living in the past

a screenshot of a Windows NT desktop showing the movement of a file called

Life is all about dualities; I’m keenly aware that every hour I am spending archiving and filing, inspecting old boxes of junk, dealing with my parents’ houses and belongings, or just thinking or worrying about that sort of thing is time I am not spending doing something else with my life. And I have mixed feelings about that. I love noodling around with old stuff. I think knowing where I came from is important and useful. I’m not sure what i was going to be doing otherwise. I found a box of old MAD books and magazines in Boxboro last weekend and Jim and I were completely happy and absorbed just sitting and reading stuff we’d read before. So it’s a balance. This week has leaned much more heavily towards the deal-with-the-past stuff than almost any other week this year, and it’s been a lot more fun than the other recent-post-mortem ones earlier in the year. A list, some of it I’ve already tweeted about.

  • Week started off with a very moving memorial service for a high school (and current) friend’s mom. Lots of people from a long time ago, among them my first boyfriend’s dad. Took a selfie with him just in case.
  • I hung out with Barry and gave him some (most) of my mom’s old Christmas tree ornaments. I don’t think I’ve ever had “my own” Christmas tree, this felt like a good move. Kate and I kept a few ornaments for no real reason.
  • AOL Instant Messenger shut down this week and I spent some time chatting on its last day with the eight friends I had who were still logged in.
  • I decided to get my old floppies and zip disks out of my house, so fired up an old laptop (I have two older ones but can’t find the power cords, this incenses me and I am powering through it) and did the thing.
  • My mom has an extended family and some folks who keep track of historical stuff. They sent me a link to some old film of a bar mitzvah sometime in the 50s which includes footage of my great-grandfather (who I only know from a few random photographs), my grandmother and my mom as a teenager.

One of my friends I was AIMing with told me about a new (to me) useful phrase: Swedish Death Cleaning. The idea that a lot of your stuff may be serving purposes in your life now, but will just become instant-junk to your family and friends once you die, so maybe do a little of that work in advance and save them from having to do it? Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy my stuff and am not a decluttering bandwagon person. But sometimes it’s easier to motivate to do stuff like this when I think about reducing someone’s future post-me grief than worrying about the landfill or whatever else encourages people to do this work.

My mother had heaps of good qualities, but she held on to things. And had a big house and was generous with her space. And was unbothered watching her spaces fill up. Her house is full of not just her things but the things of my father (who moved out in the early 80s and didn’t take all his stuff), me (’85), my sister (90s), Barry (00s), my grandmother (90s) and various lodgers and tenants (various). And my problem is seeing so many things that might have value to someone, but don’t necessarily have value to me. And I want to get them to their good place.

I found out that there’s a local musician who has an old drum machine that takes ZIP disks and it was my pleasure to give mine to him. We gave a lot of my father’s power tools to the local tech school where a generation of kids can put them to good use. My ZIP drive is going to a technology library in Omaha. I sent a MAD book to a librarian friend in Canada who said it reminded her of her grandfather. We gave all my mom’s coats and cancer hats to the local coat drive where I hope they keep someone warm. My hope is that I don’t get too hung up on finding the perfect home for every last thing, but for now, with the low hanging fruit, it’s been rewarding getting to move some things from stagnant-past to future present.



If I have a love language, it’s cleaning and organizing and sorting and making smooth what was rough and mostly keeping my mouth shut about the whole thing. My mom died two weeks ago today and I’m just now starting to be communicative more than light social media and emails. She was a firecracker. She’ll be missed. Her obit is online which she mostly wrote herself (she chose that photo, I prefer the one in this post) but she’s better memorialized by her twelve thousand Flickr photos with their permissive Creative Commons licenses.

I’ve been living in my childhood home (a place I haven’t been for more than four days in a row since I was seventeen) and immersing myself in the work to be done. Kate and I are doing the usual paperwork and meetings and bill-paying and notifying but there’s also the work of assessing and presenting a life. My mom lived in this house for 45 years. When my father left twenty-five years ago he took some but not all of his stuff. Many other people have lived here and made their impressions. We haven’t made any long-term plans about the place, thank you for not asking, but one thing we do know is that we’re having a bunch of people over for a Life Celebration in two weeks (email me if you want details). I’ve decided it would be nice if this house highlighted the best things about my mom–her artistic sense, her adoration of nature, her fierce sense of humor, her deep and abiding love for this town and the people in it, her lifetime civic commitments and her reading and writing activities–and maybe downplayed her “don’t give a fuck” attitude, as much as I often admired it, that could make this magic castle of a house less than welcoming to anyone who was not-her.

I’ve been touched by people’s concerns about how I’ve been doing and sharing their memories about my mom during all the stages of her life. I have, however, deeply and soulfully enjoyed just getting to spend a lot of time alone with her spaces and her stuff, doing my little acts of service and love and saying goodbye in my own very particular way.