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Successful Aging: The legacy of a house

Q My mother recently passed away. She lived in her own home for the past 50 years. I now have the responsibility of getting her house ready to sell. The task confronting me is going through all of her things and deciding what to do with them. I grew up in that house so the memories are long and strong. When I walk into my old home with all of her possessions still intact, I feel I want to cry. How do I get over this?

— N.S.

A Dear N.S.:

Your question is timely given my own personal experience. Quite unexpectedly, I recently lost my sister who lived in Philadelphia. Her children are taking care of all the tasks in preparing the house for sale. The tasks are just one part of the responsibility. The other is more personal. It’s the feelings and memories associated with all items in her home.

My sister and her late husband loved to collect things because they liked them, found them beautiful, meaningful and wanted to live with them. Some had significant value; others did not.

And there were lots of “things.”

For example, in my sister’s three-story, 100-year-old home of six bedrooms, she had about 30 Oriental rugs. Some were on the floor; others were used as bedspreads or a table runner. She had about 10 grandfather clocks that required a clock man to come once a month to service them. None of the clocks ever told the same time.

Paintings, lithographs and just plain prints covered the walls. The kitchen painted bright yellow had two full ranges. The basement with curved stairs out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie housed two upright freezers, one only for home-baked breads, cakes, tarts, biscotti and the other for meats and poultry. That’s in addition to the refrigerator in the kitchen with homemade jams, lemon curd, imported cheeses, crème fraiche and of course the basics of eggs, butter, fruits, etc.

And then there is the dining room table that extended to seat about 18 people in front of a China closet filled with family and acquired items of crystal and silver from around the world.

Every item, including small stuffed animals, giraffes, bowls, soap stone animals and Chinese horses had meaning for her; each had a story. And then there was the library of books. My sister could read a book a day.

The home had rituals. For example, one day I wanted to throw away some dead flowers and coffee grounds. I was promptly stopped before dumping them in the trash. They were to be saved for Mrs. Blake, who added them to her compost pile. She in turn would use the compost for her garden and deliver homegrown zucchini to my sister.

My sister’s home and culture were consistent; always there. When I returned to her home and was asked to select what I wanted for me and my children, I felt paralyzed. How could I disassemble this legacy? As long as nothing moved in her home, I felt my sister was still there. I slowly realized I had to say a different kind of goodbye, one that was different from her funeral.

I came to the conclusion that if I took some of the belongings to my home, she could be with me. I could create a special place for them; I could integrate them into my home. Items trigger memories, and that’s what I am counting on.

In my last walk through her home, I visited each room slowly, thoughtfully and soulfully. I said a tearful goodbye. This space would never be the same. As long as her home was intact, I felt my sister’s presence. Now that would be gone. Letting go was in order.

I realized this is a process. I know over time I may move some of her things in my home to a less visible place and give many of them to my daughters. As I wait for the items to arrive, I know I will cherish the memories that are triggered by each giraffe, teapot, rug and afghan. The memories will stay with me forever.

N.S., I share my personal experience to emphasize the importance of honoring our loved one’s things that are more than just “stuff.” An important step in clearing the house is to begin the process of letting go and thinking about ways to preserve the memories. And that may take a little time.

Next week we’ll address some of the practical aspects of preparing a loved one’s home for a new occupant. Thank you for your timely question.

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