Our Stuff Is Filled With the Souls of Those Who Touched It: Mourning the Loss of People and Things

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We spend our lives amassing things. From the time we’re born, people bring us “stuff.” Rattles and onesies, teddy bears and tub toys, shoes we can’t even walk with yet and savings bonds for our future. As we grow older, our stuff expands to include books and knick knacks, framed photos and candles, pillows and magazines, cars and tech devices. 

As the late comedian George Carlin said in his brilliant piece on “stuff,” “That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff…Your house is a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” 

Marie Kondo has created a worldwide phenomenon out of stuff: assessing it, caressing it, thanking it, then sending it out to pasture if it doesn’t spark joy.

A few days ago, as I pulled out of my driveway to go to work on a Friday morning, I saw tables set up in front of my neighbor’s house. Cars were lining the streets and people were covering her lawn picking through “stuff” all over tables and tarps, the front porch and sidewalk. My neighbor—a close friend—passed away a couple of weeks earlier and her friend was cleaning the house of all of her earthly possessions. 

My eyes filled with tears as my car rolled closer and I saw her dining room table in the driveway. A month earlier, before I even knew she was ill, we spent Thanksgiving gathered around that table, toasting the hostess and filling our hearts and bellies with love. The plates and glasses, serving trays and coasters, silverware and serving pieces—they were all there on the front lawn, strangers picking through them like a hawk on a carcass. And there was the roasting pan that was the home for every holiday turkey she ever made us. Now with a $3 price sticker on its lid. 

I pulled the car over, got out and walked toward the goods. I refused to make eye contact with the roasting pan or table. I couldn’t. The memories were still too fresh. I stepped backwards and leaned on the sofa that once held the entire cul-de-sac for neighborhood watch meetings. Her stuff. Her world. Here on the lawn. She’s gone. And here’s all her stuff that she once held so dear, being sold to people who didn’t even know her name.

When my mom died, I took only a few things from her house, including a couple of her shirts that reminded me of her, my parents’ bride and groom wedding cake topper, a small silver box and a yellow hat my mom wore every winter. She got rid of most of her possessions a couple of years before she passed away—before she even knew she would be passing away. “If you want it, put a note on it,” she’d say. “Or it’s gone.” 

Clean like you are dying. That was my mom’s motto.

When a person dies, it’s the stuff that’s left behind that’s so difficult for us to part with. Parents who have lost children, keep rooms as shrines, never to be touched—never to be disturbed. Books line shelves, stuffed animals sit on beds, hair clips and brushes are left where they were last placed by the deceased. Strands of hair intertwined in the bristles, containing DNA from their loved one. A sign of life where life no longer exists. The stuff is our touchstone. Getting rid of it entails a separate and equally painful grieving process. 

A funeral for our stuff.

On my last pass through my parents’ house, I was forced to discard most of my childhood memories. Shipping them from Michigan to California would be costly, and there simply wasn’t any room for them in my house. So there they went, into Hefty bags—my Crissy doll and Barbies, my pig collection and ads I wrote from my first job. And my childhood mattress. All were pulled out to the curb for the garbage men to take away the following day. 

I never thought I’d mourn a mattress, but pulling away from the house, I sobbed so hard as I saw the black and red plaid upholstery, stained from so many years of use, propped up against bags and bins. I pictured my mother sitting on the edge of that bed kissing me goodnight. And my father laying in bed with me telling me one of his fabulous bedtime stories that always began with “Once upon a time…”, always contained at least a couple of “Lo and beholds!” and finished with a “And they lived happily ever after.”

Stuff is filled with the souls of the people who touched it. There’s no doubt about that. What we need to learn is that letting go of things, doesn’t have to mean letting go of the memory of the person who possessed them.

This essay originally published at MariaShriver.com.

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Hearing Their Voice

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I love purses.  I love tote bags.  I don’t own as many as, say, Kim Kardashian.  But I own enough to have a little tinge of guilt every time I purchase a new one.  I don’t collect expensive handbags with designer labels.  Expensive is never what I look for.  I look for something that suits my personality, my need for function and something that can house the 784 items I carry around with me every day.

I bought a new purse yesterday.  My old purse was unstructured and I could never find anything in it – a truly frustrating feature for a Virgo.  It was like a big, black hole.  So while shopping for my new summer handbag, I had one thing in mind:  Organization.  I wanted easy access to everything in my purse.  I wanted to be able to find my keys in two seconds flat.  I wanted my phone to have its own home, and my sunglasses to be in their own safe slot where they wouldn’t be scratched.

While walking down the aisle at Marshall’s, I saw it.  It was like a beacon of light shined right on this cute little yellow bag.  Either that, or the bright, blinding yellow jumped out from behind all of the black and brown purses surrounding it on the hooks. I’d like to think it was God’s spotlight guiding me to my treasure.  It was exactly what I was looking for.  Happy.  Structured.  Large enough to carry everything I own.  Summery.  And it had a S***LOAD of pockets!  Compartments for days!  Ahhhhhh…Nirvana!

The minute I picked the handbag up, I heard this voice say, “That’s a nice purse!”  I looked around, and there was no one in the aisle except for me.  Then I heard the voice say, “Look at all those pockets!”  Then I realized where the voice was coming from.  It was my mom’s voice.  And it made sense to me that she would be giving this her stamp of approval because SHE LOVED POCKETS!  This purse had her name written all over it.  In fact, it’s the sort of thing I’d buy two of; one for me, and one to send to her, just like I had so many times before with shoes and lipstick and sweaters and, yes, purses.  So I slid the straps over my shoulder, walked over to a mirror, and heard my mom say, “Buy it!”  And I did.

I don’t know if it’s just years of hearing my mom bestow approval on things I’ve purchased in the past while we were shopping together, if the voice in my head is now aging into the voice that was once hers, or if my mom was really communicating with me from wherever her spirit is living now.  But I do know that – loud and clear – I heard her speak to me yesterday.  And every time I slip my sunglasses into the side pocket of my cheery little yellow bag, I’ll see her smile right along with me.

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