Each time I have done this, after Charles’s death by suicide, after my dad died, and then after my mother’s death, it’s been a different experience.
It’s both an emotional and intimate experience going through someone’s things after death
I admit to also feeling somewhat voyeuristic as well as insatiably curious. I could still catch the scent of my mom on her clothing which I also experienced when cleaning out Charles’s room but not so much after my dad’s death since he died in assisted living during COVID (but he didn’t die of COVID).
In going through my parent’s home after my mother’s death, I found so much that pertained to their lives but also my grandparents’ lives since they’d built the home in 1929.
My 97-year-old ancestral home in North Carolina has seen a lot of births, deaths, economic successes and hard times, wartime rationing, political campaigns, celebrations, holidays, crushing grief and loss, weddings, receptions, engagements, cocktail parties, Easter egg hunts, baby showers, and visits by Santa Claus. That house has weathered serious economic downturns, and a world war, while having survived several tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods with little damage.
Rifling through nearly 100 years of memories served up a lot of family history I hadn’t known about and a lot I had forgotten. (And quite a bit of dust, too.) Overwhelmed was the first emotion I experienced when preparing it to go on the market, followed by an ache of sadness, and then many moments of joy, surprise, laughter, excitement, and tears.
Going through the house was like a trip to the past–one where I felt I was actually there seeing various life episodes unfold. I was a part of that house. First, as a baby and youngster who spent many weekends and holidays with my grandmother and later as a resident teenager living there with my parents and brother as it had become our home.
Figuring out what to keep or what to let go of is always the hard part
I learned to make a stack and then whittle the stack down and only keep that which is special. And that I had room for.
While my mom was a more reserved person, what she had kept revealed another side of her that I didn’t see often but more frequently as she aged. Other than the bereavement cards after Charles’s death, she had kept a mother’s day card I’d given her a few years ago, every single newspaper article about me ever published, and the original manuscript I had sent her to read of my first book. There was more, of course, but most of it was tucked away in one section of a file drawer.
Old telegrams from my dad’s trip to Germany in the late 1940s revealed the house number had been 110 before it was changed to 112 when more houses were built on the street. While my dad had shared a lot about grandaddy who died at age 65 of a heart attack on Christmas day, I’d never seen photos of him with anyone else. I’d also never met him since he died so young.
Grandaddy had been county treasurer for 30 years
My grandfather was also a beloved elected official so there were a lot of headshots. But finally, I would come across one with his children and bird dogs, one of which was an English Setter (the photo above).
The setter in the photo has a black spot on his eye like the dog my dad would get for me and my brother in the 70s. Now I know why my dad traveled hours to a breeder to get an English Setter as our family dog and why he chose the one he did. The pups could have been twins if it weren’t for the fact they were separated in age by several decades.
If you look closely at the left window in the photo above, you’ll see a red cross. My dad had told me about this. During armed conflict, in this case, WWII, the red cross emblem meant “don’t shoot,” that this person, vehicle, building, or equipment is not part of the fight but is providing impartial assistance.
My granddad had it for two reasons–one he was head of the rationing board and two he was the county treasurer. That house had stored in its pantry, sugar, coffee, chocolate, hosiery, and gas cards which were cards posted on windshields to allow some cars, such as doctors and apparently county treasurers, access to gasoline and being first in line which was also rationed. They were short on storage at the courthouse so the rations had to sit somewhere that wasn’t a moldy basement and safe from prying hands. The knocker you see on the house today in 2023 is the same one that was there in 1929.
There were so many articles about granddaddy after his death. Yet my grandmother’s obituary was nowhere to be found. And I couldn’t find the family photo I had remembered of her and her siblings. She had the youngest of a family of 10, all from the same mom!
All this was harder than I thought but then more special than I thought, too
I left feeling a sense of connection to something larger as well as a truce between me and mortality. I didn’t feel afraid of it yet I saw the tapestry from a different vantage point.
Like a funeral or memorial service, going through a home after death is a healing experience. And now it’s time for another family’s memories to happen there. Letting go is not always easy.