8.24.2011

The Things We Leave Behind

It's interesting the things that people hang on to throughout their lives. Today, as I watched my mother sort through the belongings of a recently deceased 94-year-old woman (it's a long story I won't go into here), I got a true sense of the memories a person can accumulate throughout a very long life. 

No, this woman wasn't a hoarder. She was very sentimental, and understandably so. The deaths of her children and her husband long preceded her own, and her home was a memorial to the life she'd led before, during, and after tragedy came to define it.

She'd saved every scrap of their lives: photographs, report cards, plaques, artwork, records, toys. Every piece of furniture in her house had been in the same place for forty or more years. Most of it is now sitting on a truck headed to Georgia in a short time, likely to be distributed to surviving family members down that way, or maybe even sold off in some cases. It was all very well kept, but old. The house itself was in desperate need of updating. I don't imagine it will fetch much on the market with all the work it needs, but it's hard to imagine another family inhabiting that place. Of course, it will happen. Just as I'm now living on top of someone else's memories, and strangers will one day be living on top of mine.

Because of my mother's relation to this woman, she got to take a number of these things with her, and I imagine when she's gone, many of those things will be passed on to the rest of us. A chair, a photo album, a vintage Pepsi wastebasket. These precious objects will never really die within the protective circle of the family, and the memories they hold will be passed down to the younger generations. 

It got me to thinking about what I would leave behind when I die. I don't keep photographs in albums. I keep them on physical and virtual hard drives. I haven't saved every report card, every scrap of paper my kids have brought home. I've never been much for scrapbooking. I'm content to keep most of my memories in my head. The closest I come to recording the events of my life is through blog or status updates. Or when I interpret my feelings and observations through fiction. There aren't that many scraps of paper to represent me, really. When I die, there will be some furniture, books, kitchen stuff. A few of my favorite knickknacks. Oh, but who am I kidding? The furniture I'm sitting on now likely won't last another five years. These days, there are few people who could afford a couch that would last forty years perfectly intact, much like the one I saw today. We are living in the Ikea Age. Nothing is built to last anymore.

I've kept a selection of the kids' artwork and things, but only enough to fit into a small box. I have almost no baby mementos. No first locks of hair or baby teeth. No favorite rattles or baby shoes. No well-loved stuffed animals. When it comes to saving things, I've never been particularly good at it. The clothes and things were donated to people who needed them more. We have pictures, but they're digital.

How would things be if I died not now, but several decades from now? What more will I have accumulated? Or will it be even more digitized than before? Will my kids and grandkids ever sit in my home for hours or days, sorting through my leavings, laughing, crying, remembering? Having that catharsis that I think is often necessary to be able to properly deal with the death of a loved one? 

And what about my kids, and their kids, and so on? Their physical footprint on this world will be even fainter than mine. They likely won't have many books at all, because they'll all be stored on an electronic device. Same with their pictures, music, and other vital documents. Newspapers will be things they look at in museums or old movies as relics of another age. School work will be relegated exclusively to tablets over the next decade. 

And although I rejoice in some of these technical marvels, I can't help but feel the sense of emptiness it creates when it comes to the end of someone's life, and the sum of all their feelings and memories and experiences can be stored on a few pieces of silicon, and the rest sent to a landfill, because it was too cheaply made to be salvageable. The stuff that's worth keeping, it might fit into a few small boxes. Unless you were lucky enough to inherit something from a dead grandparent or have an interest in antiquing or all things retro.

If you're an adult older than thirty reading this, you will likely be the last generation of people who will find it commonplace to sift through those old boxes full of books, photo albums, scrapbooks, those yellowed newspaper clippings, those relics of an age when people lived forever and had a whole lot of "stuff" to show for it. 

It was sad to see much of Helen's life boxed up and carted away. Her stuff is now the property of many. But in a way, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. It's how families pay tribute, how they grieve and remember. 

Not long from now, there will be a death in a family, and each survivor will get a specialized chip with their loved one's life etched onto it, reducing the whole process to something more binary. This seems a little hollow to me. Too fragile to sustain itself. As we age, I think we will have to work harder than ever to be indelible in our increasingly intangible world. 

2 comments:

  1. "Just as I'm now living on top of someone else's memories, and strangers will one day be living on top of mine."

    I loved this line, Allison. I rarely think about the people who lived in my house before I did, but sometimes there are ghostly whispers that tell me to remember them.

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  2. Yeah, I agree about those ghostly whispers. In particularly old houses, I often feel like an open conduit to the emotions of a place.

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