What We Leave Behind


One of my most cherished memories – seashells from my trip to Tybee Island with my niece. The bracelet is something my dad got when he participated in a St. Paddy’s day parade. The doily was at my mother’s house and it belonged to my grandmother.

When my mom passed away in January, my sister and I found ourselves having to go through her entire house – a house containing 84 years of memories and possessions – not to mention mementos and items she had collected from the home of her parents.  She had more things than any of us could have used, and it was too much to move in such a short amount of time. So, we arranged to have a service called Caring Transitions come to my mom’s home and do an estate sale.  In the midst of grieving for our mom, we watched people come into her home and rifle through her things looking for momentos and bargains of their own. My mom rarely threw anything out.  We found a 50+ year old food processor (hand cranked) that I remembered seeing her use as a child. She had three sets of china.  She had items of crystal, costume jewelry, wall art, clothing, old toys, old cosmetic items that hadn’t been used in decades, and other things she bought over the years.  I was with her when she purchased many of those things because we often went shopping together.  She saved every birthday card she ever received from her children.  She saved every utility receipt since 1968.  She had old linens that looked as though they were hand embroidered.  The amount of stuff was overwhelming to say the least.  We were flooded with so many memories when we were going through my mom’s things.  Things she inherited, purchased, received as gifts, things that had a certain meaning for her at one time or another in her life.  I could just imagine her in a shop or at a craft fair admiring items and deciding what to buy.  These things brought her pleasure, and I enjoyed shopping with her.

Items from my uncle’s house and a souvenir from jazz fest many years ago.

A few years ago, my uncle passed away and we went through the same thing.  He never married, he was a world traveler, and he loved to shop.  My uncle had so many collectibles, figurines, paintings, and other items that he could have opened his own store.  He had awards and retirement gifts from his job.  He had statues of saints.  He had many items that he treasured and that, I assume, provided him with warm memories of the things he did and the life he lived.

I have received the shopping gene from my mom and my uncle. I too have traveled widely, and shopping was always a necessity on my trips. I LOVE museum gift shops and cheesy souvenir items.  I have collected blue china, miniature thatched cottages, posters, pictures, key chains, and the obligatory Wedgewood and tea towels from England, a sake set from Epcot Center, a miniature tea set from Colonial Williamsburg, and many more items, including magnets and pins from every place I’ve visited.  If I didn’t get a magnet, then I wasn’t there.

After going through my uncle’s things and then my mom’s, I realized something.  I have too much stuff.  I tell this story often, but I’ll repeat it here. Right after Hurricane Katrina, while I was sitting in a hotel room, not knowing whether my house was still standing or not, I thought to myself “I have my books (can’t live without those), my laptop, a few pairs of jeans and t-shirts.  What else do I need?” I had one of those rare feelings of contentment, as though I knew what life was all about, and it isn’t about stuff.   I made the decision that if I were to return home to a house full of stuff, I’d get rid of the stuff and live a free life.  I’d spend my money on experiences instead of things.  I’d have fewer items to dust.  Next time I had to evacuate I’d be able to throw my few remaining possessions, some clothes and and my cats in the car and just go.  But that didn’t happen.  In fact, in the past 12 years, I’ve bought a lot more stuff.

Some of my fridge magnets. I love looking at them, they remind me of the many places I have visited.

The thing is, shopping is fun.  My stuff contains memories.  When I recently made the decision to throw at least one thing away every day, it was hard.  My stuff reminds me of my trips, my family, and some items were given to me by people I love.   But because it was so difficult to make decisions about the things that were in my mom’s house and in my uncle’s house, I don’t want someone to have to go through jillions of things after I’ve gone on to heaven and make those same decisions.  So I am trying to have less stuff.  Most of the things I own will be junk to someone else because they will not have the memories connected to the objects that I have.  And whether I throw these items out now, or when someone in the future comes behind me and throws them out, most of my things will probably end up in landfills.  Which is sad.

My bottom line is this.  I don’t want to leave a lot of stuff behind. I want to leave a legacy.  We have a very small family. I didn’t get to know my uncle until he retired and moved to New Orleans. We saw each other on holidays but weren’t that close.  But I kept a picture of him, because someone has to acknowledge his life, and my sister, my niece and I are the only ones left to do it.  Soon, after we are gone, no one will remember my uncle.  The same is true for many of us. I never met my paternal grandfather, and many of us don’t have memories of our ancestors.  They were here. We are the evidence.  But we don’t know anything about them.  I have a family bible I inherited from my dad, it goes back to the 1700s but I can’t read the names and I don’t know anything about them.

Life is precious.  I’m starting to think about what I will be leaving behind.  I want it to be something positive.  Good memories, or people who are leading better lives because I helped them with something.  I had a friend who passed away a couple of years ago.  At her packed funeral, one of the speakers said “if you were one of Julia’s mentees, please stand up.”  Around 15 young women stood up.  That’s quite a legacy.  If I want to leave a legacy like that, I need to get busy.  Starting now.  What about you, what do you want to leave behind?