The Things She Hoarded

“4 months of paperwork to sort” by lejoe is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dying is the easy part. Especially if it’s quick.

One moment you’re freshly dried off from the shower, maybe thinking about breakfast or lunch. Maybe you’re thinking through your to-do list or standing in your underwear wondering why you didn’t do the laundry yesterday. Maybe you’re looking for a matching bra. Maybe you’re planning to return a call. Maybe you still feel cold from earlier.

Then your heart stops and you find yourself on the floor of the spare bedroom. The last thing you see is under the guest bed no one uses or the beige apartment carpet or the clutter under the shelf near the door. Your work is done.

No more breakfasts. No more lunches. No more to-do lists or returned calls. You don’t hear the ringing in your apartment over the next two days. You don’t hear your cell phone ring until it, too, dies.

My mother left two wills. Both were notarized. Both were left in her apartment. Dozens of copies were left for the people after her to find. There were copies in folders and stuffed in books. There was a copy in a pile of photos from the 1980s. There was a copy taped to a cabinet. There was one in the jewelry box and one in a mystery novel. The one place she didn’t leave one was with the County, so there’s a debate as to whether any of them matter or even exist.

The first she wrote when my niece was young and lived with her. Wills approaching their legal drinking age aren’t usually useful, and the early version was heavy on listing out possessions to divide up among the people she imagined would still be around to receive them. She designated homes for desks and dolls and a savings account that did not outlive her. Many of the things she mentioned in that first will had been given away or lost years before her last day, but the sentiment she’d once attached to them remained in her cursive.

The second one, written in a far spindlier hand that had been so deathly sick she found herself surprised to still be around. Her memories of the time were tainted by medication and trauma and the second will was angry, full of petty vengeance, and a prescriptive version of a fantasy funeral that will never happen. The people she wanted to attend are scattered or dead. The musical performances, the flower arrangements, and the weeping melodrama she pictured aren’t possible. Not to mention the open casket she had for her own mother wasn’t possible right after death, but would be exponentially disturbing three years later.

Thing is, even after three years, she’s only partially dead.

The process keeps her in limbo.

She has a headstone, but her ashes are several states away. She has a death certificate, but she still legally has a car and a bank account.

She’s Schrödinger’s cat.

And yet, I can’t call and ask her “who’s in this picture” and she won’t call in a panic about an approaching storm. She only exists in the tangle of red tape between here and her former home.

I recently got a form from the Clerk of Court in her former county. It wasn’t delivered by USPS but by the neighbor boy because the same people who have given me the wrong instructions for filling out said form three times now, put the wrong address on the envelope.

They are spectacularly incompetent.

They’re the reason the wills are up for debate. When my mother died, I was told her wills didn’t count because, despite being notarized, she had failed to file them. Three years later, I was told the will might count and asked if I had a copy. The question is: A copy of the one divvying up things that don’t exist or the one declaring ill will towards family she didn’t share a reality with? Neither really explains what to do with her headboard or the credit report dispute from 1972 she’d kept.

Digging through the remains of someone’s life — the magazines they kept, the spices they’d bought, the clothes still hanging (with tags) in the closet — has the effect of making us question the things we keep.

My mother kept everything. Receipts and junk mail and awards given to her kids in middle school. She kept stuffed animals none of us recognized and cards given to her mother before her mother died. She kept nearly everything that had once belonged her own mother, from photos to kitchen magnets. She had collected three sewing machines, and none seemed to function. She also wrote stories on boxes explaining how she acquired certain items, from whom, and what they meant to her. A dollar store decoration for a holiday might have a long, Sharpied tale of a holiday spent caring for others and how she saw it and thought it was pretty and a sign from the universe or God that things would work out.

And yet, I have inherited hundreds of photos of mysterious relatives I’ve never met with no clues as to who they once were. I discovered my grandmother’s essentially-secret life of road trips on buses with women she once worked with. My mother mentioned it, that it was something her mother had done, that it was something she’d always wished to do, but to my grandmother that had always seemed to be a separate life she didn’t wish to discuss with the grandkids. Those photos were always stored away despite them being unimaginably cool. Polaroids of unsmiling people next to motel waterslides and tourist signs in the 1960s that are better preserved than any of the childhood images from my youth in the late 70s and 80s. Everything from that era has a faded yellow haze no matter how hidden away from light it was in boxes and albums. Almost like even the photo paper knew the rural NC fashion of that time period was terrible.

One day, unless I get my act together before then, someone will find binders of negatives and contact sheets with images of unknown houses and trees rather than people. Someone else will be left to figure out what to do with the books and assorted stacks of scribbled ideas. Someone else. Unless I do it for them.

As though I were the dutiful daughter, I carried on the family tradition of hanging on to too many things. Fears of not being able to find an item again, of not being able to afford it again, of needing it the second I part with it have caused my ADHD and I to assemble entirely too many supplies for hobbies I might never return to. A worry about filling landfills with unused junk dating back to middle school ensures I’ve guilted myself into saving all manner of broken things with the intent of fixing them or finding a new use for them. From time to time, the more logical parts of me plow through this mess and toss it in the bin for the trash truck, but not often enough.

My sister meanwhile cycles through belongings — many the thrifted discards of others’ lives — with a healthy regularity. She reinvents herself with new wardrobe and furniture, empties whole houses and starts anew somewhere else. The only place the family tendency towards clutter shows itself is in her car, a kind of miniature rolling garage fully of recreation equipment, newly thrifted things, and garbage she’s collected from a beach or marsh.

In her life, she’s begun again too often to fear the unknown. She’s tried new jobs and new husbands, new cities and new hobbies, each time shedding her old self a lizard leaving its skin behind. And yet she doesn’t stray too far from the swamps and seas that birthed her, not for too long.

She’s my grandmother in that way, her past tucked away in a shoebox on a shelf and forgotten. At least until someday someone unearths it. Someone who can no longer ask the meaning of this phrase, the identity of this person, the location of that motel.

Even for all our internet-lived lives, there are mysteries left unsolved. Our curated selves offer plenty of selfies for memorials, but don’t always reveal the whole of the person.

The past eighteen months, so many deaths have been tallied and so many someone else’s have been left to navigate paperwork and the detritus we leave behind. Perhaps sadder still are the families swept up in fires, floods, earthquakes, wars, falling condos, and sickness that leave no one to sift through the belongings, no one to file paperwork, no one to decide what to put on the grave marker.

We’re looking into a future where Someone Else doesn’t even know the questions to ask, doesn’t recognize the handwriting on the left-behind cards, or the people in the memorial photo.

My niece fell and broke her back during the past year. She recovered so there’s a good chance she’ll live long enough to see the end of this trail of paperwork with the County. I can’t make any guarantees any of us will with the way it’s progressed so far. I’m pretty sure the car will be long dead before we get the title properly transferred. At least we can then give that a proper burial.

In the meantime, maybe I should declutter.




Reader. Writer. Teacher. Artist Runner. Learner. Former Sensei. Pursuer of truthful things. Debut novel All the Bridges Burning

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Neliza Drew

Neliza Drew

Reader. Writer. Teacher. Artist Runner. Learner. Former Sensei. Pursuer of truthful things. Debut novel All the Bridges Burning

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