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Measure of a Life

Aside from celebrating two birthdays, we spent our Labor Day weekend laboring in the garage. In January 2002, my mother-in-law died very unexpectedly from sepsis following an attack of pneumonia. In the year following her death, all of her things were boxed and put into storage. After a year or two of this, we discontinued the storage and moved everything into our garage. Two or three times a year we set aside a day to work our way through her things.

In the beginning it was just too painful, but very slowly we progressed, making decisions about clothes, shoes, purses, knick-knacks, framed photos, crafts, etc. After several failed attempts to do it by himself, my husband has put me “in-charge” of going through the boxes. That allows me to select items I think he or his brother will want to see or put-away, while sorting out items that need to go to Goodwill or disappear. If I didn’t do this, we might still be discussing the merits of keeping an assortment of guest bathroom soaps that were already old when they were packed seven years ago.

How do you appraise a person’s life? How do you let go of the physical things, choosing only certain tokens and special items to remember a person by? Especially when nearly every item has a memory attached to it?

Even harder is that each time you open a box, her unique scent wafts up and hits you full in the face to fill your mind with memories? One minute you’re pulling out a box from the pile, and the next second you’re looking at her “mother of the groom” dress, matching dyed shoes, and the small mementos she collected from our wedding. The rush of grief from missing her squeezes so hard that you are unable to breathe in the pain of it.

This weekend we found her jewelry boxes, her wedding album, both of her son’s baby books, the last set of birthday cards, and a lot of her mail, bills, etc. Going through her jewelry was more personal to me than going through her nightgowns. Like any woman, she had multiple jewelry boxes from different stages of her life. I know the resources guiding us through this process suggest selecting a few specific items and bestowing them on our daughters so they will have something of their grandmother’s, but I just couldn’t bring myself sort and remove any of the jewelry. My husband will need to take it to his brother and aunt so the three of them can discern what has sentimental, or real, value and needs to be kept.

After this weekend, we’re down to three boxes and ten filing cabinet drawers. I have mixed feelings about finishing the task. On the one hand, it will be wonderful to be able to walk through the garage, but will I miss these long, emotional, days going through her life?

Will the material we've chosen to save, the papers and photographs, sufficiently document her true spirit, her unique essence? I believe that the measure of her life, her legacy, may be found in the lives of her sons and how they raise their own families.

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