November 15, 2019

Can you rest in peace while your stuff rests in a dumpster?

When my mom died, I had to find a home for her panther. Not an actual endangered wild cat, a lamp.

Picture a glossy, garish panther base topped with a cherry red, tiered lampshade, exactly like the hats once worn by the members of the alternative, new wave band Devo. I had seen that lamp my whole life on her nightstand and the only thing I ever wanted to do was “Whip It.”

But after she died, I was haunted that I had left the panther in her condo in Las Vegas, to be dealt with by some shady dude our real estate agent knew, who agreed to show up with his pickup as soon as we were done taking what we wanted and remove whatever was left. Where it went after that, I’ll never know, but I’m guessing there’s a decent chance the panther spent some time at the bottom of a dumpster getting the stink eye from the ruddy-cheeked plaster of Paris orange that lived in my mom’s kitchen, cheering me up and creeping me out in equal parts. My mom knew how to put the kitsch in kitchen. 

She never met a flea market or garage sale she didn’t like. 

Did she have great taste? I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder, but it is safe to assume not a single person who ever beheld my mom’s collectibles thought, “Wow. That’s a style I’d like to emulate.” Still, there’s something about her relentless dedication to her own aesthetic that you have to respect. If she couldn’t figure out how to be refined and elegant, she wasn’t even going to try. Her choices added up to a cluttered, confusing, cacophonous visual environment. If her decorating style were a song, you would have to change the station, immediately. But it was her song, and over the years, she did nothing but turn up the volume. She cranked it. And now, she’s gone. The music ended but the stuff remained. And as her daughter, and her only surviving child, it was on me to reckon with all of it when she died two months ago. 

The sorting of the stuff, for me, and I’m guessing for others in the same chipped gravy boat, is one of the most visceral experiences of loss. 

In a way, we are like that jaunty orange, those three sets of schnauzer salt and pepper shakers, that gilded frame flanked by brass peacocks: important and cherished in the context of belonging to the person who is gone. Now: value unknown

You might think, when faced with mountains of your mother’s tchotchkes, she’s gone, what does it matter if I give my baby-sitter a fishing tackle box of vintage Mexican silver bracelets, large-scale brooches, faded Bakelite cuffs? What does it really matter if her print of a hula girl ends up in a thrift store in unincorporated Clark County?

Personally, I don’t have room for much stuff, fruit-themed Chalkware folk art or otherwise. I don’t live in a world where there’s much call for speckled, pastel Bauer nesting bowls or an embroidered Ukrainian silk shirt from the old country. I’m all full up with the batting gloves and flash cards and Spider-Man costumes that likely fill the home of any mom of two young boys.  

What’s more, to me, a produce curio is a gateway knickknack, inevitably leading to harder stuff. One minute you’re propping up your sentimental smiling citrus fruit, the next, you’re climbing over seven mint green midcentury modern pitchers just to get to your Mr. Coffee. Don’t get me started on the framed photos. My mom and I had a complicated relationship, but in the end, I was the only person she wanted to see when she was dying, and, apparently, she also wanted to see plenty of me around her home, where there were images of my brother and me on just about every available square inch of wall space.

Perhaps I’m making her home sound more hoarder-like than it was. It was cramped, but tidy enough, with no discernible scent other than what I might describe as “top notes of leather handbag.” To be fair, she downsized like most of our parents will at some point, but while her living space shrank, the number of lamps and pitchers and photos never did. 

And, of course, there were the paintings.

A seascape by Nota Koslowsky.

Let me double down on doing away with objects important to dead people. In particular, I’m talking about oil paintings by my dead mom’s super dead uncle, who died before I was born.

At one point, Nota Koslowsky was a fairly well-respected artist and teacher who made extra money illustrating books, including a popular Passover haggadah published in 1944. My mother had several of his works, which she’d held onto since her married days in the San Fernando Valley, through her single mom days in San Francisco, up until the very end. Picture a young shepherd girl playing a flute, wearing a red scarf. Well, Nota did, and he painted her and she had her charms, but in the end, only his dark, woodsy forest scene made the cut. 

I had to make choices, parse all the stuff, select just a few things to keep (like the jade pendant I’m wearing as I type this), a few things to pass along to relatives and everything else to leave for the random guy and his truck. Did that mean it was right to 86 Nota’s portrait of a lighthouse? I don’t know. I have to talk myself down off a rocky seaside ledge of guilt every time I think about it. But in my haste and grief, that’s what I did.

I admit I probably did err on the side of chucking too much, too fast. But my mom had died just days before, four months to the day after my brother died of cancer at 47, and I had just had too much, too many dead relatives, too many folded letters and fading photos gathering in shoe boxes in my closet, too many overlapping stages of grief. My boys were bounding around her condo, leaving a light dusting of road-trip Bugles wherever they went, and the clock was ticking on their ability to hang out patiently while I sorted and cried. Plus, there was only so much I could fit into my minivan, or for that matter, my home, my life. 

As it happened, just before my mom died, I had read the best-selling Japanese organizing book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Cleaning and decluttering icon Marie Kondo didn’t write it for grieving daughters on cleanup duty, but some of the principles spoke to me nonetheless. 

“Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them,” she writes. “No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past.”

Kondo’s guiding credo is that you should physically handle each item in question and keep only those that spark joy. “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past,” she explains. So maybe it follows that in handling the things left by a departed loved one, you are also processing your relationship with that person, your own grief, your own past. 

In my mom’s congested Vegas bedroom, on a tray covered with opened mail and random pens, was a clay craft I had made as a child one summer at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department day camp. I remember sitting with a bunch of kids I didn’t know, doggedly rolling out pieces of clay into little worm shapes, stacking them together in a circle, making a lid that didn’t quite fit, painting the entire thing pastel yellow and pink after they baked it, and later handing it over to my mom, who was underwhelmed, to say the least. 

“Well, maybe crafting is not your thing,” she said laughing, this drooping, sad, clay atrocity in her hand. It was a parental slight I had never forgotten, a moment encompassing my mom’s sometimes brutal honesty, her awkwardness in relating to children, her inability to read the sadness on my face, the long days she parked me at various lame city camps at dodgy urban playgrounds. When I held the bowl, I thought about how long she had kept it, how many decades, how many moves, how she had chosen to keep it up until the end, and I just cried right into that crappy little craft because she was gone, and until the very day she died I could never just let her be, imperfect as she was, and accept her anyway. I felt the paint, smooth and cool against my hands, brushed my fingers across the too-small lid resting at the bottom of the bowl. I showed it to my boys. Then I tossed it. 

Letting her things go with gratitude was right, but I still felt a pang when I thought about Nota’s lighthouse, or the Chalkware cherries that lived alongside the grinning orange, or the panther that once prowled Mom’s nightstand next to her black-and-white TV, the one we would watch together in her room at night when I was little, on the rare occasions she would let me sleep with her, when I was too scared or lonely to resist breaching her private space. She was generally pretty reserved when it came to doling out maternal warmth, stressed by her two jobs, detached, overwhelmed, but on those nights, she would sing me a lullaby she made up consisting mostly of just my name, “Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, Mama loves Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, Teresa.” As a mother, she cycled wildly and unpredictably between overbearing and almost criminally negligent, but letting me watch a rerun of “Taxi” at 11:30 p.m., letting me be close to her, her voice in my ear, Louie De Palma cracking wise in the background, that was a memory of her I wanted to keep, a memory that was now mine alone, mine and the panther’s. 

The sorting and tossing actually asks what is arguably one of life’s central questions, one we don’t ever want to think about until we’re holding a batik scarf, dangling it over a “maybe” pile, wondering while it hovers: Can she see me now, or is she just gone? 

This just got heavier than a box of blue glass vases headed for a landfill in Henderson. 

And that’s where an organizing book is one thing, and a spiritual guide is another. I turned to Rabbi Naomi Levy, the founder and leader of Jewish spiritual outreach program Nashuva, and author of several best-sellers about faith, God and loss, including “To Begin Again.”

“I believe that there’s another dimension and it’s not a far dimension,” the rabbi explained to me over the phone, her voice calm and measured, her words thoughtful and deliberate. “I don’t believe heaven is a faraway place; it’s like a simultaneous place that we get small glimpses of in life. The soul comes from a place of eternity, from another dimension, and it descends to this world, this material world, and it’s here for a mission — to create connections and healings — and there are daily missions and there are missions that take a lifelong period of time. But when it’s time, the soul returns to its place of eternity and the body returns to the earth.”

And the stuff that once belonged to that body and soul? 

“I just feel very strongly that the part of your mom that collected stuff is gone,” Levy reassured me.

“The part of the soul that remains is the part that’s connected to things of eternity, not temporality: beauty, divinity, oneness and love.” 

So while the part of her that cared about possessions was gone, my mother, according to Rabbi Naomi, was not. 

At that point, she admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that she still has a box of her own mother’s sweaters in a box under her bed. Though she lost her mom several years ago now, the sweaters still carry her smell, and every now and again she takes them out to get a whiff. That’s how I feel about the few things I kept, like the jade charm. It touched her and now it’s touching me, so there’s a sensory reminder of the deeper spiritual truth: “Souls who loved us are never far away.” 

Stuff can help us mourn, but that doesn’t mean my mom is in heaven having a conniption because I subtracted her Russian nesting dolls.

Whatever and wherever her soul is, a part of her showed up on my doorstep last week. She arrived courtesy of the Neptune Society, in a cardboard box shipped for $63.01.

As to where to scatter her ashes, she left that up to me. I guess I will return them to the earth. Most likely, the earth underneath a flea market, where the vintage lace doilies are plentiful, the plaster fruit always smiles, and the ceramic creatures roam free.

Tamara Strasser

Teresa Strasser is an Emmy- and Los Angeles Press Club Award-winning writer and author of the best-selling memoir “Exploiting My Baby” (Penguin). Currently, she co-hosts “The List Weekend,” a syndicated TV show from the E.W. Scripps Co. She lives in Phoenix with her husband and two sons.