I don’t think about my dad a lot. I don’t fully understand how my mind works here as most of my friends who have lost parents miss them deeply and terribly and that just isn’t my experience. With Mom in particular, she had a miserable last year and I’m happy for her that it’s over.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        My parents never wanted to be involved in extended stays in nursing homes, and both sort of got their wish as they basically were in OK shape until a few weeks before their deaths. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like with extended miserable hospital stays or anything like that.

        If it helps your thinking at all, when my mom died, I really felt a “loss of family” thing. Might have had something to do with the idea that I’m the only child that was never married, although wasn’t around in the same city all the time either. My older sister, who wasn’t within a thousand miles of home since college, except for a few days a year, said to me: “You know, for the first time, I feel like I have my own life.” She felt the loss short term, but for her it was just another page in life.

  2. brandib1977 Avatar

    You’ll make many discoveries throughout this process. Some will be happy and others bittersweet. Some you won’t realize or process for a long time. Others will hit you like a ton of bricks. It’s impossibly hard to sort through a lifetime of possessions.

    This may be inappropriate to say given your strained relationship with him but you look a lot like your dad.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I discovered some letters I wrote to Dad in the 90s when I was trying to build a relationship with him, one he didn’t reciprocate. But he kept the letters. So they mattered to him. What a squandered opportunity.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Wonder what made him that way? I’m always interested in what makes people tick. Even though it won’t fix anything, it might bring you some peace to better understand him.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I have done a lot of work to understand him and it has helped tremendously. I will always wish he and I could have been closer. But I am at reasonable peace with it all now.

          Also: there is no ignoring how much I look like my dad now. But it wasn’t always the case. I used to favor my mom’s side more. I saw much the same in my own kids, how as they grew they looked more and less like me, more and less like their mom.

          1. brandib1977 Avatar

            Isn’t it interesting how our looks change with age?

            Reasonable peace is better than no peace.

  3. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Ah, it must be tough to do what you’re doing. I admire your fortitude. Not to sound crass, but that Wakefield dining set is amazing! That photo seems so familiar. Is it deja-vu or I have I seen that before?

      1. sonny rosenberg Avatar

        Oooh! Those are beautiful. Your mom had great taste (IMHO)!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          When we got them, none of us liked them. The dining set was bought new by my aunt Pauline (Mom’s dad’s sister) and they used them for years. Then they gave them to us when they downsized and my family upsized. In time, we all grew used to them, and Mom came to rather like them.

          1. sonny rosenberg Avatar

            I can see how they could be an acquired taste!

  4. -Nate Avatar

    Quick thoughts ;

    You’re lucky in that you didn’t actively dislike / resent your parents .

    I too wonder about the crap my son will have to deal with, I have already told him to just call a dumping service who cares, he doesn’t so no need to worry about what made me happy .

    It takes time to come to grips with a difficult parent, more and more as I age out I wish I could talk to mine, they weren’t good parents but had their moments .


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Dad and I did not have a warm relationship, but otherwise no, I didn’t actively dislike/resent my parents. It would be 10x harder if I did. I spent years coming to terms with my father, however.

      1. -Nate Avatar

        I need to find time to get caught up so I can read all the comments .

        Two of my three sisters went through all of Mom’s things, she had lots and lots of very expensive jewelry and Scrimshaw etc., whey took 99 % or it and offered my brother and I maybe six pieces to choose one from .

        Siblings, what a P.I.T.A. .


        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Fortunately it’s just my brother and me, and we get along.

          1. -Nate Avatar

            You’re a lucky man indeed .

            All my five siblings are not trustworthy .

            When Mom began to realize her time was limited and sent us all a chain letter telling us to say what we’d want, I wrote and told her this would cause endless misery and infighting, she owed us nothing and I didn’t want anything (truth be told I had no idea what she might have had) and she should give it all away or sell it and donate the $ to a good charity (I’m the only working class child) she said no and just as I predicted things went awry .

            BTW : the ‘save my name etc.’ link is broken .

            1. Jim Grey Avatar

              I’m sorry that’s how it turned out for you. It’s a shame when families don’t end up being close and healthy together.

              I am not sure what’s up with the save your name link. I might just see if I can turn it off. I’m on so I have limited ability to fix some things here.

              1. -Nate Avatar

                No worries Sir .

                I made it out alive and have a very good little life carved out indeed .

                I just have empathy for others .

                My eldest brother likes to lecture me about “being too God damn happy all the time !” .


  5. tbm3fan Avatar

    I just did that last Saturday as my mother went into hospice, at home, after she broke her left femur and is simply too frail and disconnected. Estimate of 1-3 months. Lots of photos going back to when she was born with her grandson asking me who is who. Some I knew and some I didn’t. I took them. Couldn’t find her Nikon F which I’ll guess my brother took and sold years ago. She used it to take slides in the 80’s on her camping trips to document California native plants in various State parks and I found the Ektachrome slides. Scanning now and some really nice pictures of landscapes and close ups. I am impressed. As for her nice clothes the grandson will drop off at Goodwill. Outside of that not much else.

    I’ll miss her and sat for some time with her even though she couldn’t react at all to me. Used to talk every week while away at college and even worked some time in my office so she and I were around a lot. A very intelligent person who continued her education and read a ton. She is in very good care, lives 120 miles from me, at the home of my deceased sister watched by my grandson, his CNA girlfriend who is spectacular, and her granddaughter an RN specializing in case management for seniors. They are all great.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m sorry that your mom is in this place and that her time is short. She was fortunate to have your grandson! It’s got to be a mixed experience scanning her slides.

  6. Jonathan B. Richards II Avatar
    Jonathan B. Richards II

    Mr. Grey, I have enjoyed your “Down The Road” posts to Facebook for some time. I so much appreciate your love of travel on the backroads of America. Today I wish to express my sorrow that you had such a difficult time bonding with your late father. I had a similar situation and now , after almost 37 years since his passing , I continue to try to figure out what our relationship was all about. I had/have great admiration for my father’s accomplishments but we were very different persons in temperament and outlook. I have always felt that I failed to meet the high standards he expected and this has given me angst. I hope you will be able to come to terms with your struggle to resolve the unresolvable. Sincerely , Jack Richards from Missouri.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m sorry that was your experience with your father. I think all of us just want our fathers to love and accept us, and wish for us to be happy as we define happiness. I have done a lot of work to come to terms with my father and I’m pretty far down the path on that. I wrote his life story after he died:

  7. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Like BrandiB, I’m always interested in what makes people tick, and why they decide to do things they way that they do them. Ive been nosy and questioning for so long, sort of arm-chair sociology, wrapped up in amateur psychology. I always tell people I’m a “hobby” sociologist!

    Certainly there’s no lack of data associated with fathers and sons with less than ideal relationships. It’s pretty common. Actually ditto for mothers and daughters, especially the oldest or first daughters. I can’t say my dad and I had a relationship out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but we functioned well after my 20s, about as well as most family relationships. I’ve seen situations where people say they have bad relations with family members, but I also always wonder against what examples they are judging themselves? Advertising? Hallmark movies? Who knows? I never know what they’re getting judged against.

    This is kind of an aside, but it’s kind of like women I know who are highly attracted to strong, stoic, silent men, and then complain they never open up, and they can’t have an in depth conversation…doh! Did they think the strong silent thing was an act to attract women?

    The more I learned about my dad, especially when we took the train into downtown Chicago for lunch on his 80th, complete with cigars; the more I realized that my dads life was a series of situations that didn’t work out exactly the way he wanted. He loved us, altho he never said it, it was there by action; but every additional kid, or lost job, was another, nail in the coffin of what could have been instead of what was. My dad was older when married, and older when he had kids, so he walked into it open eye’d, but I think all those dads wake-up calls were when they realized they couldn’t change their lives as easy as everyone always made out you could do in America! I can certainly say, that many of my pals from non white collared backgrounds, and parents who had kids at 20, had far more “difficult” dads than I did in their teens. It’s kind of li,e their fathers never bargained for what happened, and felt they were roped into having kids they didn’t want, or responsibilities they never imagined. That always seemed to manifest itself in brooding contempt, or constantly aggressive interaction.

    Once again, who knows, I think a lot of guys I know should realize their relationships with their fathers has a lot less to do with their actual interaction, and more to do with their fathers not living the life they imagined.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You know, it’s not like I had a bad relationship with my dad. I didn’t enjoy several aspects of how he raised me, and I spent a lot of time avoiding him as a teen, but as an adult it things were overall fine between us. We just weren’t close, because I kept a certain distance because he judged the things I did and offered unsolicited advice that left me feeling in the wrong somehow. I wanted more openness and vulnerability. I longed for it. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. It will always feel like a loss to me.

      You raise an interesting point about fathers not living the life they imagined. I sure didn’t, with my divorce. I tried to just embrace the situation as it was and be as warm toward my children as I knew how.

  8. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    Good look with the sorting. Happy memories from the things you find that have personal meaning but the sadness of knowing you can’t hold on to it all.
    I think that, if I could, I would end up keeping everything in a similar situation (not that my wife would allow it!). But I also know that I would never do anything meaningful with much of it – it would just be stored someplace, probably for someone else to deal with when I’m no longer around myself.
    I know from experience that many of the things I always though I had to hang on to (possessions, rather than legacies of loved ones) faded in their importance with time and I didn’t miss them. The key, I think, is to keep the treasured things, the rest can live on in memories or, if you have them, photographs.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I certainly don’t want it all. It’s not special to me. But it was to mom, and the thing that makes me saddest is that she’s not here to enjoy her things anymore.

  9. Joe from The Resurrected Camera Avatar

    My mom loved antiques and had a lot of nice pieces that she ended up not taking very good care of later on in her life, but it seems like even the nice pieces can’t be resold too easily in today’s market except on things like Craigslist, it’s sad. So much of what she owned ended up going to thrift stores because we just didn’t have the room to keep it all. It kind of makes me wonder what I’ve accumulated over the years is worthwhile and what will be just thrown away…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This whole experience is making me reevaluate what I will keep as I age. My kids won’t want most of it; they’ll have to donate it. Things that were meaningful or valuable to me.

      Fortunately, mom got rid of probably 75% of their stuff when they retired and downsized. Thank goodness, or this job would take a year or more.

  10. Mark McBride Avatar

    We went through some of this when my mom had to be put in a nursing home. Fortunately I had a friend who’s son needed an apartment furnished, so he took a lot. Also another friend who worked for Habitat for Humanity Re-Store here and they came by and took virtually everything that we had left over. A tip for anyone reading this in a similar situation, check with your local Habitat – they might pick it all up for free (each store has different rules).

    Our killer event – when clearing her basement, we found dozens of ‘blank’ VHS tapes. We asked mom several times whats on them? Her answer was always “I don’t know, I don’t want them”. Well, we had just moved and didn’t have a VCR handy. I just got home from a trip, it was winter and garbage day was the next day. I gave in and threw them out.
    A few months later, clearing out a box of stuff, found an old super 8 reel. Light bulb moment! Sometime in the past my parents must have spent Thousands of $$ having their super 8 reels converted to VHS and the company did not bother to label any of them. They never said anything to us and obviously they didn’t get the original reels back. If there had been ONE SINGLE LABEL on any reel, I’d have been tipped off for what they were.
    Would have been 30+ years of video available from before I was born until the mid 70’s when my aunt, the videographer of the family, passed away. All those family memories just gone. My advice to all, don’t get in a hurry, be careful before you throw something out; once its gone, its gone forever.
    I’ve been compiling a list of who gets what when I go, son in law, daughters, good friends, charities. It might make it easier on my survivors, cause I’ve accumulated a LOT of stuff!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s horrible, that there was no clue on those tapes as to what they were. What a loss.

  11. Dani Avatar

    My mom kept everything. Everything. Every piece of paper I brought home from school. My first day of kindergarten dress. Material she had purchased before she and my dad were married in 1962. Receipts from even before then. Magazines from all way back to the 1970’s that she didn’t want me to go through when I was making an ABC picture book for my youngest in 1997. Everything. There were clothes in drawers that still had tags on them. Mom was the youngest of 8; both parents had passed by the time she was 13 and she lived off and on with older siblings, neighbors, whoever could take on another mouth to feed at the time. No wonder she hung onto EVERYTHING! Me? No, I’m a no clutter and less than slightly sentimental person. Andy and I don’t want our kids to have to sieve through our belongings so we’ve made an effort not to hang on to a lot of stuff. Yeah, we still have stuff, but we want to make it relatively easy for the boys to go through that stuff when we are gone.
    Going through a loved one’s stuff is never easy. There are so many emotions and memories. I remember going through some of Mom’s stuff after she passed (some of which was either donated to Goodwill or burned in Dad’s makeshift incinerator after he passed. Remember, I grew up on a farm); I could still hear her say “Don’t you dare throw that away!”
    *Side note: I burned the prom dresses Mom made, but kept the activity book I got as part of a Burger Chef kids meal.
    Hang tight, kiddo. It can be a stressful process but it can also be huge in the processing of grief.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds like your mom had a bit of a hoarding problem. That’s too bad. I’m sure that was confusing sometimes as you grew up.

      I’m relieved that Mom got rid of so much when she left South Bend. This job would be crushing otherwise.

      Doing this work has been emotionally challenging. Frankly, I wish it weren’t. But I know that this is part of the grieving.

  12. J P Avatar

    This is a tough experience. My sister and I kind of stretched it out over 5 years, between mom leaving her house for assisted living and her eventual death. I’m not sure if that made it harder or easier. Almost everything triggered memories or was a window into her struggles with the early stages of dementia – like her beloved paperback novels with notes she was taking because she struggled to remember the characters.

    And what would adult children do without Goodwill stores!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Mom lives within walking distance of a Salvation Army store. So we’re fortunate there!

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