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November 27, 2013

Once a year I fly down to South Carolina to attend a board meeting for my family’s shared business (a country house and garden now turned tourist attraction, basically). We all converge on the property in question, and those of us coming from out of town stay in a little cabin my uncle built off in some woods on one edge of the property. The house my grandmother lived and died in is down the river a bit, about half a mile from the cabin, on the far side of the gardens and petting zoo and snack shop where the tourists mill about.  This particular meeting was doubly fraught; on the one hand, my mother and uncle and siblings and cousins and I were hashing out the end of various unnecessarily contentious and prolonged estate issues that go all the way back to my grandfather’s death a decade ago; and on the other hand, we were all back there and back together for the first time since my grandmother’s funeral.

I dreaded the meeting. I didn’t want to face any family upheaval and fighting. And I couldn’t imagine being on that property without the magnetic pull of my grandmother’s house, down a dirt road I know every inch of. I assumed I’d ask for a key at some point and wander over and let myself in and, I don’t know, just feel what the house was like without her inside. According to my mother, no one has sorted through or catalogued or sold or boxed up or given away any of her things. Apparently the house is exactly the way it was the day my mother and uncle paid someone to come change the locks the very week she died.

Last spring I went through all the letters she’d ever written me, boxes and boxes of them. Then I read my journals, looking for stories about her, and finally I read all my letters to her (snitched from her desk the week she died) that she’d saved. I looked at her pictures in all my photo albums and I tried to find the books she’d given me over the years so I could read the dedications she’d written inside. I was greedy for every tidbit I had of her, and there were many times I wanted to go back to her house, the one house that never ever changed throughout my entire childhood, no matter how many times my parents moved and I switched schools, no matter how much I grew up.

And then I got there and I couldn’t even fathom it.

I was too scared even to go near her house. I didn’t once set foot on that dirt road I’ve eagerly trotted or biked or driven down for my entire life. The thought of going inside, of walking through room after room, terrified me. Did I really read dozens and dozens of letters last spring? The very thought strikes me as superhumanly courageous, or possibly insane. The letters are boxed back up now, and I’m scared to open the boxes. I’m even scared to look at them. The thought of accidentally glimpsing her handwriting makes me queasy and afraid.

My sister drove by the house, she said, late one night. I didn’t dare ask her if it looked exactly the same, or whether she peeked through the windows, or what it felt like to be right there and know there was nobody living inside.

For months I’d been imagining what it would be like to walk through her house again, with everything so familiar and yet so empty and strange. Now I wonder whether there’s any point at all, or whether I ever will. Several close friends have lost parents this year, and all of them have told me both how wrenching and how cathartic it was to go home and clear everything out, divvying up some of their parents’ possessions, selling or donating or throwing away the rest. It does seem like a necessary rite of passage, and I assumed my family and I would talk about it at some point, would decide how we’re going to undertake whatever difficult tasks come next. It pissed me off that my mother and uncle hadn’t dealt with it already, truth be told. It seemed like they were neglecting their filial duties.

But now I realize I can’t really blame them. After all, I myself was too chicken even to go near the place.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2013 11:11 am

    I can’t go by my grandmother’s house when I’m in Onio. I drove by once a year after she died and was shocked by how uncomfortable I was. I expected warm feelings of nostalgia, and instead was overwhelmed by sadness and discomfort that new people were living in that space and had changed it. I didn’t like not feeling welcome in a house I’d spent so many good times in and that was such an integral part of my childhood. I don’t ever plan to go back.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      December 1, 2013 10:50 pm

      Yeah, I don’t want to see the house as it’s taken apart. I don’t know what will happen to it in the long run, either. It will stay in the family, but I don’t know anything beyond that.

  2. November 27, 2013 10:36 pm

    I read something this past week that made me think of you. It’s a line in the Nov. 22 essay in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening: “I’ve learned that grief can be a slow ache that never seems to stop rising, yet as we grieve, those we love mysteriously become more and more a part of who we are.” I can’t explain why I found it reassuring, but you came to mind and I’m learning to follow those instincts ~

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      December 1, 2013 10:51 pm

      I wish I felt that way. I don’t, yet. Maybe it’s a matter of time…?

  3. November 28, 2013 11:20 am

    I don’t know where to start. I totally get what you’re saying. I am the same about going back to places where I have happy memories. Going back is either too painful or there are new memories to be made which I don’t want to overshadow the old ones. The place is never the same as it is in our memories. Sometimes holding on to what we have in our memories is what keeps us going.

    Same thing with getting rid of things. Sentimentality increases with time. But then sometimes, a little distance makes it easier to let go. So I guess it’s not an exact science which makes it a little more difficult to anticipate or even understand. I’m not surprised that you went through all that stuff last spring. You were looking for her – looking for something tangible to remember her. A couple of months ago I frantically started looking for an email that my dad had sent me. I searched and searched and read all the emails I have from him. When I couldn’t find it I felt frantic and lost. As if the email would ground me somehow. Grief is funny isn’t it? You’ll pass through this bit and one day you’ll feel strong enough to go back there. Or maybe you won’t need to.

    Interestingly (for me anyway), in our culture, we sort through and clear out the deceased’s possessions immediately after the death. It seems somewhat cruel but I think there’s a practical side to it. There are 40 days of “official” mourning and during those 40 days, the family sorts through everything and they gather nightly to pray and remember their loved one. I couldn’t understand how my mum could start sorting through my dad’s stuff the week he died. Her sister was staying with her so together they sorted through his clothes and packed it off for charity. In retrospect it was probably easier to do it that first week (with her family around her) than revisiting it all now, 10 months later, alone. I think through grief, the emotional attachment to the material things becomes stronger – after all they’re all we have left of our loved one. That, and our memories.

    • November 28, 2013 11:20 am

      Just realised how long my comment was – so sorry for taking up so much space!

      • irretrievablybroken permalink*
        December 1, 2013 10:49 pm

        Not at all. Your comment is lovely, and not a bit too long.

  4. December 5, 2013 10:20 pm

    My mom passed away a year ago. She had outlived my father by 22 years, but at 87 was completely independent and lived alone. My sisters and I spent many weekends clearing out her co-op after her death. I didn’t find even a measure of it enjoyable. It made me anxious, scared, even guilty, and profoundly sad. Friends kept telling us to pack it all up and send it to Goodwill, and we just couldn’t explain that there wasn’t anything that we could bear to give away. We had to pull straws to see who would take the worn, old red kitchen scissor with the chipped blade. And the gowns she wore to all of our weddings? Give them away? And her own wedding gown, veil, and honeymoon negligee? Part with them? I have it all packed in tissue paper and will never let it leave the family. It took months of weekends.

    The day that the moving company came to finally empty out the furniture and deliver it tour various houses, I came home that night and just cried over seeing their dining room server that held all her beautiful dishes, her special serving pieces, candles, and all the little things she used to entertain and make the holidays. I cried the whole night. I am only now, a few months later, feeling a little more comfortable having these pieces in our house. I’m still not sure I am going to keep them and am I’m thinking of giving them to my children where they won’t be a constant reminder to me that my parents are gone.

    This grieving does not end; it just morphs into different levels of sadness. It will lessen and be less raw, but it is a monumental loss that nothing can replace. Someday you will want to show your own children her house. It may be in a year or two or it may take 20 – I wouldn’t let anyone hurry you into it or make you feel badly about how you are experiencing her loss.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      December 9, 2013 9:37 am

      I’m so sorry about your mom. I think I know what you mean about having her things in your house. I can’t imagine my grandmother’s house dismantled, but it also bothers me that no one has touched it yet, that it is still there, empty. In some childish way I’m mad at my mom and uncle for not stepping up to the plate and dealing with it. They’re feuding, but so what–things need to be done. I’d help if they asked, and I know it would be upsetting and sad, but this is what you do when someone dies–you sort through their things, you clean up their house, and you move on.

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