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The Shadow Box and Salvaged Memories

The Shadow Box

Published in ChicagoNow, February 9, 2016

Cleaning out my mother’s apartment after she died was one of the saddest things I’ve done. Going through everything left behind felt like letting go of being a daughter. The task of dealing with Mom’s possessions started out far better than I expected. Luckily, my brothers and I get along and we followed her wishes. We picked numbers for the choosing order and put post-its on our selections. We laughed over shared memories and the three of us felt we had claimed enough to make our parents part of our own home environments.

After that, the process became overwhelming and profoundly depressing for me. 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. My brothers passed on these items, but I took them all, not because I needed these things but because Mom loved them. They were tied to special memories, and I could not let their stories be forgotten. And then it got harder still.

Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I went to Mom’s apartment for the last time to pack up what was left. My brothers had removed their items and anything else they wanted from the discard pile. So, what was there left to do? After packing up clothing, books, and kitchen supplies for donation, I noticed a small packing box and a plastic bag near the sofa. Before I tossed them down the garbage chute, I took at peek at their contents. What looked like garbage actually contained treasures Mom had saved. Here were all of those greeting cards from special occasions, many with personal notes on them, as well as old photos and letters that had been missed in the move from her condo to her apartment (I had the rest in my basement). I dug deeper to find drawings my grandkids had made for her and photos of them I had sent her over the years. I unearthed a treasure trove of DVDs with slide shows and movies I had created so she could see what her great grandchildren were doing, as all of them but my brother’s granddaughter lived out of town. Near the bottom of the box was a card I gave Dad for his 70th birthday with my funny note on it about how old he was. Now I am the same age, so that was a definite keeper.

Even though I had copies of the photos and DVDs, I couldn’t let the originals be tossed like the spoiled food we had to discard. I sorted through that garbage bag and box and separated everything into piles for each of my children, for my cousins, for Mom’s 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. When I closed the door, I had assumed the responsibility of being the guardian of their memorabilia. Now I had boxes of their photos and correspondence to add to the collection of my children’s memory boxes filling my basement that I have finally come to accept are mine. Even so, there were a handful of odd items that didn’t belong packed away in a plastic bin, so I put them in a shadow box: My father’s Mickey Mouse watch from his Bar Mitzvah that he gave to my son who asked me to hold onto it. One of my mother’s favorite scarves and a small gold floral pin — her signature look. The elephant-shaped watch pin (I’m not kidding) that was the first gift my father gave my mother. Even she had stopped wearing it, but still, there it sat in one of her drawers. I added four black and white photos of me as a young child with my parents and siblings. Then I closed and locked the box.

That shadow box now sits on a shelf near my computer. I look at it often and smile when I think of my parents. These mementos salvaged from my mother’s last home comfort me somehow. They trigger a flood of memories and are a reminder that, even now that they are gone, I am still my parents’ daughter.


by Laurie Levy
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