When my mother died, her house sold quickly and we didn't have the luxury of time to sort through her many possessions. I spent less than one week at the home place, deciding what to pack on the back of my old pickup truck.
That was tough but probably just as well. One could have made a second career of sorting my mother's keepsakes.
She collected things. She kept things. All things. There was a cabinet full of old florist vases. There were stacks high as Peruvian burial mounds of Christmas cards dating back 30 years, and letters much older than that.
One thing I claimed was a sewing machine drawer full of postcards she'd filed through the years. You couldn't have gotten a piece of dental floss between the cards.
Whenever I'd visit, I liked going through that drawer, seeing who had been where, when. Many were cards she bought herself on our Florida vacation trips when I was small.
Those brought back memories of an un-air-conditioned Buick that took us to exotic places: Cypress Gardens, where women waterskied without getting their hair wet. Citrus Tower, from which you could see miles of orange groves, and with a souvenir shop that sold perfume in tiny bottles shaped like perfect oranges and subject to spill. Bok Tower, which we called the Singing Tower, where carillon recitals reverberated through the woods of a Central Florida before Disney.
Mother loved calendars. I inherited that inability to throw away a beautiful calendar, though lately I've limited myself to the ones featuring French scenes. She kept them all.
She loved dishes. I also got the genetic disposition to be suckered in by a primrose pattern. At Mother's house, dishes were stored in cabinets, under beds, beneath the living-room sofa, which turned out to be a trove of breakables, including gargantuan ashtrays, clean for decades. I'm the same way, except worse. I even like cracked dishes, sets missing the dinner plates, coffee cups without handles. My older sister wanted Mother's fine china, but I took the oddball pieces she kept on the high shelves. They were more interesting.
Mother kept careful mental inventory of everything she had. The older she got, the more it worried her not to see a certain something in its accustomed place. If you rearranged, it threw her into searching mode and made her sure someone had offed with a toothpick holder shaped like a skunk or a whiskey decanter like a duck.
It was best to dust and put things back in their usual places, even if there wasn't room for another single object on most tabletops, mantels and shelves. She knew where they belonged. And she knew their stories, which she shared.
I have resolved not to leave as many possessions for my niece to sort. Because I don't have what Mother had: four children. My poor niece will have to go it alone, and I envision her lean, athletic frame overcome by crazy objects that she does not even associate with a good story.
She won't know the doorstop rock came from Crazy Horse's eyeball in South Dakota, or that the ornate level was my late husband's carpenter grandfather's. She doesn't know I got the red coffeepot in France.
With any luck, she'll have a deadline to get rid of the weird contents of a old house packed with stories I've mostly told to myself.