As Dad shuffled out of his 122-year-old home, he went back to his bedroom to take down the large wooden-framed portrait of his daughter, Kelly Ann. Kelly died on September 25, 2004, and he sobbed while he unsteadily carried the picture towards the front door. I met him there and took the picture, wrapped it in a Christmas angel blanket and stacked it atop the miscellaneous mess crammed into Dad’s Pontiac Vibe. After he painfully plopped himself in the passenger seat he remembered Momma. “I forgot Gerry,” he said as he started to struggle to get up out of the car. I stopped him with, “I got it. I got it. The big photo on the hall table, right?” He nodded sadly as I hurried back into the lonely house to retrieve the black and white photo we had blown-up to display at Momma’s memorial in 2014. These were Dad’s farewell actions before I pulled shut the heavy front door of Grandma’s house. (Even though my parents had lived there since 1972, 420 S. 2nd St. would always be “Grandma’s house.”)
In Annie Hall Woody Allen says, “A relationship is like a shark. It has to keep moving or it dies.” Does the simile work for life in general? We keep moving on or we die, either literally or figuratively. And a big part of moving on is learning to let go: of places, of things, of people. The week before Christmas my sister Gayle, our close friend Mark, and I started cleaning up and clearing our Grandma’s house. We organized items in piles: Trash; Goodwill; KEEP; Leave for the house. (My cousin Chiquita had bought the house and she let us leave all the stuff we did not want to take! Merci beaucoup, Chickie!) Gayle kept quoting the book about decluttering: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , “Does it give you joy? No? So throw it.” Mark would sometimes argue over the value of an item. “This old kitchen clock is wonderful! It would remind your dad of his home. Take it.”
Since we had limited space in Dad’s car, I had to make tough decisions. I wanted Momma’s china and Mama Joe’s pie safe. Period. But then a portable hair dryer from the 1960’s and a stack of old 45’s would remind me of the freedom and freshness of being 12 years old. I caught myself putting a tube of lipstick from my momma’s winter coat in my own pocket and setting aside the dented aluminum bun warmer Momma used a lot. I opened stiff books and touched the handwritten dedication from a dead relative to a dead friend.
Later my brother Emile arrived and he made piles of old things for his three children and five grandchildren. Then someone thought of gift-wrapping unique or sentimental items to put under the Christmas tree: a tarnished tennis trophy, a pair of iron wolf book ends, a biography of Carl Sandburg. The gift tags read “from Grandma’s house” or “from Eunice” or “from Mr. Snowball.”
From December 17 to the last day of 2016, we were slowly saying good-bye to Grandma’s house, to Momma and Kelly’s memories, and to our own childhoods. We let go of stacks and even rooms of furniture, clothes, knick-knacks, and even some treasures. However, each of us took the items we needed to hold on tightly to ( two audio cassettes of an interview with Grandma, a Latour coffee cup Uncle P.J. gave Momma, Kelly’s copy of Walden.)
I let go of almost 60 years of objects from that home even as I squirreled away an LP here or a cast iron skillet there. I know that the things I took are just things, but they hold powerful memories of parties and suppers and stories and games and bad times and good times. Dad and I did not finally drive off in the Vibe until I ran back in for my final treasure from Grandma’s house: the extra-large Bulova kitchen clock from the 1940’s. Time to let go and move on down the road.