Last weekend I met 2 of my sisters in Huntsville, Alabama to divide up the last of my parents’ belongings: their books, Christmas items, and a few housewares. My parents had a lot of books, since they were big readers themselves and also had inherited a bunch. I got some treasures: my great-great grandmother’s leather hymnal that is so tiny she must have worn it tucked in her glove; my parents’ guestbook; and a bunch of Faulkner books from my aunt, Peggy, with her notes in the margin. Peggy knew Faulkner well and was even, at one time, supposed to write his authorized biography, but, instead, she spent her days in St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, DC and then in the state hospital in Mississippi. He described her one time as a girl at a party, waiting for someone to come ask her to dance.
We got through the process, staying up late, and ended up with about 10 boxes each, with the remaining 200 to be sold. But it was hard. It was harder, in a way, than dividing up the furniture–because the books were such a critical part of who my parents were. (One of my fondest memories is of Daddy reading out loud to Mama in bed at night.) It was hard seeing those books scattered into the 4 winds. It was even harder seeing the house start to empty out of any evidence of their lives. And we were on such a tight schedule that we didn’t really have much time to talk much about the experience—or, for that matter, about our parents—with each other. We had to keep going, dividing up stuff, getting through. One redeeming factor was that we also had fun together and couldn’t help but feel our parents’ presence in the room .
When I got back home after the trip, I walked in the kitchen and started crying. I had held together until then, but I couldn’t any longer. It’s been a long road. First, my parents moved to Alabama in 2002, and we divided most of the furniture. Then, my mother died in 2004, and we divided up personal items, such as her jewelry. Then, my father moved into the retirement center last year, and we at least thought about dividing a few more things, but then he died. We sorted out a huge amount right after he died, but it takes a long time to divide up the evidence of 62 years of marriage (and, for my parents, of 94 and 89 years of life). I’m glad we’re near the end of this road, but it’s also hard to see that end come. And there’s something awfully depressing—and terribly final—about watching the last remnants of people’s lives get separated into piles for the Goodwill, the library, and the trash.
It helped, that night we got back, to see on the window sill, waiting, in full bloom, the amaryllis that we received for Christmas this year. My father loved amaryllis flowers, and he often gave us one for Christmas. It was comforting, in a totally illogical and yet absolutely convincing way, to see that it had bloomed out in two, count them two, red flowers while we were away in Huntsville. I couldn’t help but see it as a message from two people in particular that I love and miss: hold on–this is also part of life.