“I want the last check I write to bounce,” Chuck Feeney famously said, before going on to give away his fortune of over $8 billion to charities, universities, and foundations. Although she didn’t have his wealth, Mom often quoted Feeney, and she came pretty close, with one difference.
Chuck Feeney lived “a life of monk-like frugality” (per a September 15, 2020 Forbes article) investing in things like peace in Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s healthcare system, and building the Roosevelt Island technology campus with Cornell.
Mom bought stuff.
She built a 3500 square foot house in the rain forest and filled it with souvenirs from her travels: rugs from the middle east, historic and custom furniture from China, huge baskets from Africa and Asia, goat-skin pottery from the south Asia, Caribbean shells and coral, shawls and fabric from everywhere she lived, a full set of custom silk clothing from her life in Thailand.
When her parents died, she added her mother’s china and silver and damask linens to her own two full sets of everything and commissioned a custom silver chest to hold it all; and added to that her mother’s own souvenirs: dolls from every country she had visited. She added her father’s art collection to her own, storing some of it in the damp basement. More baskets, more pottery.
Döstädning, translated “death-purging,” is a Swedish tradition in which, as you grow older, you purge your worldly goods so that, when you die, your family doesn’t have to deal with all your stuff. It’s a way of simplifying, of letting go.
And it’s something I am becoming a huge advocate of, after the experience of purging mom’s house in preparation for selling it.
My sisters and I have different attitudes towards the legacy of stuff. As someone whose life mission seems to be creating order out of chaos, I have spent the last week purging expired foods and OTC medications and carrying prescription drugs to safe-boxes at hospitals and drug-stores, discarding used bras and underwear, and organizing the rest of her clothes into piles destined for donate, garage sale, Poshmark, and “please god someone take the custom silk clothes because they are too good to donate and of no interest to people who shop on Poshmark.”
Who knew that the cottage in a small wine town that she moved to when her rainforest dream house became too much for her held so much storage? Every time I think I am done sorting through things, I discover another hidden closet and have to sort through what’s left – “is that rolled up canvas something she painted, bought from a street artist, or will a collector want it?” because god knows we don’t.
Most of the house’s contents were acquired long after I had left home. Only a handful of things hold sentimental value for me: the Chinese hope chest covered in carvings of people that, as I lay in a pool of sunshine on the sage green carpet of one of our childhood homes, came to life and told me stories; a tiny clay pitcher painted with aqua fish that held syrup for pancake breakfasts on sunny Sundays in our Tucson home; a white quilt with pink tulips pieced by her grandmother or maybe a great aunt or a great grandmother that I slept under in their antique bed (now long gone). The collection of colored jars that I could never find room for in my tiny little NY apartment but that survived move after move after move during my childhood with no breakages, which will go to my brother-in-law, thank goodness, though where he will put them…
One of my sisters, who has as much of a restless foot as my parents did, travels through life lightly, darted into town between trips, filled a pick-up and a trailer with furniture and goods that might have better luck finding new homes in her upscale city, and fled. My other sister, who has appointed herself the keeper of the family tradition started by wanting everything but quickly became overwhelmed and limited herself to three dolls from the collection, a handful of small shells, glassware, kitchen ware, 7 cartons of slides from my grandfather’s travels, six tubs of historical family documents going back to the civil war, a collection of Ethiopian throw pillow covers, and all mom’s financial records.
None of us wants the china – which is edged in silver and cannot go through the dishwasher or microwave. Nobody wants the damask tablecloths and napkins. Or the shell collection. Or the pottery. Or the baskets. Or the dolls. Or the fabric. Or the shawls. Or the silk clothing collection. Or the antique furniture that she bought in Chicago when she moved into the cottage.
I must still be in the anger phase of grieving because all I can think is “WHAT A WASTE!”
I am quickly discovering that no one else wants these things either. Shell collectors don’t want undocumented shells and coral, no matter how much she spent on them or how beautiful they are. Basket collectors don’t want baskets from some unknown country. In this remote small town, the Pier 1 rattan patio chairs have more value than custom Chinese furniture, and the cost of shipping it elsewhere makes it prohibitive to sell it out of town. How do you pack a shell so fragile that every time you pick it up, tiny bits flake off, so that it doesn’t break in transit?
I’d like to think that these things brought mom joy in her last years of life. But she couldn’t see them, nestled in the huge recliner she retreated to, for they were housed on custom illuminated shelves that were behind her, or buried in boxes in the basement, the closet, or the upstairs bedrooms. On my last visit, she had me rearrange them, hoping I think to engender in me a desire to possess them after her death. But I viewed them the same way that I view things in a high-end gift shop or a museum: That’s nice, glad I visited them, don’t feel a need to have them in my home. Living in a tiny apartment does that to you. I don’t know where we’ll put the hope chest.
My sister recently passed near mom’s rainforest dreamhouse and, struck by nostalgia, started up the driveway, where she ran into the new owner. Who told her that she had been forced to tear down the house because it was in such poor condition: mom hadn’t cared for it and, though we hadn’t realized it at the time, it was falling down around her ears. The news would have destroyed my mother, to whom it represented some outward appearance of her identity, much as this house did. She, so rejecting of others’ approval, was, I am convinced, working so hard to surround herself with objects that would create an image that would convey something to her family and friends.
My husband, who came out and helped me sort through the mess, was the one who drew the parallel between how she treated her houses and her treasures and what she had once declared her parenting style: “Benign neglect.” Which, it didn’t occur to her, although benign, was still neglect. I don’t remember her ever asking about my day at school and she knew few of my friends. Relatives tell of coming to visit and racing to the grocery store to put food in the refrigerator, appalled at the emptiness. (It wasn’t that we were poor; she just had other things to do.) She fought my getting glasses – girls who wear glasses, you know – but paid for the braces intended to give me a beautiful smile. My sisters have their own stories. And it took my husband’s objective eye to recognize that her beautiful dream house was secretly rotting, and that her beautiful shells had no paperwork, ruining their value.
I rewarded my beloved by whispering a promise in his ear when I dropped him at the airport at the end of the week so he could go care for his own aging parents and give his caregiver sister a much-needed vacation:
“When I get home, we’re going to clear out our apartment.”
He looked appalled.
But it’s never too early to start Döstädning.