The Power of Things

It’s very trendy now to go minimal. There are blogs and self-help books dedicated to the Church of Minimal Living–just the essentials. It’s aspirational…less clutter in your physical environment can lead to less clutter in your emotional and spiritual life. I admire photos of beautifully curated homes–clean lines, clear surfaces.



Then there is reality.

It’s been 16 months since mom died and I’m still clearing out her belongings. I gave her such grief about being a bit of a pack rat. Accumulating, accumulating, saving, saving. Just In Case. I myself have difficulty parting with things that cost me money. It feels like a waste. What I often tell myself when I’m setting aside items for charity is that there is likely someone who needs it more than I, who can give it a good home while I’ve been neglecting it.

Going through mom’s things have been another matter entirely. Some things were relatively easy. The threadbare towels, the collection of ratty cleaning rags, the items she’d shoved out of sight in the garage to be long-forgotten. But now we are going through the personal things.

Next week the contractors arrive to demolish the kitchen. I am going through her kitchen, and here is where I struggle. The thing that made us turn a corner in a difficult relationship was cooking together. It’s how we spent time together. It’s when she would tell me stories about growing up. It’s how I integrated her into my social circles. She was there from the first “Last Supper” through the last Tavolavila.

Do I honestly need four glass pie plates? No. But they were her pie plates. Oh how she struggled to make a bakery-perfect pastry crust! The peeler she refused to part with, even though it was rusted through and utterly of no function.

Is it bad to say these things bring me closer to her?? They are just things, after all. But they are powerful things, full of memories and personal jokes between us. Surely she would not expect me to maintain the house or her things like a museum. So I select the items that have the most meaning–the US Navy spoon that was one of the first possessions my father received in the US, a gift from the landlady; the little knife my mom used to chop everything; a sunny set of dishes with green edges and painted strawberries that my uncle gave my mother; hand-carved wooden stamps used to make Portuguese breads.

My mother had fond memories of her grandmother, who taught her to make these breads, or “bolos.” Her grandmother had very old wooden stamps and my mother longed to have them as a keepsake. But her mother refused to give them to her, and when she died left them to my mom’s sister. My mom shepherded her sister through breast cancer treatments, including six weeks at UCSF in the early days of bone marrow transplants, sleeping in a cot in her room (this was before I lived in SF). My mother went to all her medical appointments to translate for her. And as my aunt grew more and more sick, my mother asked about the wooden stamps. But her sister gave them to their other sister from whom my mother was estranged. From there they were lost to my mom forever and she was deeply hurt and disappointed. For all that my mother had done to help her mother and sister, both women stubbornly and purposely rejected my mother her one simple request.

But two things happened after that. One, my cousin (by marriage) gave my mother her own wooden stamps. She owed my mother nothing, but this gesture was gracious and lovely. Second, my mother had some of her own wooden stamps custom made in the Azores.

I’ve used those stamps, and for me they symbolize two things–that family is more than blood, and a reminder of my mother’s tenacity to  overcome her own “blood” family’s selfishness and lack of grace.

So things have power, as they can be important reminders of things more important than possessions. Those items will find a place of prominence in the newly remodeled cottage in Napa.


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