This column isn’t about crime but it is about life and death.
For 18 months I’ve put it off. I mean, what do you do with a childhood house full of memories after you lose both your parents?
We moved into the house when I was just out of elementary school – more years ago than I care to admit.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I have let my parent’s home remain virtually untouched. I just couldn’t bear tampering with their things. As an only child I have no siblings to argue with me over my decision. So, I just let the house be, sitting there like some sort of organic time capsule. I have been paralyzed with indecision about what to do.
My parents had some lean times and, finally, more prosperous times and the house, while not big, showcases what they felt was important. How could I now decide what was worth keeping and what was not?
There are the pieces of china from my great grandmother’s wedding day in 1882, not particularly valuable but rich in the history of our family. There is the lamp my grandmother got on her wedding day in 1914 and the drawer full of doilies, dresser scarves and kitchen towels she created.
And all those family photographs.
So, on this week before Easter there I was alone in the house holding fading pictures of my ancestors going back nearly a century and a half. Photos of my parents courting in high school, Dad in his Navy uniform and then graduating from college in Mayville, North Dakota.
There were pictures of the first house they bought in California and on the front steps my mother holding me as a tiny baby, my dad looking proud. And there were photos of the house we lived in once they decided to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 60’s and open their own business.
My parents knew how to work – but they also knew how to play. What struck me most were the years worth of grin-from-ear-to-ear pictures of them outside hosting a patio party or holding their prized fish catch or garden bounty of roses, tomatoes, green chilies and mounds of green beans.
Pictures that were so hard to hold, harder to throw away.
The special table cloths Mom brought out for different holidays. My Dad’s stuffed swordfish on the wall, his toolbox out in the garage, his favorite chair on the patio. All the knickknacks and possessions life sees you collect. I was nearly overwhelmed by the burden of deciding what I would keep and what I would let go.
We use phases like “passed away” or “went to God” and somehow we think that cushions the fact that our loved ones are never coming back. Well, I’ve finally gotten to the place where I can talk about it. Dad died in March 2004, Mom died in August 2006. But more importantly what I see now is that they truly lived a good life.
As I looked around their home I saw how they had fully embraced their lives in the Southwest. As I contemplated their belongings – Navajo rugs, sand paintings and Indian pottery along side treasures from their native North Dakota – the wooden rocker grandpa made out of a single piece of wood, the old metal milk can with the family name on it, the wooden wall phone that came from the farm – I realized this is where my parents found their place of peace on earth. I’d never thought of it that way.
My parents were well respected members of the Albuquerque community, operating the Hughes’ Meat Company there for 35 years. They did charity work and belonged to the Naval Fleet Reserve Club and the American Legion. Dad, like his father before him, was a Navy veteran of World War II. My folks loved nothing better than to jump in their motor home and take off for a nearby lake – and on one occasion all the way to Alaska. They tended their prized roses and vegetable garden, they played cards and pool with friends and they knew how to have a good time.
I learned a lot from them about how to conduct a life. Through the living of their lives they instilled in me the virtues of: integrity, hard work and the value of a good laugh, sometimes at one’s own expense.
The time that has passed since their deaths has been a necessary emotional buffer for me. Now I’ve come to see that it’s just a house, the items inside are just ‘things.’ The real memories and the valuables are the ones I carry inside me – always.