What my late mother wanted us to pack

After our mother died last year at age 91, my four sisters and I gathered to clear out her apartment.

We didn't imagine the work would be onerous, since our mother - a modest, orderly person determined never to be a burden to her kids - had consciously downsized over the years, as she and my father moved from their suburban home to a three-bedroom condo, and then to a small apartment in a "senior residence".

Her closets were spartan and, though a voracious, lifelong reader, she had given away all but a few shelves of books. Many of the items in her kitchen - including a cookie jar shaped like a pigtailed Dutch woman wearing an apron - had not been updated or replaced since World War II.

She'd got rid of my father's clothes and other belongings within a month after he died, tossing a half-century's worth of birthday cards and other mementoes into a grocery bag for recycling.

The suitcases she had left us were a final piece of maternal advice: The beloved tokens of a life must be left behind and committed to memory. Pack lightly, and learn to let the rest go.

Startled, I had asked if she wanted to pause over any of these keepsakes. She shook her head. It was better to throw them away now rather than leave them, later, for someone else to discard.

My sisters and I laid our mother's jewellery on her bed and divided it. We sorted through stacks of photographs. Our mother had left a handful of love letters written by our father in 1944, as well as a diary from the early years of their marriage. Always a planner, she had left a black notebook in a drawer in her desk: "What My Family Should Know".

Smoothing the way for us with a final, meticulous set of instructions, she had provided the name and number of a funeral home, along with information about her graveyard plot (already paid for), a photo suitable for her obituary and suggestions about the music we should play at her funeral. And finally, there was a key to a storage locker in another part of the building.

A storage locker? What had she squirrelled away in there? We took the key and went to look.

In the metal cage-like enclosure, we found five empty suitcases: one for each of her five daughters, in which we could transport a few mementoes of our mother's that we might like to keep.

My sisters and I all lived more than half a day's drive from our mother's apartment, and each of us has a home filled with plenty of stuff.

I sometimes envision the house my husband and I have shared for almost three decades as a cargo ship, fully loaded and listing to starboard - except that our belongings, forever at harbour, have nowhere to go.

Do we still need my spouse's high school wrestling trophies, or the bolts of fabric purchased 20 years ago and never made into clothing? What about the rolling toy telephone with eyeballs (no 21st-century baby would understand it to be a phone), or the boxing bag our children required as an outlet for hostility during their teenage years?

Meaning has stealthily attached itself to these objects. I am unlikely to spend an evening playing Hungry Hungry Hippos, or tending to the family of American Girl dolls that lie in wait in the dark of a closet. And yet, I can't let them go.

I knew that anything I brought home from my mother's apartment would become an addition to my own vast ship of stuff. (I could already envision my children, 30 years hence, sifting through my 42 decks of playing cards - including the erotic Japanese version - my collection of Day of the Dead paraphernalia and the animal skull in a plastic container in a drawer of my desk.) I didn't need to add to my trove of belongings.

But there were the five suitcases.

As if preparing for some sort of trip, my sisters and I went back to our mother's apartment. We started to pack.

One sister wanted the white glass tray, which for 40 years, had graced the top of our mother's dresser. One wanted the silver hand mirror, engraved with our mother's initials; one the handbag with its clasp like an animal's mouth; one the cross- stitch pillows; one the Dutch-lady cookie jar. Item by item, our suitcases filled. Each of us claimed not to want more stuff. We pressed one another: "You should take this. Someone should take it."

Most of the furniture and clothing had already been earmarked for Goodwill - but how could we abandon our mother's little gate-leg table, or the lovely blue bowl that for decades had sat atop it? And what about her hand-knit afghan, her embroidered tablecloths, her Christmas decorations - the objects she had retained for comfort in her final years?

If my mother had been with us, I think she would have told us to jettison her belongings without compunction and, instead, to talk and spend time with one another, as we were scattered across the country and gathered only once a year.

The suitcases she had left us were a final piece of maternal advice: The beloved tokens of a life must be left behind and committed to memory. Pack lightly, and learn to let the rest go.

That night, exhausted, my sisters and I ordered takeaway food. The bill came to US$82 (S$116). Searching for cash in the tumult of our mother's apartment, among the suitcases and the boxes, we found her wallet. In it, precisely US$82 - enough to feed us all once more, before we went home.

NEW YORK TIMES

  • The writer is a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'What my late mother wanted us to pack'. Print Edition | Subscribe