By Caitlin Kelly
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.
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?