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The Dead Lady’s Stuff — Mom Edition

October 17, 2012

“Wow, she played!” the piano technician/dealer exclaimed as he ran his fingers across the keyboard and peeked under the lid to watch the hammers do their work.

Indeed she did, and so did hundreds of her students over the decades. And now I was trying to figure out if I could possibly squeeze my recently departed mother’s grand piano into my small house or if I should trade it and my old spinet in on a nice upright, maybe a Yamaha or older Steinway, that would fit in the already allotted piano space.

“If I had a Knabe grand like this, I’d want to keep it,” he said.

It was one of many, many decisions that I, along with my four siblings, had to make about our Mom’s stuff.

My family and I have long appreciated the joys of acquiring and using items formerly belonging to deceased people. From foil wrap to spices to furniture to tools, we have benefited from the property of various Dead Ladies and Dead Guys. I wrote about it in “The Dead Lady’s Stuff,” an essay published two years ago in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine and republished in this blog. Over the past few months, we’ve been in the reverse position of being the benefactors of such gems. This time the Dead Lady is our Mom. Since she died June 8, we’ve been distributing her stuff and spreading her essence far and wide.

Closing someone’s apartment is a strange operation. It’s like moving, but then it’s not moving, not to a different place. Even when you’re downsizing — as Mom did, twice before — a lot of stuff gets thrown away or given away, but your core stuff goes with you to the new place. If Mom had closed out her apartment and moved in with one of us, a lot of things would go elsewhere, but many things would go with her: clothing, toiletries, make up, some furniture, family pictures and heirlooms.

But in closing the home of someone for the very last time, everything has to go somewhere else. There is no new location. Every little thing must have a new home, whether it be inherited by a family member, given to a relative or friend, sold to an acquaintance or stranger, donated to charity, recycled or thrown in the trash. Every single little thing. A decision must be made about every item: from “Who wants the dining room set?” to “Does anybody need a desk lamp?” to “Should we leave the toilet paper?” By the last week of August, we had gotten to point of “Do you want this elbow macaroni or should we try to sell it?”

Our mother was neat and organized, possibly on the edge of obsessive-compulsive about things being in order, and she was not a hoarder by any means. But she was 90 and she had accumulated 90 years of memories, important papers and personal property. She had five children, a career as a piano teacher, and avocations as a kitchen band leader, community theatre performer and painter. As orderly as it was, there was still a lot of stuff. It took us from June 9 to Aug. 31 to get it all out of the apartment, then there was a yard sale a month later and there are still a few ship-outs to go.

Mom was frugal and believed in reusing, rigging and recycling things. All of us wore hand-me-down clothes growing up. Mom herself wore second-hand clothes she purchased from a shop in her senior center and from a charity resale shop next door to her last apartment. She enjoyed being able to use clothes and items that others no longer needed. So it was a no-brainer that we would donate her clothing to a worthy cause.

Because the summer was already shaping up to be one of record-breaking heat, we decided to go through her summer clothes first so they could be used right away by people who needed them. Mom and I both wore the same hard-to-find shoe size — 7 narrow — so most of the shoes had my name on them. My sister and I could wear some of her clothes, so we kept a few things. Everything else went to the Mary Ryder Home, a wonderful residential care/assisted living facility in St. Louis for poor women. We chose Mary Ryder Home because the clothes are not sold to middle-class suburban women looking for bargains but are given directly to the home’s residents. A week or so later, the winter clothes followed.

My sister took a sofa that she had helped Mom shop for just a few years ago. She had fallen asleep on it many a time as holiday gatherings at Mom’s place wound down. My brother who has lived in California for years remembers breakfast at the dining room table when he was in high school. He had the dining room furniture shipped to his home. Another brother, a professional musician, took bookcases and a ukulele we had plunked on when we were children. He knows how to tune it now.

At various times, we had all helped Mom load her paintings into her station wagon to take to art fairs and exhibits. So we all kept some of her paintings. We hope to sell the remainder of the artwork, to continue her own efforts to sell them and to ensure they are enjoyed by others, rather than being stored, covered by an old sheet, in a basement. We shipped two of them to Mom’s sister in California. She is taking the china that belonged to their mother, to be shared among her daughters and granddaughters. That monumental packing and shipping task is in progress.

After claiming all the furniture, personal effects and other items that we wanted to keep, the search was on for new owners for all the other stuff. A college theater major got the dresser with matching mirror and the vintage 1960s pole lamp that shone three beams of light onto the piano’s music rack. A co-worker of my sister bought a bookcase. Another co-worker was thrilled to buy the single bed (complete with several sheet sets and a comforter), the rocking chair and bedside table for her live-in grandchildren’s room. She couldn’t wait to rock her grandbabies in the chair, where Mom used to read and sew. A friend bought two bookcases where Mom had neatly stacked music in her studio, and Mom’s cousin took her favorite glider chair and a tea service table.

Some piano teacher friends of Mom’s took some of her music, some rhythm instruments she had used with students, and music-related pictures. One young teacher, who had never met Mom but had heard legends of her teaching, took the remainder: an entire banker’s box of Bach, Debussy, Clementi, Liszt and other wonderful piano music. Children at a nearby day care center are now enjoying her colored markers and crayons as well as tambourines, mini-drum, maracas and other rhythm instruments. A fellow alum of St. Louis Institute of Music was happy to have Mom’s extensive Progressive Series library of piano music.

Our goal was to not move any leftover furniture that wouldn’t fit into any of our cars (two compact cars and a Honda station wagon). Anything bigger that remained after the moving weekend would be picked up by Salvation Army. As the last weekend of August drew near, there was one such troublesome item left: an attractive but bulky two-shelf TV cabinet made by my brother years ago for our Dad. It was housing a 19-inch analog TV, and it was accordingly deep, 23 inches to be exact. Although it had the great selling point of castors, big-ass analog TVs are not so popular anymore, so the cabinet had limited appeal. As wonderful as this cabinet was, none of us had room for it in our homes, and it did not pass the car-fitting test to even get it to my house for the leftovers yard sale we were planning for early October. No one who came to the apartment to pick up other items was interested in it. An e-mail plea to family and friends and my sister’s 900-plus Facebook friends and her seemingly endless supply of worthy co-workers came to naught. We posted it on Freecycle.com hoping it would be snapped up as fast as some other items. But after a few days of missed connections by just two interested parties, I scheduled a pickup by Salvation Army for the last week. At last, one of the Freecyclers came through and we rolled it out to her SUV just before moving weekend. She planned to use it to store her crafts supplies, so not only did it find a new home, but a new use. We found that a number of people are “repurposing” things.

The last difficult item was the aforementioned 19-inch analog TV, which worked except for about 3 inches of faint horizontal lines running across the screen at all times on all channels. We knew the TV was on its last legs and felt bad even trying to Freecycle it. But try we did, and alas, even Freecyclers had no interest. Plan C was to take it to an electronics recycling joint after the final cleaning night. But a last-ditch e-mail found another co-worker, whose soon-to-be-ex husband ran off with their TV. Now someone else is enjoying the TV on which Mom watched countless NCIS marathons and Tom Selleck movies while lounging in her glider.

As for me, I have Mom’s roll-top desk, where she figured all her accounts, kept track of her students and wrote cards and letters to friends and family. I have many other things of hers — clothes, shoes, jewelry, bookmarks, make-up (especially her Bonne Bell White White, which I had long been out of and which may be out of production). Yes, these are all just things, but they keep her alive, not only in our homes, but in us and in the homes and hearts of all the people who use the “stuff” she once cherished and enjoyed.

And I now have my mother’s grand piano, which is truly a symbol of her identity. My entire home office was displaced in order to fit the piano into the house, into its own room. But before the end of the first day of the piano’s arrival, it looked like it had always been there, always belonged there. Mom’s piano had found its new home.

—  Eileen P. Duggan

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. cindy permalink
    January 24, 2013 11:11 am

    Your blog just popped up on my screen accidentally and I decided to take the time to read this yet again. It’s still great — and even more fun and meaningful, looking back months later, as we are still shuffling through Mom’s things now in our own homes. I reiterate, you must share this beyond your blog, so all can enjoy!

  2. Chris D. permalink
    October 19, 2012 9:59 am

    Very nice. I really enjoyed reading this. Like with any really good creative essay, you reach beyond the overt subject matter to, in this case, craft a wonderfully touching portrait of Aunt Frances. Simply lovely.

  3. stilldancing39 permalink
    October 18, 2012 12:40 am

    Wow, Leen, fantastic!!!! You must share this beyond your blog. Very very verklempt!

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