My mother’s things

Joan Rivers told her daughter to be ruthless about discarding stuff after she died. “I’ve said to Melissa, ‘Sell anything and everything you don’t want. Don’t feel beholden to my possessions,’” Rivers told an interviewer in July. “I feel almost hysterical on that. I don’t want them to have a sense of guilt.”

Rivers passed away last month just two days before my mother died, and I came across that quote as we were preparing to clear out Mom’s apartment. I felt grateful for the advice, as if my own mother—she who saved everything—were telling me to take it easy. I vowed to resist the temptation to hoard things just because they were Mom’s.

Melissa Rivers faces the monumental task of unloading a 5,200-square-foot apartment. Mom was down to perhaps 500 square feet in her cozy digs at a senior living facility, so our job wasn’t as daunting as it might have been. The mass of stuff Mom accumulated over 87 years had already been culled three times, during each of her moves, as she downsized and then downsized again.

But the vow not to be beholden to my mother’s possessions soon vanished. When actually inside her living space, I was drawn to all manner of things that reminded me of her, things she had held and used. Crazy things of no value, like little spiral notebooks dotted with handwritten shopping lists, phone numbers, her daily blood sugar readings and random notations like “Stockholm is the capital of Sweden” (important to someone with memory issues).

I took a Rubik’s Cube she liked to manipulate while watching TV and a Scotch tape dispenser in the form of a shark that she had labeled “BRUCE,” after the main character in “Jaws.”

I took jewelry, scarves and clothing; books, letters and knicknacks. I took a few small pieces of furniture, including a porch glider Mom had used on her deck in Rhode Island, her porch in Pennsyslvania and then the patios of her two apartments in Ohio. It’s on our front porch now, and I think of her when I sit in it.

And I took pictures—family photographs, of course, but also some of my mother’s paintings. A lifelong artist, she began painting in oils and acrylics in the 1960s and later turned to watercolors, which became her specialty. She enjoyed the fluidity and freedom of watercolors, as well as the delicious pastel hues the medium could deliver.

I took paintings of each type, along with sketches and charcoal drawings. My original plan was to distribute some of the artwork to friends. But I find myself unable to part with it.

I don’t mean to fetishize the paintings, or any of the rest of my mother’s things. But they are what remains of her now. In these things I sense her presence, rather like the smile the Cheshire cat left behind in “Alice in Wonderland.” Having Mom’s things makes me feel she’s still with me—at least a little bit.

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  • Blog Author

    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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