A few days ago, I was mentally occupied by the popular trend of minimalist reorganizing and purging of things that no longer spark joy. Although I like being organized and certainly am not on a mission to acquire material goods, I’d pretty much decided that this whole focus on what we own was basically irrelevant to me. Stuff is stuff. I have more important things on my mind. But then, just when you think you’re done with a topic, boom. Another angle pops up and if you’re self-aware, it needs to be considered. This pop-up angle is also about stuff. But there’s no joy involved. There is grief. Oddly, in this case, the grief is spiced.
When Michael died, I needed to move quickly to attend to the business of clearing out a bunch of his things. My son only had a week at home before leaving the country for 6 months. I knew that I wasn’t going to keep Michael’s clothes for that long and I wanted my kid to choose anything special that he wanted to keep before I unloaded the closet and dressers. I was also worried about cleaning out Michael’s study. He was a foot taller than me and had shelves towering above his desk, all the way to our 9 foot ceiling. I felt that the task of trying to disassemble the accumulation of heavy books and school resource materials was going to be more than I could physically manage. So together, my son and I attacked those projects, setting aside what would go to my daughter and her family and stashing what he and I wanted to keep. We got everything done, he left the country and I just walked away.
I haven’t remodeled anything. There’s a bunch of empty space with no new plan for it. I haven’t felt compelled to switch out what once was there. The months following that purge were taken up by the bureaucratic busy work that follows death and by planning a memorial for Michael. That event ultimately became more like a curated museum exhibit.
He was a public figure in our community, having co-owned a local business for 27 years prior to becoming a popular high school teacher. Interspersed in those years was a political career which included being both an elected and appointed official for 20 years, as well as serving on multiple boards and commissions. I’d never done anything like it before. Ultimately, it was a cathartic labor of love that helped me sort through our life’s memories and find a way to share them with a lot of people while not exposing myself publicly to overwhelming attention. Hundreds of people came, ate a bit, watched a slideshow, listened to music and walked through the exhibit which kept the focus on Michael. That worked for me.
In the meantime I was trying to attend to my own needs, working my way through the exhaustion and loneliness which were my constant companions after his death. I went to therapy, I traveled, I swam and I took classes. I gardened and went to the movies. I read and wrote, listened to music and spent time with my family and friends. The following year I became a principal organizer for my 50th high school reunion. Busy times. Except for the disposing of most of Michael’s personal things, the inside of my house and the garage are virtually the same today as they were when he died. I really like these spaces. I’ve been glad to be in them. I’m comfortable. But I have a list of chores that need to be done, a list that has some items crossed out, while some still sit there, staring up at me. Their persistence should have been a clue for me.
Somewhere in his 30’s, Michael’s love for food took a leap into growing it and cooking it rather than just eating it. To the great joy of the whole family, he accrued a wide range of recipes which included many favorites we’d discovered together on family trips and his own personal creations. His vegetable and herb garden ensured great flavors and over time, he used them in both fresh and dried forms.He canned every year so there were tomatoes for spaghetti, chicken parmesan and pizzas, corn relishes, pickles and special rubs for chicken and ribs. He built two spice racks for the kitchen and another devoted to his collection of hot sauces. I still cooked but I never loved it the way he did and over time, my repertoire shrank as his grew. Toward the end of his life, he looked at me with great concern and asked me what I was going to eat when he died. That’s one of the conversations I’ll never forget.