After 99 years, dismantling a life

By Caitlin Kelly

An auctioneer and her assistants scan the crow...
An auctioneer and her assistants scan the crowd for bidders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She moved onto our top-floor apartment hallway five years ago, forking over a cool $500,000 for a three-bedroom home. She dressed well, had her hair done, and had a ferocious grande dame quality to her.

She was then merely 95, a former interior designer and survivor of two marriages. She had, as they say, “married well.”

I knew her name. We all did. We also knew her live-in nurses, forever scurrying to the laundry room.

While we were away recently for two weeks, she died.

This week the auctioneer came from the Bronx and his men started packing up the remnants of her life into boxes for sale to strangers: china, crystal, oil paintings, chairs, tables, rugs.

I knocked on the apartment door and asked if I could take a look, as it’s now up for sale and one of the building’s most coveted, large and light, with terrific Hudson river and Manhattan views.

Small world — her grand-daughter-in-law was there and turns out to be someone I see at my jazz dance class every week.

It was a sad, odd thing to watch someone’s belongings being carted away, to be sold at auction in — of all places — Atlanta. She had some lovely things, especially the paintings. There were early photos of her.

One of the many challenges of having no children and no nieces or nephews, is whom, if anyone, to leave our things to — or the proceeds from the sale of those things — when we die. I’m at an age when I still very much appreciate beautiful objects and acquiring them here and there.

But, having had to move my own mother into a nursing home directly from the hospital with only a week to ditch  all her lovely things, (or store them, or move a fraction of it into her small new room), I’ve lived the horror and sadness and snap decision-making of selecting/tossing/selling stuff it’s taken decades of taste, income and pleasure to acquire and enjoy.

The marble bust of her grand-mother? Kept. All her many textiles, collected across the world as she traveled alone for decades? In my garage now.

It meant chattering away to her local auctioneer picking through her stuff as if this was not exquisitely uncomfortable and painful. To him, it was just another day of work. To me, a situation unimaginable barely six months earlier on my last visit to her home, a six-hour flight away from mine.

It also meant going through things with my mother, one of the most private and uncommunicative people I know  — holding up for her decision everything from a black Merry Widow corset to her gorgeous red leather knee-high Cossack-style boots. Her Greek texts and travel souvenirs.

My garage now holds her collection of beautiful Peruvian and Bolivian mantas and Indian cottons and silks, her molas from the San Blas Islands.

A Kuna woman displays a selection of molas for...
A Kuna woman displays a selection of molas for sale at her home in the San Blas Islands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When her mother died, having simply ignored the tedious task of paying income tax on her significant wealth to any form of government for decades, there was very little left. I will not be inheriting anything from my grandmother’s estate. I can visit a museum in Toronto to see her former armoire.

Nor will I inherit from my mother, I suspect, for reasons too grim and arcane to discuss here.

I’ve told my father the few pieces of his art and furniture that I hope he’ll leave to me. But who knows?

It’s all stuff, in the end.

Unlike Egyptian kings, we’re not going to be buried with it.

Have you been through this process?

How do you plan to dispose of your stuff when that day comes?

45 thoughts on “After 99 years, dismantling a life

  1. Yes, I’ve been through it but my parents’ artifacts weren’t really valuable – my dad’s bait bucket (not joking) and my mother’s high school graduation watch. I did rent a trailer, however, to pick up the cherry wood bedroom furniture they bought in 1935. It’s very strange looking at your parents’ accumulated stuff and choosing. I liked your piece.

  2. Caitlin, I enjoyed reading this and found it quite personal as well. I have slowly been paring down over the past few years so that my only child, my son, does not have to deal with so much when the time comes. I have given several paintings to the Humane Society or sold them in yard sales, donated a lot of stuff to a thrift shop in Tucson that gives the proceeds to several organizations. My late mother-in-law kept everything and when we moved her to assisted living, it fell on me to help her – she decided to keep all her dressy shoes (about 40 pairs) although her feet would not fit in them. She also brought her cookware although the unit only had a microwave. I thought it best not to argue with her. It took us about a year to dispose/disperse of all her things finally.

    1. Thanks…It’s a very emotional thing to dispose of someone else’s belongings, let alone our own.

      It was wrenching to watch these beefy Bronx guys just tossing everything into boxes. To them, it’s just merch or garbage. Oy.

      Jose has paid ton of $$$ to keep some of my mother’s things in a storage locker — in Victoria, BC for 2 years. I dread wasting the time and $$ to fly there, stay in a hotel and go through it — almost as much as dealing with the &^#!@#&()_^## “friend” of hers who has made this situation unbearable difficult. My mother is alive but wants nothing to do with me. The only reason I hang onto her stuff is that the rest has been sold or stolen so whatever shreds of family history/stuff are likely in there.

      Or not.

      1. Very difficult situation for you, Caitlin, And now all that stuff will have a big, black cloud hanging over it. I am estranged from my mother, too, and have let it be known that I do not want anything of hers when she goes. I am not being bitter, it is only stuff and I hope it goes to whomever needs/wants it.

  3. It’s hard…but people remember the person and not the things they owned. I’ve kept a small crystal hummingbird my grandma kept in her window. When I see the rainbows reflect in the kitchen, I feel she’s with us. Everything else is merely stuff (apart from photos!!!).

  4. My sister and I went through our Mom’s/Family stuff. We have so much stuff, not to mention a whole house still, but it is a painful task. They are just things. Alas though, they carry with them little tattered pieces of our lives.

      1. Oh yeah…lots of hideous…though of course its the worst when its hideous, yet rather valuable and comes with a good story…then it becomes the hideous vase on the mantle 😉

  5. poppyandk

    My mother and I went through this a few years ago with my grandparents, and we were in a similarly rushed situation to you. In some ways it was good that we didn’t have time to dwell.

    It really must be one of the most difficult things in life, and it can leave you feeling very alone. It’s so helpful when people like you open up and talk about it – knowing that others know the feeling makes it easier to bear.

  6. themodernidiot

    Yup. It all goes to garage sales and trash bins ’round here. I have one memento of my grandmother I recently lost, a handmade quilt of old. It’s safely tucked away in a plastic bag until I have a place to display it. I called dibs on it with her before she died. She knew she was going, and had us all sticker what we wanted. My cousin Kristina died 4 years ago at the young age of 28. It was terribly sudden, and her inheritance included a computer (donated), a TV (kept), a bed (gratefully kept), and piles and piles of what to us, was junk (donated and trashed). We still get her bills even though we’ve informed these companies of her demise, and her then new car still sits in an abandoned lot waiting for the bank to take it. My mother has all her belongings catalogued and set aside in her will for my brother and I, knowing full well we’re selling it all. Me? I only have books, and a dog. The library can have my books, and I’m hoping I outlive the dog.

    1. The quilt sounds lovely. It’s good to have something like that.

      It’s another motivation (two posts yet to come on this) for us to (ugh, ugh, ugh) clean out our storage lockers and the garage.

  7. great post. i’ve had a few people in my family who i was close to, pass away. what i chose to do was to keep one or two small things that reminded me of them and who they really were. the rest was donated or given to others. each time, i had the feelings you described, when looking through their things, looking at what they had accumulated and chosen to keep, and knowing everything is ultimately temporary.

    1. Thanks…It is one task we are all going to have to face!

      I have only a very few things that belonged to my grandmother and they were items bought for her by my mother, like a small, antique pocket watch.

  8. My wife has always accused me of being a bi of a hoarder ( though I prefer collector). When she died recently we started clearing things we knew I wouldn’t want ( her clothes would never fit me) and after a month and a half still haven’t finished.It’s given me pause to think about what will happen when I go. Will Yvonne be cursing me the mess I leave behind?
    Therefore I think it’s time to start decluttering now. I shall perhaps save my coin collection for my grandson and perhaps ask certain members of the family if there’s anything they’d like to take now ( of course If they say no, I shall be mortally offended that they think it’s not worth having).
    As you say Caitlin, it’s all just stuff in the end.

    1. The coin collection is something to think about….with all due respect, it may have absolutely no monetary value and will he want it for fun? If he does, great. But my husband got his Dad’s coins looked at and they’re…a pile of old coins.

  9. Steve

    I went through all this a little over a year ago with my Dad. You hit the nail right on the head, in the end it’s all just “stuff”. The treasures are the memories we keep locked up in our head that have no intrinsic value or maybe an item that brings those memories up so we can remember what is truly important. If you can put a price tag on it or purchase it at an auction, I would venture to say it is just “stuff”

    1. Except that every auction house in the world would close were it not for the three Ds: disaster, divorce and death. Oh, and the museums’ lovely phrase for “getting rid of shit” — de-accessioning. I’ve gotten many of the things I own and love, very affordably, at auctions from Nova Scotia to Stockholm.

  10. Stuff, yes, but stuff with history, infused with story. I have many items from both sets of grandparents and my parents in my house. I am the only person in the family currently interested in the story of these things.
    I am also full of stories about the various ways that people deal with their stuff and the stuff of the previous generations of their families. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to think about these stories today.

    1. I wish I did have some family objects that were chosen/cherished. What I do have — unusually — are two small paintings of my mother by my father, even though they divorced decades ago. It remains to be seen if I inherit from my father, who has some objects that mean a lot to me, probably because they’re lovely (French bronzes) or he made them.

      1. Ah, you’ve given me an idea for a piece on chronicling our lives based on my mom and dad’s different habits. Thank you. I hope that you will get at least some of the objects from your father at the right time.

  11. A brave and moving piece, Caitlin. I think we sometimes underestimate how attached we can become to objects which may represent a certain emotion relating to the person involved. Many psychologists including Melanie Klein and D. W. Winnicott have written extensively on this. I remember a friend telling me that when he was sorting through his dead mother’s belongings, he was fine until the kitchen. The object that made him shed tears was a cheap, plastic, and much-used set of utensils which he remembered her brandishing every Sunday when she cooked up a big, Irish, family breakfast. He’s a fine poet but I don’t know if he’s ever been able to put that into words.

  12. It’s very difficult to go through someone else’s things without the context of what each piece means to them. The stories behind why items are kept are just as interesting as the pieces themselves. But when you are going through things and don’t know the stories it can seem like a bunch of junk. After my mother died we have been making our way through her things and to be honest giving away most of it to charity. Because they are her memories, not ours. Sad but true. I’ve obviously held on to anything that means something to me but you are right, you can’t hold on to everything.

    1. Which is why, if possible, it’s best to know the stories behind the items so you can decide if they’re worth keeping beyond the object. My father has a pair of very simple black metal candlesticks I’ve always loved…but I also know that he made them. That makes them a lot more special to me.

  13. Nemesis

    Alas, Ms. Malled… I have some experience in these matters… Which is why, well prior to mine own demise, I shall invite my Nearest&Dearest to a Potlatch.

    Much more fun, when ya think about it… than the unsavoury alternatives.

      1. Nemesis


        …”Chief O’wax̱a̱laga̱lis of the Kwagu’ł describes the potlatch in his famous speech to anthropologist Franz Boas,

        We will dance when our laws command us to dance, and we will feast when our hearts desire to feast. Do we ask the white man, ‘Do as the Indian does?’ It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you come to forbid us dance, be gone. If not, you will be welcome to us.”

        Celebration of births, rites of passages, weddings, funerals, namings, and honoring of the deceased are some of the many forms the potlatch occurs under. Although protocol differs among the Indigenous nations, the potlatch will usually involve a feast, with music, dance, theatricality, and spiritual ceremonies. The most sacred ceremonies are usually observed in the winter.”…

        [NoteToMsMalled: My favourite MostSacredCeremony will unquestionably involve Tequila and not a little theatricality… high atop a mesa somewhere in the American SouthWest. ‘A Movable Feast/PotLatch’, as it were.]

  14. I went through this process before I left Perth. Everything I own in the world now lives inside a big green bag (presently 22 kilos) and a black backpack (10 kilos). I have a box of official documents, letters and photos at a friend’s place in Perth, but that’s it. I am carrying everything else I own in the world with me, all 32 kilos of it.

    I never had much by way of possessions anyway, but being reluctantly settled for a decade and a half, it still did take me a week to decide, hard-nosed, on what I was taking and what I was bringing. Function over sentimentality. It was cleansing. I hope to never have more stuff than this (i hope to never have to actually settle permanently), so that when I die, no one has to go through the process that you have described. Live light, leave easy.

    That’s the plan anyway. We’ll see what other curve balls continue to throw my way.

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