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Cleaning Out Mom’s Apartment – The Final Goodbye

Mom’s shrine – Wedding photos of her grandchildren

Published in ChicagoNow, May 26, 2015

As I approach my 70th birthday, I find myself an orphan. Of course, that is both lucky and sad. Many of my friends faced parental loss at much younger ages. I feel blessed that my parents lived long enough to see my children become adults, marry, and become parents. And yet, cleaning out my mother’s apartment was one of the saddest things I have experienced.

My mother was a saver, not a hoarder. That’s a very important distinction. When she and my late father tried to describe the value of all the art and knickknacks they had collected over a lifetime, Dad tried to assign a dollar value to everything. Not Mom. She tried to share the story behind each thing. Did it come from someone in the family? Did they buy it on a trip? Was it a wedding gift?

So, it came as no surprise that she saved things like greeting cards, pictures drawn by her grandchildren, and notes from her close friend Ruth. My father was also a sentimental saver. After he died in 2012, we weeded through piles of newspaper clippings mentioning someone he knew. At that time, Mom was forced to “edit” her belongings, as not everything from their condo would fit into her retirement apartment.

She gave away a lot of things in that move. Her children took some of the nicer art and possessions that didn’t make the cut. Other things were donated. But still, her apartment contained the essence of what my parents valued. It was her home and she loved everything she brought to it.

The first step in breaking up the apartment after Mom’s death wasn’t too painful. Luckily, my brothers and I get along and followed her wishes. We picked numbers for the choosing order and put our post-its on our selections. That went pretty smoothly. We laughed over shared memories and each felt we had claimed enough to make our parents part of our own home environments.

Cleaning out Mom’s apartment was really depressing for me after that. There were piles of things that none of us really wanted, but it just seemed wrong to let them go. I’m not talking about things that were suitable to donate. I’m talking about things like my grandmother’s Depression era canister set, a chipped wine bottle that was a wedding gift to my parents, and a clay figurine my parents bought in Arizona that looked like a gingerbread man.

Yes, I took this stuff, not because I needed it but because Mom loved it and I loved Mom. Many of these things had a story behind them, so the dollar value didn’t matter. I could not let those stories be forgotten. And then it got still harder.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I went to Mom’s apartment in Michigan for the last time to pack up what was left. My brothers had removed their picks and anything else they wanted from the leftover pile. So, what was there left to do? Well, aside from boxing up clothing, books, and kitchen supplies for donation, there was a box and garbage bag filled with stuff my mother had saved.

  • Greeting cards from special occasions, many with personal notes on them

  • Old photos and letters that had been missed in the move from her condo to her apartment (I have those in my basement)

  • Drawings my grandkids had made for her

  • Photos of her great grandchildren I had sent her over the years

  • DVDs with slide shows and movies I created so she could see what her great grandchildren were doing, as all but my brother’s granddaughter lived out of town

  • A card I sent Dad for his 70th birthday with my funny note on it about how old he was. As I near the same age, that’s a definite keeper.

Even though I had copies much of this, I couldn’t let it be tossed like the spoiled food we had to discard. I sorted through the garbage bag and box and separated everything into piles for each of my children, for my cousins, for her best friend, and for myself. Maybe the recipients of these salvaged memories will toss them eventually. I won’t. Like my mother, I’m a sentimental saver.

As I left Mom’s apartment for the last time, it felt like the final goodbye to my parents. I have assumed the responsibility of being the guardian of their memorabilia, and I plan to spend the summer writing about their lives.


by Laurie Levy
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