Monday, July 21, 2008

Sorting, Heirlooms & Expectation

On Saturday I got the expected, but much earlier than expected, news that my grandmother would have to move to an assisted living home. She is my last grandparent, and we've always had a good relationship. It has been hard to see her having memory issues, lapses over the past couple of years. It was also, coincidentally, her 83rd birthday.

On Sunday, I went to help my aunts and uncle clean/clear/sort and pack up her apartment. She is moving from a one-bedroom with generous storage(5 closets, incl. walk-in) to a studio room.

Things we had to consider while sorting:
1. Can she injure herself with this?(accidental breakage-(like glass), etc, not purposefully)
2. Does she need this to feel at home?
3. Is this something that should be donated, or will someone want it?
4. Will this fit?(larger items, chairs, etc)
5. What should go over immediately to help her acclimate?
5. She said this(insert family heirloom here) was for ____, but now we find out she told each person that it was for them.

Obviously, we didn't get it all done, but it had me thinking a lot about what is important to us, what comforts us, everyday items. My aunt(by marriage) was somehow assigned to sorting her bureau, and almost tossed a few items that I knew had been on my grandmother's bureau for at least 30 yrs. Holding one, a heavy blue glass bowl, plain and non-descript, I realized how much and how little you can know about someone. My great-great grandfather was a glass blower. He moved the family from Pennsylvania to Indiana in the early 20th century because a natural gas mine was found there, and the glassmakers moved.

The bowl does not symbolize the move, her family, etc to anyone who hasn't heard this story. But, I can hold it as I wrap it up, and imagine him handing it to her, something he made, something he brought home. Hand to hand, this passage of family and place.

My other aunt and uncle are visibly shaken by this experience(while handling things remarkably well), and I realized that may be why my other aunt was sorting, because in amongst the heirlooms we were finding stained clothes, odd stashes of $1 bills, boxes of razor blades(!), crumpled papers, etc. Physical signs that she is no longer the fastidious woman who raised them.

It wasn't bothering me at all. I tried to figure out why.

Am I more distant because she only raised me for a couple of years? I don't know, it is possible, but I don't think that is it. It may, instead, be that I can deal with this for two reasons:
1. I volunteered in a hospital for 2 yrs and worked with patients in much worse condition.
2. I have had to do similar cleaning after my mother's manic episodes.

Somehow, none of the mess, paranoia, etc, seems attached to my grandmother, to who I know her to be. The true her, her true self, is not a paranoid, forgetful, messy person. Those things are just in the way.

Nevertheless, I find myself sad today. Her life has changed and will continue to change, I will help her walk, as she helped me walk. I will encourage her to eat healthy foods, as she did with me.

I came home with a few boxes of things, some I really want, some I am unsure of, but my family wanted me to take them. Part of me wants to take them back, for a day, and learn stories about each of them, especially the everyday objects like an old-fashioned measuring cup with the measurements all embossed around the edges. Pre-pyrex. I think my aunts and uncle expected me to ask about the "valuable" items, all of which will go in my uncle's basement for storage(except for her china display case items( but I am realizing that I want these simpler things, things my family have used daily for 100 yrs.

Do you have some similarly mundane item that is from someone in your family that you treasure?


  1. Lovely post... I too this year helped with my Grandmother's move into an efficiency apartment at an assisted living place. The things that I came home with were her thousands of photographs and slides - which really mean a lot to me, and a set of Koi fish salt and pepper shakers. She always kept a collection of salt and pepper shakers, and I know that these in particular - the white & red handpainted Koi fish - were brought back by my Grandfather for her from when he was serving during the Korean war. They are so delicate and I am sure that she greatly treasured them. One thing I am saddened by is that I had longed to have my Grandfather's luch box, but found it was not there when we went to looking. That is one thing that I always visualize when I think of him, this battered old lunch pail. I agree that the little things are much more precious to hold onto.

  2. My kitchen is furnished by one of my grandmothers. The obvious item is the large pine hutch, but the real memories are in my cupboards: her mixing bowls, her cereal bowls, her one-speed hand-held mixer, her Chinese bowls and spoons. And her china and silver, which come out on holidays and make my transplanted life feel connected to my 1st home again.

    From her husband, my grandfather who died when my dad was 12, I have his University of Oregon blanket.

    My grandmother who recently died at age 92 has decorated my house with the quilts made by her mother and her sister, and the afghans she crochetted for me. (don't tell my cousins, but I was her favorite and she crochetted me 6!)

    From my other grandfather, who died when I was 10, I got my fiestiness and will. That's enough of a legacy to remember him by!

  3. Thank you for this lovely and touching post. Your family is so lucky to have such a wonderful and loving person in their lives.
    I try not to get to attached to stuff, feel more like the custodian of things for the next generation. Plus, I don't have much storage either.
    The mundane stuff we treasure, hmm, my husband's grandfather made a cutting board which we use daily and shows it's been loved. I treasure a chipped prism from my late brother. It means the world to me, truly valuable. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. thanks everyone. I was worried I'd written too much, was too rambly.

  5. I have a wallet that my mother gave me in a box in a drawer. It's a regular leather wallet. I was using it daily and then one day I dropped it in a parking lot at Ikea but someone found it and called my sister (who was listed). It had been run over by a car and was in sad shape, but it's the only thing I have left that was given to me by my mother. I was scared of losing it, so now it's in a box in a drawer.

    Glad you're back on the blog!

  6. What a lovely post. There are a few items that I cherish from my grandmother and great aunt--both who I was very close with. My grandmother always had a stash of beautiful hand made hankies with her, in her purse, etc. We all have 3 of them. And so many times throughout the last year I have cried in those hankies knowing Granny O was there comforting me. In addition, my aunt had this lime green candy dish in her house. Everytime we would visit when I was young, that of course, would always be "raided" by my sister and I (mostly me). I have that dish in my house. I agree, the everyday mundane articles that in your mind represented your grandmother are far more precious in my opinion than the "valuable" antiques.

  7. Oh, this post brought back so many great memories of my grandmothers.

    One was in a nursing home with Alzheimers for 15 years or so, so I have memories and photos.

    The other passed away suddenly from a stroke - after getting off of her exercise bike to switch over laundry. I have a few small things, and my sister desperately wanted the tupperware that she stored her cookies in. My mom has all of her recipes written in her hand... one day we'll scan them and make a family cookbook.

  8. I love reading about the little specific things you all cherish. Very cool.

  9. I love this post! When my Uncle Eli and Aunt Louise (they were like my grandparents, having raised my Dad for a time) died, they opted to auction almost everything and donate the funds to charities they loved, and so the entire estate was handled by lawyers. Some of my (less than favourite) family members were upset they wouldn't get x-heirloom or y-painting, but all I wanted was the big dictionary from the library because Eli and I would spend hours looking up words together. The lawyers gave it to me as soon as I asked for it, I think because it was so clearly an everyday reminder of our relationship and not a grab for antiques. They also gave me Louise's wedding ring and I wear it with mine - two simple silver bands almost exactly alike. On the other side, my grandmother (who I loved more than almost anyone) left me so much - money, jewelry, antiques but the thing I value most is a framed greeting card with a drawing of a decadent looking lady-mouse. She kept it on her dressing table and I keep it on my altar, next to a photo of her looking equally fabulous. That was one of those "almost thrown away" items I rescued from the trash because I knew how much she loved it.

  10. When my dad died, my mom kept everything. His glasses, watches...random, mundane things. As time went by (and she moved) she kept less and my sister took a bunch of stuff. Like for instance there are some clothes of my dad's hanging in her closet... I guess that's her way of still feeling close to him.

    I kept my dad's tape measure. And some of his tools... pliers, screwdrivers, a monkey wrench... things I use and remember using with him. I use them all the time and it's nice, the continuity.

  11. i didn't know that about the glass-blowing and the move from pa.

    i was really sad after we visited Nana the other day, the first time it hit me that we are losing her.

    i am glad you have memories and stories of our family that i can ask and learn about in the future.